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The Long-Lasting Effects of Bullying

Updated on October 17, 2021

Being bullied is both heartbreaking and miserable for those targeted. But many adults, unless they too have been bullied, have a hard time understanding just how much kids can suffer. They fail to realize that the consequences of bullying are significant and can have a lasting impact.

This lack of understanding is often called the "empathy gap. "Working to close this empathy gap is one of the best ways to improve bullying policies and prevent bullying.

In fact, efforts to advocate on behalf of victims will not be effective unless people truly comprehend how painful and traumatic bullying can be. Here is an overview of the effects of bullying and how victims can recover.

Social and Emotional Impact

Kids who are regularly targeted by bullies often suffer both emotionally and socially. Not only do they find it hard to make friends, but they also struggle to maintain healthy friendships.

Part of this struggle is directly related to low self-esteem. A lack of self-esteem is a direct result of the mean and hurtful things that other kids say about them. When kids are continually called "fat" or "losers," they begin to believe these things are true.

Bullying victims also tend to experience a wide range of emotions. They may feel angry, bitter, vulnerable, helpless, frustrated, lonely, and isolated from their peers. Consequently, they may skip classes and resort to drugs and alcohol to numb their pain. And if bullying is on-going, they may develop depression and even contemplate suicide.

There’s no single cause of depression, according to research. Brain chemistry, hormones, genetics, life experiences and physical health can all play a role.

If no intervention takes place, eventually kids can develop what is known as "learned helplessness." Learned helplessness means that the targets of bullying believe that they cannot do anything to change the situation. As a result, they stop trying. Then, the cycle down into depression becomes more severe. This leads to a feeling of hopelessness and the belief that there is no way out.

As bullied kids grow into adults, they may continue to struggle with self-esteem, have difficulty developing and maintaining relationships, and avoid social interactions. They also may have a hard time trusting people, which can impact their personal relationships and their work relationships.

They may even start to believe lies about bullying, such as convincing themselves that the bullying wasn't as bad as they remember. They also may engage in self-blame.

Physical Impact

Aside from the bumps and bruises that occur during physical bullying, there are additional physical costs. For instance, bullied kids often experience anxiety. This stress on their bodies also will result in a variety of health issues, including being sick more often and suffering from ulcers and other conditions caused by persistent anxiety.

Bullied kids also may complain of stomachaches and headaches. And the bullying they experience may aggravate other pre-existing conditions like eczema. Skin conditions, stomach issues, and heart conditions that are aggravated by stress all worsen when a child is being bullied.

Academic Impact

Kids who are bullied often suffer academically, too. Bullied kids struggle to focus on their schoolwork. In fact, slipping grades is one of the first signs that a child is being bullied. Kids also may be so pre-occupied by bullying that they forget about assignments or have difficulty paying attention in class.

Additionally, bullied kids may skip school or classes in order to avoid being bullied. This practice also can result is falling grades. And when grades begin to drop this adds to the stress levels the bullied child is already experiencing.

A study conducted by the University of Virginia showed that kids who attend a school with a severe climate of bullying often have lower scores on standardized tests. Bullying even impacts students who witness it.

For instance, kids scored lower on standardized tests in schools with a lot of bullying than kids in schools with effective anti-bullying programs. One possible reason for the lower scores in schools with pervasive bullying is that students are often less engaged in the learning process because they are too distracted by or worried about the bullying.

Additionally, teachers may be less effective because they must spend so much time focused on classroom management and discipline instead of teaching. The good news is with proper support and intervention, most kids targeted by bullies will overcome bullying and things will get back to normal. But left unchecked, bullying can cause the victim to pay a high cost in long-term consequences.

Impact on Family

When a child is bullied, it is not uncommon for the parents and siblings to also be affected. Parents often experience a wide range of consequences including feeling powerless to fix the situation. They also may feel alone and isolated. And they may even become obsessed with the situation often at the expense of their own health and wellbeing.

It also is not uncommon for parents to feel a sense of failure when their child is bullied.

Not only do they feel like they failed to protect the child from bullying, but they also may question their parenting abilities. They may even worry that they somehow missed the signs of bullying or that they did not do enough to bully-proof their child along the way.

The truth is that no one can predict who bullies will target. Parents can do everything right and still find out that their child is being bullied. As a result, they should never feel responsible for the choices a bully makes. Instead, they should place the blame where it belongs and focus on helping their child heal from bullying.

Long-Term Effects and Healing

Research shows that the effects of bullying last well into adulthood. In fact, one study found that the consequences of being bullied by peers may have a greater impact on mental health in adulthood than originally thought. What's more, the impact may be even more significant than being mistreated by adults.

Remember, the experiences that people have while they are children help mold them into the adults that they later become. So it is not surprising that the effects of bullying linger well into adulthood. This then helps to influence their future mindset, including how they view themselves and others.

How Kids Can Heal

When a child is bullied, the road to recovery may be more challenging than you might originally think. In fact, the effects of bullying can stick around long after the bullying has ended. Moreover, if bullying is not addressed right away, then it can cause problems for your child later in life.

In order for your child to heal from bullying, there are several important steps you must take. These include not only changing the way your children think about the situation, but also how they view themselves after being bullied.

You want to be sure your child does not allow the bullying they experienced to define them. Instead, they should focus on what they learned and what their future goals are. To start, your child needs to acknowledge what happened to them but not focus on it. Instead, they should be focused on taking care of themself and growing as a person.

It's also important to help your child find closure for the situation. And as counterintuitive as it sounds, forgiving the bully goes a long way in freeing your child from the pain of the experience. Remind them that revenge will not make them feel better. Instead, they should let go of what happened to them and focus on the things they can control in their life.

Having a counselor help your child with the recovery process may speed things along. Talk to your child's pediatrician for suggestions about who to contact in your area.

How Adults Can Heal From Childhood Bullying

When a child is bullied, they can experience a psychological impact that does not go away simply because the person grows up. If you were bullied as a child and are still experiencing the side effects, the first step toward recovery from childhood bullying is acknowledging what happened to you.

Do not dismiss what happened to you or minimize the severity. Be truthful with yourself about the pain you experienced.

You also need to make healing a priority. Take time to take care of yourself and consider talking with a counselor about your experience. A counselor can help you make sense of your feelings and move past the negative experience of bullying. He also can help you reframe your thinking and reclaim control over your life.

While it may be painful to think about the bullying you experienced as a kid, if it is still impacting your everyday life and the way you view yourself, then it is best to face the issue head-on. Once you have come to terms with what you experienced and changed the way you view yourself and others, you will be on your way to recovery.

It may take some time. So be patient with yourself. With a little hard work, though, you will be well on your way to a healthier way of thinking.


  1. Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University. Understanding the 'empathy gap'.

  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Effects of Bullying.

  3. Gini G, Pozzoli T. Bullied children and psychosomatic problems: a meta-analysis. Pediatrics. 2013;132(4):720-729. doi:10.1542/peds.2013-0614

  4. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Warning Signs for Bullying.

  5. American Psychological Association. Bullying May Contribute to Lower Test Scores.

  6. Copeland WE, Wolke D, Angold A, Costello EJ. Adult psychiatric outcomes of bullying and being bullied by peers in childhood and adolescence. JAMA Psychiatry. 2013;70(4):419-426. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.504

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