I was speaking with the mother of one of my male adolescent Asperger’s teens about the long-term effects on adults who were sexually and physically abused. When he interrupted and said, “I’ll bet it’s worse on adults who were bullied as children”. I said, “Wow, I wonder if you’re right?”

I hoped not. I really hoped not, for the simple reason that, in my opinion, bullying gets the ‘light touch’ on school buses, in the classrooms and on the playgrounds based on reports of personal experiences from the children whom I treat.

So off to a literature review I went. What I found was surprising, and disturbing.

Being Bullied in Childhood is Worse than Being Abused by an Adult

Recently, researchers have demonstrated that the long- term effects of being bullied by peers are worse than being abused by an adult.

So right here, let’s get a comprehensive definition of bullying.

A more typical picture of a bully is a big kid intimidating a smaller one on a playground. However, it’s not age that defines a bully; it’s power. Nothing in the definition requires a peer-to-peer relationship, only one individual with perceived power over another.

Consider this question.

What do pediatricians call a coach who:

  • * screams at his players
  • * blames kids for prompting his outbursts and
  • * says his methods are justified because the team wins games

Answer:  A bully.

What makes this type of coach a bully? The coach-athlete relationship involves an inherent imbalance of power. Among 6,000 young adults queried in England, 75% said they suffered “emotional harm” at least once, and one-third of them said their coach was the culprit.

Signs of a bully

Bullies are often noticeably aggressive and confrontational. They  are involved in or instigate fights, many times for no reason. The bully will blame others for these behaviors and aren’t willing to take responsibility for their words or actions. They feel the object of their aggression ‘had it coming’ and pushed them into acting violently. Many times parents will notice a bully has new items they don’t remember being purchased for them.

In a 2005 study of American children, 45% said their coaches called them names, insulted them or verbally abused them another way during play.

Coaches bully more often than thought

The adult mental health consequences of peer bullying and maltreatment in childhood was published in the Lancet Psychiatry, April 2015.

Researchers studied large groups of children from two countries; England and United States.

The Study:stopbullying

Among 4,026 children who participated in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children in England, 8% were victims of child abuse only, 30% were victims of bullying only and 7% were exposed to both. For the 1,273 children who were part of the Great Smoky Mountains Study in North Carolina, 15% were victims of child abuse only, 16% were only bullied and 10% suffered both.

Previous studies have shown that children who are abused by adults or victimized by their peers grow up to suffer higher rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, among other problems. Both are bad, but the researchers wanted to know which was worse.

Is my child being bullied?

Kids who are being bullied often show signs of their distress. Parents, friends, or others may notice abrupt changes in the child’s attitude or personality. Their grades may drop. Often bullied children will avoid social activities, even with friends. They may have unexplained bruises. Frequent complaints of stomachaches or headaches to avoid school are a way to escape their bully, but only temporarily.

Researchers have demonstrated that the long- term effects of being bullied by peers are worse than being abused by an adult.


  • * In England, children who were bullied were 60% more likely to have mental health problems as adults than those who had suffered emotional, physical or sexual abuse as children.
  • * In the US, the risk of mental health problems in adulthood was nearly four times greater for victims of bullying than for victims of child abuse.
  • * A history of child abuse was associated with a greater risk of mental health problems as an adult for the American children. But, not for their English counterparts.
  • * Children in both countries were more likely to have mental health problems if they had been bullied. For instance, the English children who were bullied were 70% more likely to experience depression or practice some form of self-harm than were children who suffered child abuse.
  • * The American children were nearly five times more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety if they were bullied than if they were abused.

These findings underscore the need to take bullying more seriously as a public health problem.

“Being bullied has similar and in some cases worse long-term adverse effects on young adults’ mental health than being maltreated,” the study authors wrote. “Governmental efforts have focused almost exclusively on public policy to address family maltreatment; much less attention and resources [have] been paid to bullying. … This imbalance requires attention.”

A link between bullying and teen suicide

Overall, the effects of bullying were worse.

The researchers also discovered that among both groups of kids, about 40% of those who were abused by adults were also bullied by other kids. The reasons for this aren’t clear, but it’s possible that a history of abuse makes it hard for children to regulate their emotions, “which might make them more susceptible to being bullied,” the study authors wrote.

