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The Impact of Childhood Bullying on Adult Survivors

I was bullied in Grades 5-8 and again in Grade 10. I believe that some of my struggles as a young adult stem directly from that experience.

What effect does childhood bullying have on its adult survivors?

What effect does childhood bullying have on its adult survivors?

Bullying in Childhood

I was bullied from grades 5 to 8, again in grade 10, and at other times, I was told I was ugly, stupid, and inept. I was fearful and quiet, so I did not fight back. As time passed, I realized that I see the world differently as an adult because of my childhood bullying experiences. I believe that some of my struggles as a young adult with emotional and self-esteem issues were directly related to the bullying I experienced as a child.

Many people who have not been bullied in childhood do not take this kind of aggression seriously. They think that bullying survivors should just “get over it” and that it is no big deal. However, research shows that bullying in childhood has a dramatic negative impact on survivors’ emotional health and self-image as adults. The effects of bullying can still show up 40 years after the actual events. Fortunately, these negative effects can diminish with time.

Types of Bullying

  • Ridiculing, taunting, teasing, name-calling
  • Making threats
  • Engaging in physical assault - hitting, slapping, poking, hair-pulling, kicking, pushing
  • Excluding others from peers, isolation
  • Stealing or damaging the victims' belongings
  • Making suggestive comments or gestures
  • Cyberbullying by email, social media, or blogging

Possible Outcomes Affected by Childhood Bullying

Emotional Problems

Survivors of bullying have long-term emotional problems. They may also have a lower socioeconomic status and earn lower salaries. Many people who were bullied are at a higher risk of becoming depressed and having suicidal thoughts. Victims may suffer from panic attacks, anxiety disorders, generalized anxiety, agoraphobia, and post-traumatic stress disorder. I suffered from deep depression well into adulthood, partly because of the bullying I had to endure in childhood.

Physical Problems and Addictions

Children who were the victims of bullying may have chronic, systemic inflammation that continues into adulthood. Inflammation is a risk factor for health problems such as cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome. Students who are victimized by peers in the fifth grade are more likely to use alcohol, marijuana, or tobacco in the tenth grade. Some people may abuse substances later on in life to cope with the pain of their negative experiences.

Poor Body Image

Some bullies called me ugly in grade school. As I reached adulthood, it took many a compliment from the opposite sex and a good look in the mirror to dispute the belief that I was ugly.

Poor Self-Esteem

Bullies often told me I was dumb and mocked me if I said or did the wrong thing in class. My self-esteem really took a beating. As I became an adult, I felt like I had to wear a mask of competence in the workplace. Deep down, I felt stupid and inept – ashamed of being an inferior being who did not deserve to be treated with respect like other people.

I felt anxious and scared inside that my employers would find out that I was incapable of doing a good job. Sometimes, I was so nervous that I made a lot of mistakes and ended up living my worst fears. I was yelled at, rejected, or fired.


I become enraged when I see injustice, such as children being ridiculed or people being exploited. When I was in my 20s, I had bursts of uncontrollable anger that was totally out of keeping with situations. I realized that I had been stuffing down a lot of the pain of my childhood hurts. It was like trying to put a lid on a volcano. Lava kept spewing out in the form of rages in the most inappropriate ways.

Building a Tough Exterior

By the time I was sixteen, I had built a wall around me to protect myself from the pain inflicted by offenders. I did not want people to see how much I was hurting inside. Sometimes, I used my sense of humor to hide from people.

Many people who have been bullied seem tough on the outside but are emotionally devastated inside. Maintaining a wall takes a lot of energy, and they become sick of being cautious and suspicious of other people to feel safe. It is often tough for bullying victims to break down their walls enough to share their painful past with others.

There is a niggling worry at the back of their minds that when others hear their story, the victims will be judged or ridiculed.


For me, the world was a scary place where people would hurt me without provocation or reason. I felt vulnerable (a feeling I hated) and almost expected people to hurt me. Sometimes I misinterpreted innocent remarks as verbal attacks. This makes me very defensive when dealing with issues that could potentially cause me pain.

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I feel guilty for being sensitive because the world often dismisses bullying as a normal part of childhood. In the book Pain Without End: The Lifelong Effects of Childhood Bullying, author David I Steiner says that TV, films, and media have a strong influence on our perceptions of bullies as being harmless mischief.

Overcoming The Negative Effects Of Bullying

The good news is that all of these negative effects can be managed and overcome in many cases. Here are some things that helped people change from bullying victims to survivors.

Recognize How Bullying Has Hurt Them

Many people dismiss their emotional pain and berate themselves when they have not “gotten over it” as adults. Instead, bullying survivors should acknowledge what was done to them. One helpful way to process these experiences is to make a list of the bullies. Survivors can write down the bully's actions and how they affected their victims next to their names. Once survivors understand the harm that has been done, they can start to heal.

Redefine Who They Are

People tend to allow other people to define who they are. My bullies told me I was ugly, ignorant, and stupid. I was an inferior being who did not treat me with respect. I challenged this view. I told myself I was smart, attractive, and talented and could accept compliments from others.

