Several months ago I reported on a series of studies regarding the long term effects of bullying. See for example a discussion on factors that are associated with being a victim or a bully, or this discussion on the effects of bullying on children with special needs. I also reported on a very interesting study that examine the long term consequences of bullying. Data from that study showed  that being a victim of bullying in middle childhood almost double the odds of having psychotic symptoms during adolescence. In that post I discussed one major limitation of that study. While the data seem to imply that experiencing bullying could play a role (‘a causative’ role) in the eventual emergence of psychotic symptoms, it was also possible that those “children who were on path to developing psychotic disorders also engaged in behaviors during early childhood that made them more likely to be victims of bullying.”

This morning I read a study published in a recent issue of the prestigious Archives of General Psychiatry that can help us clarify this issue. The study examined data from the 1981 Finish Birth Cohort study. The study included 5,813 children born in Finland in 1981 and contained data on psychiatric symptoms at age 8, history of bullying at age 8 (from teacher, parents, and self reports), and psychiatric outcomes (hospital treatment,  psychiatric medication use, etc) at age 13 to 24. The authors of the present report were interested in examining whether bullying behaviors at age 8 predicted psychiatric outcomes in adolescents and young adulthood after controlling for psychiatric symptoms at age 8.

Children were classified into 4 groups based on their bullying behavior at age 8, namely: 1) those who were never victims or bullies; 2) those who were bullies only; 3) those who were victims only; 4) those who were both victims and bullies.

The Results:

1. Among females, being a victim (but not a bully) was associated with a significant increase in the risk for later psychiatric hospitalization and psychiatric medication use. Most importantly however, this association was significant even after controlling for the girls’ psychiatric symptoms at age 8. That is, the association between being a victim of bullying and negative psychiatric outcomes could not be accounted for by the presence of psychiatric symptoms in middle childhood.

2. Among males, being a victim (whether alone or when the child is also a bully) was associated with a significant increase in the risk for later psychiatric hospitalization. Further, being both a victim and a bully was associated with an increase in the risk for later psychiatric medication use. However, when the authors controlled for psychiatric symptoms at age 8, being a victim of bullying no longer predicted psychiatric hospitalizations or medication use.

In sum, this study suggests that bullying may play a role in the development of psychiatric problems during adolescence and young adulthood, but only among females. In contrast, being a victim of bullying among males may reflect concurrent psychiatric problems that may place the boys at a higher risk for being victims. Therefore, it is possible that among boys, it is not being a victim of bullying that predicts later psychopathology, but it is the reasons behind why these kids become victims in the first place (for example underlying anxiety, depression, or pre-psychotic symptoms) that signal the eventual emergence of more severe psychiatric difficulties. There is a clear implication for parents and providers. The data suggest that when confronted with a boy who is the victim of bullying we should be attuned to, and if necessary address,  the possible symptoms that may have placed the boy at a greater risk for becoming the victim of bullying.

The Reference: Sourander, A., Ronning, J., Brunstein-Klomek, A., Gyllenberg, D., Kumpulainen, K., Niemela, S., Helenius, H., Sillanmaki, L., Ristkari, T., Tamminen, T., Moilanen, I., Piha, J., & Almqvist, F. (2009). Childhood Bullying Behavior and Later Psychiatric Hospital and Psychopharmacologic Treatment: Findings From the Finnish 1981 Birth Cohort Study Archives of General Psychiatry, 66 (9), 1005-1012 DOI: 10.1001/archgenpsychiatry.2009.122

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9 Responses to Bullies and Victims: Boys will be boys or a symptom of distress?

  1. JulieL says:

    Couldn’t it also be that boys at the age of eight still lag behind girls in their cognitive capabilities in higher emotions? That is, boys are not as emotionally sophisticated because the frontal lobe is still developing and not as developed as girls at this same age. So the residual emotional effects from being a victim would effect girls more, because they can understand the totality of the bullying. Boys may just not get the fullness of what was meant in the bullying, just that they were targeted. So the boys rebound better, due to the lack of knowledge.

    Just a thought.

  2. RyanJ says:

    Julie, while I commend your research on this… as a male who WAS bullied as a child, I can attest that at least SOME young males know why they are being bullied, and further, the long-term effects can be devastating. Just because someone may ‘lack knowledge’ does NOT mean they are not just as hurt as someone else, nor does it mean that pain won’t last as long. As a victim of bullying, I am still to this day recovering from certain habits I devloped to ‘protect’ myself from nonstop bullying. Boys don’t always rebound better; I feel it’s just as likely a young girl will suffer just as readly as a young boy.

  3. [...] her child psychology research blog, Nester Lopez-Duran, Ph.D., reports findings from a study on the long-term effects of bullying [...]

  4. Natalie LaPorta says:

    It sounds to me almost as if this article points to blaming the victim in the occurrence of bullying. I am not criticizing the research, but the conclusions taken from the research. Why are people focusing on what characteristics put a child at risk of being bullied? Being bullied is not the victim’s fault for having certain characteristics. The person that needs to be corrected is the bully, not the victim.

    • HI Natalie, I agree with you 100%. I agree entirely that the focus of bullying prevention efforts should be on the bully, not the victim. I think you were reacting to my last sentence and I can see how it could be interpreted the way you did. My point in the article was more from a public health perspective. That is, if being a victim of bullying is highly associated with having concurrent or pre-bullying psychiatric symptoms (anxiety, depression, etc), then the victimization can serve as a reg flag to parents and clinicians to pay attention to the possible struggles the child may be experiencing… not as a way to prevent the bullying or to blame the child for the bullying, but to provide needed services to said child to address the distressing symptoms.

  5. Dusti says:

    With this study and others like it, would it be possible (in your opinion) to target victim like behaviors in children in order for parents to teach their child how to better handle bullying situations? for example, if a child is known to be sensitive, would it not be in that child’s best interest to give them the skills to make a joke of the situation instead of internalizing the torment? I understand that this wouldn’t fix the problem of bullying, but it may fix that individual child’s emotional and mental well being for the rest of their life.

  6. Susan says:

    I agree wholeheartedly with Natalie LaPorta. The focus SHOULD NOT be on the ‘weak characteristics’ of the victim that MAKE them susceptible as a target for bullies.This is twice victimizing the victim.The socially deviant behavior that needs to be corrected falls exclusively on the bully. If you want to discuss the character flaws of an introverted child, and how they are sometimes targeted by bullies, make this an entirely different topic of discussion.Don’t give bullies more ammunition to justify their aberrant conduct.

  7. Edward Collins says:

    100% the assailant needs to be dealt with in regards to bullying another human being. However, the author is staking a great claim. I, being the victim of harsh criticism and bullying in childhood as well as young adulthood, I can attest to the author’s point of view. Having been rendered a victim through the perils of childhood abandonment and raised under the scope of a neurotic mother, I was failed in regards to self esteem and security needs at the age of 4. I was lost, riddled with anxiety, and an easy prey for my attackers. Not every child is a target, and even if they are, are much more protected emotionally than others. This may be an important aspect in protecting future generations of children from the harmful behaviors of others.

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