Being bullied by peers in childhood had generally worse long-term adverse effects on young adults’ mental health. These effects were not explained by poly-victimization. The findings have important implications for public health planning and service development for dealing with peer bullying.

Kids don’t easily outgrow the pain of bullying, according to a new study that finds that people bullied as kids are less mentally healthy as adults.

The study is one of the first to establish long-term effects of childhood bullying, which is still often considered a typical part of growing up.

“To my surprise at least, there were some very strong long-term effects on their risk for depression, anxiety, suicidality, a whole host of outcomes that we know just wreak havoc on adult lives,” said study researcher William Copeland, a clinical psychologist at Duke University Medical Center.

How bullying hurts

Previous studies have found that both bullies and their victims are at higher risk for mental health problems and other struggles in childhood.

One study, presented in 2010 at the Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association, found that bullies were at higher risk of substance abuse, depression, anxiety and hostility than non-bullies.

For bully victims, being targeted can result in increased suicidal risk, depression, poor school performance and low self-esteem.

“The question for our study is what happens long-term, down the road, after they’re no longer being bullied and after they’re no longer children,” Copeland told LiveScience.

Copeland and his colleagues used data from a study begun 20 years ago, which queried 1,420 children and their parents about general mental health beginning at age 9, 11 or 13. The kids were assessed annually until age 16, and then they came back for follow-ups at ages 19, 21 and 25.

Before age 16, participants were asked whether they had been bullied or bullied others, how frequently, and where any bullying occurred, among other questions.

Using this data, the researchers divided the kids into four groups:

  • * kids uninvolved in bullying (68.9%)
  • * pure victims who were bullied but did not bully others (21.6%)
  • * pure bullies who were never victimized themselves (5%)
  • * “bully/victims,” a group of kids who both bullied and were bullied (4.5%)

Long-term effects

The researchers then looked at the mental health outcomes of each group in young adulthood, controlling for childhood factors such as pre-existing mental health conditions, struggles with home life and childhood anxiety levels.

They found that any involvement in bullying boded poorly in adulthood, which is not surprising given they had all the power in their childhood relationships. This group showed an increased risk of developing antisocial personality disorder. People with this disorder have little empathy and few scruples about manipulating others for their own gain. The disorder is linked with a greater risk of becoming a criminal. Most bullies did not go on to have the disorder, Copeland said, but they were more likely to develop it than other groups.

Pure victims, on the other hand, were at higher risk for depression, anxiety, panic attacks and agoraphobia than kids uninvolved in bullying. Worst off were the bully/victims, who were at higher risk of every depressive and anxiety disorder in the book.

For example, pure victims were four times as likely to develop an anxiety disorder in adulthood compared with kids who were uninvolved in bullying.

Bully/victims had a five-time greater risk of depression than uninvolved kids, as well as 10 times the likelihood of suicidal thoughts or actions and 15 times the likelihood of developing a panic disorder.

“By far, being a bully and a victim meant having the worst long-term outcomes”, Copeland said.

Because they were able to take childhood mental health into account, the researchers are confident that the adult mental health struggles are an effect of the bullying, not pre-existing conditions that made them vulnerable to bullies in the first place.

Why Does Bullying Have Such a Long-Term Effect?

While it’s not yet clear why bullying might have such a long-term effect, it’s possible that torment at school is not so dissimilar to maltreatment or abuse in the home, Copeland said. Kids spend a lot of time at school and surrounded by peers, he said, so it’s not surprising that troubles there could have long-lasting consequences.

“More and more, I’m coming to the mindset that what happens to kids when they’re with other kids, their peers, is as important, or maybe more important, than what happens at home,” he said.

How Can a Parent Prepare Kids in Case They are Bullied?

Any child can become the target of a bully. Even the most confident, self-assured child can fall prey to a bully’s hurtful words or harassment. The best weapon against bullying is education.

  • *Teach your kids about self-respect and that no one has the right to treat them with disrespect
  • *Talk to kids about being bullied or being a bully
  • *Let kids know they have the power to stop bullying
  • *Reassure them they are not alone
  • *Make it clear you will believe them and take them seriously if they feel they are being bullied
  • *Take action, don’t assume kids will “outgrow” bullying
  • *Don’t say, “Not my kid” – Anyone has the potential to be bullied or to bully
  • *Encourage your kids to stand with their friends and help them get help
  • *Empower your child to report bullying, whether it’s happening to them or a friend

For More Information on Bullying: