Bullying, Shaming, Harassment: Mental Health Effects Linger

An unhappy boy worries

Last spring, a 9-year-old boy in North Carolina who was being bullied by peers was instructed not to wear his My Little Pony backpack to school because the backpack had become a “trigger for bullying.” But how does shaming a child for being himself help him to feel safe at school?

This boy’s story reminds me of an incident that occurred more than 30 years ago, when I was in first grade. It was my classmate Emmett’s VIP week, and for his show-and-tell day, he brought his extensive Barbie collection to school. As he proudly boasted about his collection, my classmates laughed at him and I joined in, though I quickly regretted having done so. I still remember the hurt and confused look on his face as his classmates laughed, and our teacher’s efforts to smooth things over. I have no recollection of how the school handled the incident, but the anguish on Emmett’s face is fixed clearly in my memory and I have never stopped feeling bad about joining in making fun of my classmate.

I can only hope that Emmett did not continue to feel taunted by his peers at school and that the show-and-tell scene is not one that he replays over and over again, but it is incidents like these that take a toll on a person’s sense of self-worth and can lead to more severe mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression.

What Is Bullying?

Bullying can take many forms and can include taunting or excluding someone based on his or her perceived difference, as my classmates did, as well as intimidation, threats, and physical violence. Acts of bullying have traditionally occurred in person, but today bullying has gone digital: cyberbullying includes using digital means—such as social networking sites or texting—to spread rumors about someone, share embarrassing photos or videos, or send someone demeaning or threatening messages. This means that a victim of bullying may be targeted at any time, and often in private, which may leave the victim feeling further isolated and alone.

Bullying between siblings—physical or psychological aggression that is ongoing and far more severe in nature than the typical sibling conflict—can be just as severe and is further complicated by the fact that the victim cannot feel safe in his or her home.

The experience of ongoing bullying can leave victims with feelings of shame, anger, and fear, and can tarnish feelings of self-confidence, optimism, and trust in others. The experience of bullying can also exacerbate mental health challenges, such as depression or anxiety, leading to drastic consequences, including suicide and even acts of widespread violence such as school shootings. In fact, research indicates that victims of bullying and those who bully are more likely to carry weapons than other groups. And those who are both victims and bullies are the most likely to carry weapons.

Workplace Harassment and Bullying in Adulthood

Acts of bullying are certainly not exclusive to young people. Bullying and harassment occur to adults in the workplace, online, and even among friends and family. Revenge porn, for example, is a form of cyberbullying that people use to demean and harass former romantic partners by posting nude photos and personal information about them online, and can be extremely damaging to the victim’s self-esteem and reputation. Several states have developed or are in the process of developing laws criminalizing revenge porn.

Whether bullying occurs in childhood or adulthood, the effects are lasting. One study indicated that people who had been bullied in childhood were still showing higher signs of emotional distress at age 50 and more difficulty with social relationships than their peers who were not bullied in their youth.

People aren’t born knowing that they can hurt other people or that there’s anything wrong in doing so, but most of us learn or are taught this lesson early on. I suppose I was fortunate to have been acutely aware of other people’s feelings at such a young age. But people who are not raised in families that support and protect them, but instead are deliberately hurt by family members, may never learn this lesson, and in fact, they may learn that abusing others is normal and even necessary.

I don’t know what happened to Emmett after first grade. Perhaps his family moved away, or maybe he changed schools, but I never saw him again. I hope he ended up in an environment where he felt supported and appreciated for who he was. If you’re out there Emmett, I’m so sorry.

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  • cason

    October 27th, 2014 at 10:09 AM

    Even thought this child felt good about who he wanted to be it was smashed by those who did not feel comfortable with his decision. Heartbreaking that even at this age we are forced to be what others want and not what we want for ourselves.

  • Courtney

    October 27th, 2014 at 10:39 AM

    You really don’t think of the lasting effects that bullying can have on a life until you are far too old! How I wish that I knew this in middle school when I am sure that I was evil and did many things and said many more that hurt a lot of feelings and to think that there are some who could still be carrying these emotions around with them even today makes me so ashamed. Why do we always have to wait until it is too late to say that we are sorry and to even have it make a difference?

