A new study, published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, takes a participatory action research approach to explore the definition of bullying and the effects of childhood bullying on the lived experiences of young adults. The result of the mixed-method inquiry suggests childhood bullying may have lasting adverse effects on psychological well-being, including issues with body image, eating disorders, relationships, and trust issues.
“Participants suffered as children and as young adults with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and eating disorders that they attributed directly to their experiences with bullying in childhood,” Ellen deLara, a researcher and professor in social work at Syracuse University, explains. “The ability to trust others in adult friendships and intimate relationships was significantly affected.”
Current literature suggests that approximately 50% of all school students in the U.S. are involved in bullying, and for LGBTQ youth, this number is reported to be as high as 92%. Previous research has linked childhood bullying to poor physical health, depression, psychosis, and increased suicidality in adulthood. However, qualitative studies are needed to understand the lived experiences of young adults surviving childhood bullying experiences during the transition to adulthood.
In the current study, 72 semi-structured interviews were conducted on young adults between the ages of 18-29 who indicated they had experienced bullying between K-12 grade. Participants also completed a researcher created self-report measure (a = 0.916) which explored aspects of childhood bullying. Grounded theory was used to examine the qualitative data. Themes were explored and were similar to those that emerged from survey data, therefore suggesting credibility of the results.
Mental health issues, physiological concerns, and relationship issues emerged as themes in young adult’s lives as a result of childhood bullying experiences. The greatest injury from childhood bullying was seen in relationship impairment and in the ability to trust others.
“Participants suffered as children and as young adults with depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and eating disorders that they attributed directly to their experiences with bullying in childhood. The ability to trust others in adult friendships and intimate relationships was significantly affected. These outcomes affected aspects of their development and wellbeing,” deLara writes.
The current study also identified a discrepancy between formal definitions of bullying and individual experiences. According to the CDC and U.S. Department of Education bullying can be defined as:
“Any unwanted aggressive behavior by another youth or group of youths who are not siblings or current dating partners that involves an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated. Bullying may inflict harm or distress on the targeted youth including physical, psychological, social, or educational harm.”
This definition is different than the way participants in the study conceptualize bullying. DeLara writes:
“The participants defined bullying without reference to chronicity or power. Participants were clear that their experience of being bullied was not contained by the parameters of chronicity or power. When queried further, all said they could unambiguously distinguish between good-natured teasing, unpleasant experiences, and mean-spirited bullying incidents.”
The differences in definition illustrated by current findings highlight an important discrepancy with the potential to lead to a gap in research and application. Anti-bullying program development and policy level work depend on an understanding of what bullying means to maximize the inclusion of all affected by childhood bullying and take appropriate preventative steps.
This study provides a look at the lived experiences of young adults following experiences of bullying in childhood. The findings deliver mounting evidence for the need for improved preventative bullying programs in schools nationwide. Understanding the lived experiences of survivors of childhood bullying can help to inform appropriate definitions and plans to decrease adverse effects resulting from these experiences that affect a significant number of children in the US.
deLara, E. W. (2018). Consequences of Childhood Bullying on Mental Health and Relationships for Young Adults. Journal of Child https://rdcu.be/bbgdTd Family Studies, 1-11. (Link)