I pursued activities that rebuilt my self-esteem and surrounded myself with people who were both honest and encouraging. I saw myself as a person worthy of respect. I can choose to love my body instead of hating it because others thought I was ugly.


Let go of Guilt and Shame

I had to stop focusing on the past and asking questions like:

“Why didn’t I fight back?”
“Why did I believe them when they said I was ugly and stupid?”
“Why didn’t I give them a tongue lashing – something I have no trouble doing as an adult?”

I cannot change the past, so there is no point in beating myself up about it.

Forgive the Bullies

When I forgave the people who hurt me, I freed myself from all the anger and pain they had caused. I also let go of a need for revenge. Bullies often get away with their offenses and are not held accountable for their actions, but so what? The bullies no longer had any power over me. Over time, I could look back without becoming upset or feeling the pain of being a victim.

Set Boundaries

When I was a child, I feared my bullies. As an adult, however, I set clear boundaries with the people in my life. I speak up if I feel someone is being out of line or hurtful.

Pursue Healthy Relationships and Support

I had many great friends and counselors who helped me on the road to healing. Their honest feedback helped me restore my self-esteem and develop a more positive body image. They also helped me to pursue my talents and be successful in life.

Observers would say that I am stronger because I was bullied as a child, which is true. However, there have been many negative consequences. For me, recovery from bullying has been a long process. Sometimes, my feelings of low self-esteem, anxiety, and depression resurface and must be faced and overcome. I am confident, however, that I am a survivor who can handle whatever is to come.


Bullying May Have Long-Term Health Consequences, Duke Medicine
Bullied children can suffer lasting psychological harm as adults, Duke Medicine
Exposure to childhood bullying and mental health, THE JAMA Network Journals
17 Things Former Bullied Kids Do A Little Bit Differently As Adults, Kovie Biakolo, Thought Catalog
What are the adult health consequences of childhood bullying?, David McNamee, Medical News Today

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2014 Carola Finch


Nell Rose from England on September 06, 2019:

I can definitely state that school bullying carries on through your life in the sense of panic attacks, and low esteem. I was bullied for the whole ten years.

Marcelle Bell on January 08, 2015:

What a wonderful article and first-hand account. I applaud your sharing your experience to help others and writing your story so thoughtfully. Voted up!

FlourishAnyway from USA on January 08, 2015:

Excellent first-hand account of the lasting impact of childhood bullies. I wish you health and happiness moving forward. Voted up and more, sharing and pinning. I recently had a guy from high school who had tried to bully me try to reconnect with me on Facebook. Um, no. I immediately blocked him. What was he even thinking? Seriously.

Lou Cannon from British Columbia, Canada on January 05, 2015:

Your hub really opens up the doors and conversation about such an important topic... Thank you so much for sharing!

Stargrrl on January 01, 2015:

I was bullied too as a child and I think your hub will be very helpful. You gave some good advice. I could relate to a lot of what you were saying--"Why didn't I fight back?" is a constant question I asked myself. Forgiving can be hard, but it is necessary. And I recognize that I am holding in a lot of anger. Thanks for this hub. Voted up.

Michelle on January 01, 2015:

I understand. I was bullied in every grade expect one grade,pre kape. I graduated back in 2011. I live with depression,panic attacks,anxiety among many other things. I need someone to talk to...

Carola Finch (author) from Ontario, Canada on January 01, 2015:

Thanks for your comments, everyone. I do appreciate the time you took to share your own experiences. Just to be clear, I am aware that most people have had some minor encounters with bullies at some point in their lives. The issues I was addressing involved serious, continuous bullying such as the list I provided at the beginning of the article: ridicule, physical attacks such as pushing, poking, hitting, kicking, hair-pulling, damaging the victims possessions, etc. Most people get that this is harmful, but it saddens me that some people still take bullying lightly and think I have a victim mentality that I need to "get over."

Virginia Kearney from United States on December 31, 2014:

Carola--You've written a very thoughtful Hub. I especially like the fact that you write this to help people to see the steps they need to go through to overcome bullying. I especially like the step which talks about acknowledging the hurt and then forgiving the bullies. I do think that faith in a God who loves and forgives us makes this more possible. Great ideas.

Carola Finch (author) from Ontario, Canada on December 31, 2014:

Thanks for your kind comments.

Suzie from Carson City on December 31, 2014:

Carola.....What a familiar tale. So sad and so damaging. Since the time that these pathetic individuals were finally given their rightful label as, "bullies," the awareness is in the forefront.

I am so pleased that this issue has been given the attention and focus so necessary to help protect potential victims. It is music to my ears to hear my school-aged grandchildren speak out against bullying & the bullies themselves. School programs run by teachers and counselors are a regular issue woven into the educational experience.

You are to be commended for taking control, seeking counseling and coming to the realization that your bullies were/are the ones with the real problem. You are beautiful just exactly as you are. Bless you for your strength and wisdom.......Peace, Paula...Up+++

Marcy Goodfleisch from Planet Earth on December 31, 2014:

This is an incredibly helpful hub, Carola - thanks for researching the topic and sharing your story. I was the victim of bullying, too, and everything you've said here resonates with me. I admire you for overcoming that abuse, and for using your experience to help others.

Voted way, way up, and shared!

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