Bullied children hide from stress in later life
Victims are more likely to plot revenge than to confront problems.
Researchers probing childhood bullying and adult violence have found an unexpected connection between the timing of victimization and its effect in later life.
For some victims, the stress that bullying brings on is thought to cause depression and violence in adulthood. But Matthew Newman and colleagues at the University of Texas in Austin say that bullied children are often not aggressive - instead they try to hide from stress in later life. This effect is most prominent when the bullying happens late on in puberty, they say.
Newman asked around 1,500 college students to describe how they would react to stressful situations. In one question, students had to say how they would cope if they lost a finished essay because of a computer crash, and then had a young brother laugh at their misfortune.
University of Texas, Austin
In contrast, those who had been bullied all through adolescence were no more likely to pick that option than students who had never been bullied. It was a clear-cut result, says Newman: "This is one of the biggest effects I have ever seen."
The reaction fits a general pattern in which past victims refuse to deal with stressful situations, he adds. In another question, for example, the students were asked how they would react if they were at a party and their date went off with a good friend. Both men and women who had been bullied late in puberty were significantly more likely to decide to leave the party and plot revenge, rather than confront the situation.
Newman admits that the results may seem counterintuitive, as older children might be expected to cope better with being bullied. But he points out that previous studies in animals and humans have shown that the reaction to bullying becomes more pronounced as puberty progresses. He suggests that children who are bullied earlier in puberty may be better prepared to cope with the more stressful experience of later victimization and so suffer fewer consequences in adulthood.
The Texas team now wants to run further experiments to correlate the questionnaire results with biological markers of stress, such levels of the hormone cortisol, which can be measured from saliva samples.
In the meantime, Newman wants to draw attention to one policy implication of his work. The study also showed that the stress of bullying is reduced if children have a strong network of social support. "There should be less focus on stopping bullying," says Newman. "You're not going to stamp it out, so it's better to try and support students instead."