Do the effects of bullying in childhood reach into adulthood?
One of my first memories of school is a scene where a crowd of children are throwing stones at a girl behind the playing fields. I wasn’t part of the crowd, but as they walked away, the girl looked at me. I had a choice, join her and become a target myself, or leave. To my shame, I left. Sometimes I wonder what those effects of bullying had on her. Did she ever stand up to them when she got older or did the bullying continue? And what impact, if any, did the bullying have on her in later life?
Bullying can target a person’s race, weight, gender, or sexual preference, amongst many other things. It can be verbal or physical and include spreading rumours, intimidation, threatening behaviour and much more.
The effects of bullying in childhood are well documented. Bullying can cause depression, anxiety, a loss of appetite, withdrawal from pleasurable activities, and sleep deprivation. It can even prove to be fatal. But does bullying have any long-term effects?
Research suggests that even if children are resilient at the time of bullying, the effects of bullying can last well into adulthood.
The effects of bullying in adulthood include:
Bullying can cause depression and anxiety
There is scientific evidence that supports a link between depression and anxiety in adulthood, and being bullied as a child. Research showed that victims of childhood bullying had higher rates of panic disorders, anxiety, depression and suicidality.
“Bullying is not just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up. Victims of bullying are at increased risk for emotional disorders in adulthood,” study authors write.
Bullied people are likely to have lower educational skills, be unemployed and earn less.
One shocking study revealed that the effects of bullying had far-reaching consequences, even after 40 years. The study showed that individuals who were bullied in childhood typically achieved lower educational levels.
Women are often seen as the weaker sex, but in this report, the men fared the worst. They were more likely to earn less and be unemployed for longer periods. They also reported lower life satisfaction and had less social support.
Bullying causes physical problems in adulthood
We can understand why there are mentally damaging effects of bullying, but how can bullying in childhood cause physical problems when you’re an adult?
Studies have shown that children who were bullied had an increase in a protein called CRP (C-reactive protein). This is a reaction by the body to a serious infection or injury and is produced by the liver. Research has proved that if your body is subject to systemic, chronic inflammation, you are at risk of suffering from illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes in adulthood.
The ‘toxic’ stress caused by bullying in childhood is damaging in adulthood
Our bodies are able to cope with a certain amount of stress, but prolonged, strong and frequent stress in childhood has far-reaching effects in adulthood.
There are three levels of stress:
When we are stressed, our bodies release a hormone called cortisol. This sharpens our memory and motor functions to help us cope in the short term. Prolonged levels of cortisol, however, have a very different impact on the body.
Studies have shown that too much cortisol blunts the body’s response to stressful situations. Not only that, but there is also evidence to show that too much cortisol changes the genes responsible for regulating the release of serotonin (our happy hormone). A lack of this hormone is directly related to depression.
The effects of bullying can change your brain structure
Can early childhood bullying actually change the shape of your brain? Research has damning evidence that shows it does.
In one study, children who had suffered from bullying showed significant differences in the size of their amygdalae. The amygdala is responsible for reacting to stress, processing emotions, survival instincts and memory functions. In boys, the volume was greater than in girls. Large amygdalae have been linked to anxiety in adulthood.
Another change noted was that both boys and girls had thinner temporal and prefrontal cortexes. These are crucial areas used for cognitive and information processing and regulating behaviour. Worryingly, thinner temporal and prefrontal cortexes have been linked to more impulsive and dangerous behaviour.
How to Stop the Effects of Bullying
Clearly, there has to be a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to bullying in schools from a very early age. As we have seen, bullying not only affects children at the time it occurs but also has far-reaching effects into adulthood.
Therefore, it needs to be nipped in the bud before it can do lasting damage. But what is in the past has already happened and if you are suffering now from childhood bullying, how do you stop it ruining the rest of your life?
Acknowledge the fact that you were bullied
Many victims of bullying are ashamed or feel guilty that they were bullied. They believe that somehow they brought it on themselves or if they had been braver or tougher it wouldn’t have happened.
There’s no point in trying to change what has happened, to imagine different scenarios, or to try and work out why you were targeted. Simply acknowledge that you were bullied and then you can begin to address the situation.
Stop being a victim
When you were a child, you must have felt very helpless and incapable of standing up to the bullies. Those feelings can easily carry over into your adult life. The problem is you run the risk of feeling like a victim all over again.
If you do, then that childhood bully has gained power over your whole life. Take back control. You are in control of everything you do, from your thoughts, emotions, acts, and choices.
Build up your self-worth
One way to take back control is to recognise your true worth as a human being. You probably have very low self-esteem and not much in the way of confidence, but that’s what the bullying made you feel like.
Stop for a moment and think about what your true friends and family members say about you. What do they like? What positive things do they always say? Focus on those. They are the people that matter and that are important, not some ignorant little coward from years ago.
Look at the symptoms of bullying that have affected your health
Now, it is time to look after you. So have a think about any health issues such as depression, anxiety, phobias, insomnia, PTSD, confidence or self-esteem issues and make a plan for recovery.
This might include a visit to your local doctor, an appointment with a psychologist, a short course of anti-depressants, taking up yoga or exercising more.
Finally, your best ‘revenge’ on those childhood bullies, if you like, is to live your best life. So move on with your recovery and your life. Being bullied is not who you are. You are not defined by it. You have dealt with it and moved on. Close the lid on that box and go and live your life.