The Long Term Effects of Bullying

Erin L. George, MFT
Erin L. George, MFT
Medical editor

Ad Disclosure: Some of our recommendations, including BetterHelp, are also affiliates, and as such we may receive compensation from them if you choose to purchase products or services through the links provided

Immediate Impact of Bullying

Bullying, a pervasive issue across schools and digital platforms, inflicts significant immediate harm on victims, manifesting through both emotional and physical channels. Understanding these impacts is crucial for prompt intervention and effective support.


Emotional Effects:

  • Increased Anxiety and Stress: Victims often experience heightened anxiety, leading to panic attacks and chronic stress conditions.
  • Depression: The relentless nature of bullying can plunge victims into deep depression, sometimes with lasting effects beyond the immediate situation.
  • Low Self-esteem: Regular demeaning treatment erodes confidence, contributing to a poor self-image.
  • Fear and Isolation: Bullying instills a fear of social interactions, leading to withdrawal from peer groups and activities.

Physical Effects:

  • Sleep Disturbances: The stress and anxiety from bullying can lead to insomnia and other sleep disorders.
  • Somatic Complaints: Victims frequently report headaches, stomachaches, and other physical symptoms with no medical basis, often a manifestation of psychological distress.
  • Injuries: In cases of physical bullying, bruises, cuts, and other injuries can occur, sometimes requiring medical attention.

Therapists are Standing By to Treat Your Depression, Anxiety or Other Mental Health Needs

Explore Your Options Today


Bullying, a detrimental behavior pattern observed across various social settings, significantly impacts individuals well beyond the immediate moments of aggression. Characterized by repeated acts of physical, verbal, social, or cyber aggression, bullying inflicts profound psychological and emotional distress on its victims. We’ll delve into the lasting repercussions of such behaviors, exploring how they extend far into the victims' future, affecting their mental health, self-esteem, social relationships, and overall quality of life.

The enduring effects of bullying are complex and multifaceted, with victims often experiencing long-term challenges such as chronic anxiety, depression, and heightened susceptibility to further victimization. Moreover, the impact transcends the individual, affecting families, schools, and communities.

Through an examination of the various dimensions of bullying, including physical confrontations, verbal harassment, exclusionary tactics, and online abuse, this article aims to shed light on the critical need for effective prevention and intervention strategies. It underscores the importance of understanding bullying's deep-rooted impact to foster resilience and recovery among those affected.

What Are The Effects of Bullying?

Bullying is a serious problem that affects the lives of countless children and adults. No one should have to feel unsafe or threatened by someone else, but it happens all too often in our society. While bullying can manifest itself in many different forms, the effects it has on an individual are always significant. From mental health issues to decreased self-esteem and even perpetuating cycles of further bullying behavior, the consequences of bullying can have long-lasting and damaging impacts.

  • Mental Health Issues: Bullying has been linked to a variety of mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Victims of bullying often suffer from feelings of helplessness and hopelessness as they struggle to cope with the relentless verbal and physical abuse. As these negative feelings build up, they can manifest as more serious mental health issues that require professional help to overcome.
  • Low Self-Esteem: Bullying can do a lot of damage to an individual’s self-esteem. When someone is constantly put down and belittled, it’s hard for them to feel good about themselves. Victims of bullying may begin to believe the negative things they are told and feel like they’re not good enough. This can lead to a cycle of low self-esteem that is difficult to break out of. Erin L George, MA-MFT, says, "While bullying can hurt people at any age, it can be particularly damaging to young adults, teens, and school-aged children who are in developmental life stages where they're forming their identity. Bullying, particularly verbal, at this stage can be severe enough to lead to suicidal ideation and even suicide due to low self-esteem and the pain it causes."
  • Perpetuating Bullying Behavior: Unfortunately, bullying isn’t just a one-way street. Victims of bullying may end up becoming bullies themselves as a result of the trauma and pain that they have experienced. They often bully others to feel they are not alone or to get the negative attention off of them and onto someone else.  This behavior can perpetuate the cycle of bullying, as those who have been victims may act out their aggression on others in the same manner that they have been treated. 

If you’ve been a victim of bullying and are looking for support, consider finding an online therapist to help. Some popular online therapy providers include BetterHelp, ReGain, Talkspace, Teen Counseling, and Pride Counseling.

Bullying is Abuse

Bullying is a form of abuse, and it is a form of narcissistic behavior. Both bullying and traditional forms of abuse are selfish and sadistic, destructive, or violent acts perpetrated upon others. Ringleader bullies (those who organize bullying) behave as though the emotional and physical health of their victims is not important or is less important than their desire for the thrill of aggression and dominance. 