  • kenna

    October 27th, 2014 at 1:36 PM

    I have a thought about this, that the kids who do this bullying do it with the willing acceptance and concent of their parents. I think that I would implicitly know when my child was piucking on another and I refuse to be that parent who would rather bury their head in the sand versus understanding hat is really going on. I think that if you know that this is happening then you have a responsibility to make it stop instead of encouraging the behavior to continue.

  • Ray

    October 28th, 2014 at 3:53 AM

    I do think that it is hard for little boys especially when they are interested in more feminine things.

    For a girl, well we would just call them a tomboy and think that they will grow out of it. But for a boy? He is going to be ridiculed and will experience some very hurtful things.

  • Michael

    October 28th, 2014 at 9:17 AM

    Unless you have experienced this for yourself I think that there are far too few of us who have any idea what being bullied perpetually can feel like. You think that you know who and what you are until there are people who start tearing that down- it is as if it makes you completely question the things that you thought that you knew about yourself. It can be disconcerting and it can be scary to have those people who are constantly pushing you and making you feel uncomfortable and at times even scared. It is not something that I would wish on anyone.

  • therapydoc

    October 29th, 2014 at 8:20 AM

    Excellent article. Kids aren’t comfortable with different levels of development, and babyish things are triggers. (We all want to be more mature than we are).

  • zane

    October 29th, 2014 at 1:27 PM

    What happened to just telling our kids to shake it off?
    I know that is what my mom and dad when we felt like we were being picked on at school.
    But I guess we have actually proof now that this doesn’t work, although I would like for kids to be able to stand up for themselves a little more and become a little more confident in who they are so that this kind of thing has a better chance of making less of a lasting impression.
    The kids who take it the hardest are of course being picked on more but they are targeted for a reason, probably because they are easy targets for the bullies to begin with. So let’s start working toward making our kids stronger and more sure of themselves so that the bullies don’t have anyone left who will take wast they say to heart.

  • MJ

    October 30th, 2014 at 3:02 PM

    In all likelihood there are too many kids being bullied right now at this very moment. That doe snot make me feel good at all, and it makes me wonder, are my kids the ones doing the bullying? Are they being bullied themselves? It makes it all so hard as a parent to know what to do because you want to step in and just beat the crap out of someone if they are doing this to your child, but then what do you do if you find out that your own child is the one who is doing the tormenting? That one can be even harder to handle.

  • Dean

    November 2nd, 2014 at 10:30 AM

    I hate to think that there are those families who inadvertently teach their children that they will get ahead in life only by hurting other people :(

  • Nevaeh

    November 12th, 2014 at 2:11 PM

    @Dean my Dad used to always tell my brother and I to stay away from kids who skipped school because they were losers. I thought this growing up until I went to high school and sat next to this kid named Chad in English. Chad was gone from school a lot and the teacher used to get mad at him for it and then one day he wrote an essay and I had to edit for a class assignement and in it he was talking about that the reason he skipped school sometimes was because technically his family was homeless and either living with friends on couches or in their car or things like that and sometimes he didn’t come to school because he didn’t have clean clothes to wear or they were too far away to get to the school. It was super sad and I felt bad for not really talking to him before that. I never told my Dad though.

  • Orphan Izzy

    July 20th, 2015 at 2:51 AM

    Being bullied by people -especially those who you love only later in life after enjoying’s their kindness the entire time before it starts- can destroy your life even if you are the most self-confident and mentally stable person when it begins. You can try everything to help yourself and to make it stop yet you can find that you are completely helpless and your life just falls to pieces. Bullying as an adult Or being bullied as an adult is just as if not more terrible than when your child because people should know better at that age and it feels so much more cruel and intentional. It has made me lose trust in people in general but even more so it has caused me to question my trust about the world around me something like that could happen.

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