Were you bullied at school? About a third of us were – and the psychological impact of bullying can be long-lasting. We often have an image of the stereotypical school bully, taunting their victims and stealing their lunch money. However, bullying is broader than that. It can take place in the workplace or wider community too. And it’s no longer confined to real life. Online bullying, or cyberbullying, means bullies can harass their victims anywhere.
15 November marks the start of Anti-Bullying Week – an initiative that helps raise awareness of bullying among young people and helps schools to tackle bullying both online and face to face. So it’s a good time to look at the psychological impact of bullying – and how you can recover from it.
What is bullying?
The US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention defines bullying as: “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.” And bullying is very prevalent in schools. Research shows that 30% of children in England are bullied each year. Approximately one child in every classroom is bullied every day. US research shows that one in five school students report being bullied.
While school bullying is a serious issue, with long-term consequences, it occurs in other contexts too, including the workplace and online. However and wherever it takes place, there are some common factors:
- The bully holds the power
- The victims are usually unable to defend themselves
- It tends to take place within a peer group
- The hostile behaviour happens repeatedly.
Bullying isn’t restricted to physical violence. It can include being threatened or blackmailed, having possessions stolen, or may be verbal abuse, such as being insulted, ridiculed or called names. Less direct – but still harmful – bullying can also include ignoring or shunning people, or spreading nasty lies, rumours or malicious gossip. In addition, a relatively modern – and toxic – phenomenon is online bullying, or cyberbullying.
Online bullying and harassment
Online bullying is a relatively modern – and toxic – phenomenon. For previous generations, if you were bullied at school, at least it stopped at the school gate. Home was a break from the bullies, and a safe space. Weekends and holidays were an escape. However, today, with the ubiquity of social media, messaging apps, text messaging and gaming chatrooms, there’s no escape. The bullies can reach you anywhere, any time. Research shows that 17% of school children in England and 13% of 9-12 year olds in the US experience online bullying.
What are the psychological effects of bullying?
If your child is being bullied at school, signs to watch out for include seeming withdrawn at home, falling grades or wanting to avoid school. Bullying has short-term and long-term effects. In the short term, bullying can result in:
- Fear, anxiety and loneliness
- Sadness and depression
- Losing interest in activities previously enjoyed
- Trouble sleeping
- Difficulty concentrating
- Use of drugs or alcohol
- Increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviours.
Bullying is particularly toxic when it’s directed at someone because of their minority status. Homophobic bullying is a particular problem in schools. Research shows that it’s more common than bullying that relates to racism, sexism or religion. This sort of bullying can be very damaging, and lead to internalised self-hatred.
It may be harder to feel sympathy for bullies. However, they too are likely to experience psychological problems – either as a cause or result of their behaviour. They may have trouble relating to their peers, or become bullies because of problems at home. And a child who is being victimised may become a bully themselves, targeting a less powerful group or victim. Both bullies and victims need support.
The psychological effects of cyberbullying
In some ways, cyberbullying can be worse than face-to-face bullying. There’s no break from it, and people feel emboldened to say things that they never would in person. This is especially true if they’re using an anonymous account. And if a bully spreads rumours or shares embarrassing photos on social media, they can go viral and reach more peers than in-person bullying ever could. This can result in feelings of anxiety and shame.
Things to look out for include your child seeming upset when they look at their phone, being secretive about their phone use, or suddenly stopping using their phone.
Long term effects of bullying – why it can still cause problems in adulthood
Studies show that, if you were bullied as a child, this can have a lasting impact on your adult life. The psychological impact of bullying may still be evident 40 years later. If you were bullied, you’re more likely to leave school with no qualifications, earn less money or be unemployed, and not be in a stable relationship. You may also experience a range of long-term effects, such as:
- A range of mental health conditions – such as anxiety and depression
- Feelings of powerlessness and helplessness
- Difficulty making decisions
- Low self-esteem or an inferiority complex
- Obesity or an eating disorder
- Stress or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- Trouble sleeping.
One consequence of bullying in childhood can be developing the social isolation lifetrap or ‘schema’. This is a pattern of thinking and behaviour that prevents us from connecting with others. It might develop due to your family being different from those around you growing up. Or you might have moved around a lot as a child, so you were always the ‘new kid’. But it can also result from having been excluded from or bullied at school. If you spent a lot of your childhood feeling alone, for whatever reason, you might have come to (wrongly) believe that you’re somehow ‘different’ from everyone else.
How to recover from bullying
If you’ve been bullied, as a child or an adult, it can have a lasting impact – but you can also recover from it. Here are seven things to try:
- Acknowledge that you were bullied. It’s common to minimise or trivialise our damaging childhood experiences. Or we might experience guilt, shame or self-blame for what happened. Because bullying is common, we might think “well, it happened to everyone, so I should be able to move on.” However, bullying is a serious issue that leaves its scars. You can begin to heal by recognising that the bullying occurred, and you weren’t to blame for it.
- Take back control. To tackle feelings of powerlessness and helplessness, own your thoughts, emotions and actions – and recognise that you can make your own choices in life.
- Recognise your worth. Because bullying can lead to feelings of low self-esteem, it’s important to recognise your plus points. Write down a list of your qualities, strengths and positive characteristics. What do people like about you? And, importantly, what do you like about yourself? What are you good at? Focus on the positive.
- Challenge your negative thoughts. Avoid ‘thinking traps’ such as black-and-white thinking, catastrophising and emotional reasoning. Challenge your thinking, and turn your negative thoughts into positive ones.
- Avoid social isolation. Particularly if you suffer from the ‘social isolation’ lifetrap, try to avoid isolating yourself from friends and family who could offer you support. You might also be able to find a support group in your area. You don’t have to go through the healing process alone.
- Speak to a therapist. Bullying can lead to a wide range of psychological problems in adulthood, which talking therapies can help with. If your childhood experiences are at the root of your current difficulties, Schema Therapy can be particularly helpful in uncovering, understanding and overcoming any self-defeating patterns of thinking and behaviour you may have developed. Find out how you can get started with My Online Therapy.
- Be kind to yourself. The effects of bullying can persist for a long time – so be patient, reward yourself for small wins, and allow yourself time to recover. Practice self-care, and be sure to take time out just for yourself to do things that nourish you and bring you joy.
The psychological impact of bullying can be damaging, long-lasting and lead to a range of problems in adulthood. But with the right help and support, you can recover from it, move on – and live your best life. Don’t let the bullies win. Live your life. Success is the best form of revenge!