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Childhood Bullying Has Lasting Health Consequences

Childhood Bullying Has Lasting Health Consequences

Taunts, social snubs and nasty social media posts can have long-term effects on kids’ mental and physical health.

It can sometimes be tempting to shake off schoolyard bullying, saying, “Oh, they’re just kids, they’ll grow out of it.” But while it may be widespread, being bullied isn’t a childhood rite of passage.

A growing pile of research also suggests that the trauma resulting from all those childhood taunts, social snubs and nasty texts can add up and have lingering effects on victims’ mental and physical health.

“The emotional and physical trauma from being bullied can make people more prone to feelings of anxiety and panic attacks,” says Yevgeniy Gelfand, MD, a psychiatrist at Trident Medical Center, in Charleston, South Carolina. And those reactions don’t automatically go away when you graduate from high school.

In the short term, we know that bullying can cause stomachaches, social isolation, trouble sleeping and poor performance in school. A 2017 review of existing bullying studies published in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry suggests, however, that childhood bullying, which occurs during a critical stage of development, raises concerns about some long-term consequences, ranging from poor self-esteem to chronic health issues.

Lasting health effects
Being bullied is associated with greater odds for a range of chronic health issues—possibly resulting from the chronic stress victims face, the 2017 review found. Over time, ongoing stress, researchers theorize, could trigger inflammation and alter metabolism, which could even influence gene expression and play a role in the development of certain diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Teens who are bullied may face a greater risk for depression and anxiety disorders, including panic disorder and agoraphobia, a condition characterized by fear and avoidance of anxiety-provoking places or situations, research shows. There is also evidence that some kids who were targeted by bullies may also be at higher risk for suicidal thoughts or behaviors, experience more body aches and pains, take longer to recover from illnesses and have trouble dealing with everyday life stressors.  

Victims’ confidence may suffer
Bullying also can cause long-term damage to victims’ self-esteem. Students who are tormented in school may drop out before graduation, which could have rippling effects on their future ability to find a job or earn a good living. Even if they stay in school, they may be less likely to participate in extracurricular activities, speak up in class or do well on standardized tests.

This may be partly due to the fact that the victims of bullies may internalize all the abuse that was hurled their way when they were growing up, Dr. Gelfand explains. “When someone has low self-esteem and feels that the world is not their oyster, that it's a scary and dangerous place, they tend to lead very secluded lives or they don't engage in certain activities and they shy away from experiences that could be beneficial for them,” he says.

If they were excluded from friend groups, bullying victims may not have been able to fully develop important social skills, Gelfand adds, and their misguided notion that they are unlikeable may persist for years to come.

Ongoing bullying linked to PTSD
Kids who experience chronic bullying can experience the same kind of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that survivors of other types of abuse suffer, according to Gelfand. “When someone feels like they are in danger all the time, that can result in PTSD,” he says.

Over time, children and teens who are constantly bullied may feel weak or helpless. This loss of empowerment, which is often associated with trauma, can chip away at victims’ sense of self. PTSD in children can become a chronic health issue, which is also associated with depression, anxiety and substance abuse.

Research conducted by the National Institute of Childhood Health and Human Development supports the link between being bullied—and bullying others—and an increased risk for depression.

Your past does not have to determine your future
Whether or not childhood bullying leads to a long-term mental or physical health issue also depends on the severity and duration of the abuse, the resilience of the victims and whether or not they have the support of friends and family.

Not every person who has been bullied is destined to lead a life of quiet desperation, however. Success stories include pop star Rihanna, entrepreneur Elon Musk and Olympian Michael Phelps, who have all spoken publicly about being bullied as children.

Getting the help you need to work through your trauma can help you take your life back from the bullies who tormented you years ago, says Gelfand. He advises those struggling with the long-term effects of bullying to take some proactive steps, such as the following.

Ask your doctor to recommend a therapist. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be an extremely helpful tool for working through fears and anxieties, says Gelfand.  “CBT teaches people very important skills, such as to how to evaluate their own fears, how to address cognitive distortions and ‘all or nothing’ statements, like ‘I will never be good for anybody.’ It can really help rewrite any negative beliefs, or at least help you notice when these negative beliefs are triggered and to learn not to let that dictate your actions,” he says.

Find a support group. Talking about your trauma with others can help you feel less alone, says Gelfand, who runs a group-therapy program for adults in Charleston. “Even people who are suffering from social anxiety as a result of their childhood experience with bullying can little by little begin to engage with the group,” he says. “They warm up and do really well, so a group venue is also valuable for this.”

Consider medication. In some more extreme cases, if the trauma from bullying has left such deep emotional scars that it has caused severe depression or anxiety, antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications can be a game-changer, says Gelfand.

It’s important to know the warning signs of depression, which can manifest in a variety of ways. Someone with depression may experience one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Feeling sad, hopeless or “empty” for a prolonged period of time
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and once enjoyable activities
  • Being irritable and less social or withdrawn
  • Changes in appetite or sleep habits
  • Feeling guilty, worthless or helpless
  • Loss of energy
  • Moving less quickly or talking more slowly
  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty concentrating or making decisions

If you start to recognize any of these behaviors, it’s important to reach out to a healthcare provider (HCP) for help.

Medically reviewed in December 2019.

Sources:
Pablo Patricio Zarate-Garza, MD; Bridget K. Biggs, PhD; et al. “How Well Do We Understand the Long-Term Health Implications of Childhood Bullying?” Harvard Review of Psychiatry. March/April 2017.
Randy A. Sansone, MD and Lori A. Sansone, MD. “Bully Victims: Psychological and Somatic Aftermaths.” Psychiatry. 2008 Jun; 5(6): 62–64.
Boston’s Children’s Hospital. “Bullying | Symptoms & Causes.”
William E. Copeland, PhD; Dieter Wolke, PhD; Adrian Angold, MRC Psych; et al. “Adult Psychiatric Outcomes of Bullying and Being Bullied by Peers in Childhood and Adolescence.” JAMA Psychiatry. 2013;70(4):419-426.
Mayo Clinic. “Agoraphobia.”
Dieter Wolke and Suzet Tanya Lereya. “Long-term effects of bullying.” Archives of Disease in Childhood. 2015 Sep; 100(9): 879–885.
National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. “How does bullying affect health and well-being?”
Stopbullying.gov. “Effects of Bullying.”
Stefanos Stylianos Plexousakis, Elias Kourkoutas, Theodoros Giovazolias et al. “School Bullying and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms: The Role of Parental Bonding.” Front Public Health. 2019; 7: 75.
Stanford Children’s Health. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in Children.”
National Institute of Mental Health. “Depression.”

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