Bullying Causes Long-Term Emotional Damage

The experience of being bullied can end up causing lasting damage to victims. This is both self-evident and supported by an increasing body of research. It is not necessary to be physically harmed to suffer lasting harm. Words and gestures are quite enough. In fact, the old saying, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me," is more or less exactly backwards. For the most part, physical damage sustained in a fistfight heals readily, especially damage that is sustained during the resilient childhood years. What is far more difficult to mend is the primary wound that bullying victims suffer, which is damage to their self-concepts and to their identities. Bullying is an attempt to instill fear and self-loathing. Being the repetitive target of bullying damages your ability to view yourself as a desirable, capable, and effective individual.

Two ugly outcomes stem from learning to view yourself as a less-than-desirable, incapable individual. The first outcome is that it becomes more likely that you will become susceptible to depression, anger, or bitterness. Being bullied teaches you that you are undesirable, that you are not safe in the world, and that you are relatively powerless to defend yourself. When you are forced, again and again, to contemplate your relative lack of control over the bullying process, you are being set up for learned helplessness, which in turn sets you up for hopelessness and depression.

At the same time, you may be learning that you are helpless and hopeless; you’re also learning how you’re seen by bullies, which is to say, you are learning that others see you as weak, pathetic, and a loser. And, by virtue of the way that identity tends to work, you are being set up to believe that these things the bullies are saying about you are true.

It would be great if the average person had unshakable self-confidence, but this just isn't how identity works. Identity is a social process. Other people contribute to it. Particularly when people are young and have not yet survived a few of life's trials, it is difficult to know who they are and what they are made of. Much of what passes for identity in the young (and in the older, too) is a kind of other-confidence, which is to say that many people's self-confidence is continually shored up by those around them telling them in both overt and subtle ways that they are good, worthy people. This is one of the reasons people like to belong to groups – it helps them to feel good about themselves. Bullying teaches people that they are explicitly not part of groups; that they are outcasts and outsiders. It is hard to doubt the reality of being an outcast and an outsider when you have been beaten or otherwise publicly humiliated. It takes an exceptionally confident (or otherwise well-supported) person not to internalize bullies' negative messages and begin bullying yourself by holding yourself to the same standards that bullies are applying to you and finding yourself a failure. In other words, it is rather easy for bullying victims to note that they have been beaten up and then to start thinking of themselves as weak, no-good, worthless, pathetic, and incompetent. These are the sorts of thoughts that lead to depression or, if they are combined with revenge fantasies, to anger and rage feelings.

Where the first ugly outcome of bullying unfolds rather immediately in the form of a wounded self-concept, the second ugly outcome unfolds more slowly over time. Having a wounded self-concept makes it harder for you to believe in yourself. When you have difficulty believing in yourself, you will tend to have a harder time persevering through difficult situations. Deficits in academic performance can easily occur when bullying victims succumb to depression or otherwise become demoralized. They certainly also occur when victims ditch school to avoid bullies. The deficits themselves are not the real issue. The real issue is that if deficits occur for too long or become too pronounced, the affected children can lose out on opportunities for advancement, further study, and, ultimately, employment. I've read retrospective studies where people report having left school early to avoid continued bullying, and this, of course, will have altered and limited the job prospects they have available to them as adults. Leaving school may be a dramatic (if occasionally realistic) example of how early bullying can affect one's life. However, there are other ways that anger or depression caused by bullying harms and developmentally delays people's progress.

Inevitably, sensitive kids—the kids who cry easily—get singled out. Targeted as they are, many sensitive kids learn to think of their sensitivity as a bad thing and to avoid it or channel it into revenge fantasy and anger. This doesn't work when you are a kid because it's difficult to reinvent yourself without moving to a new place. It can have negative consequences in adulthood when the same children, now emotionally avoidant, angry, or cynical adults, find themselves having difficulty entering into or maintaining loving, intimate relationships.

A similar form of damage comes when bullied kids internalize negative attitudes concerning aspects of themselves that set them apart from others, such as their sexual orientation, minority group membership, or religious affiliation. In such cases, bullying sets up peer pressure to reject aspects of the self that are fundamentally not rejectable, and thus, a potentially lifelong tension gets set up inside that person.

(If anyone out there has a better idea for how someone can end up becoming a homosexual-hating homosexual, an antisemitic Jewish person, or other seemingly self-contradictory person, I'd like to know about it.)

This list, culled from my reading on this subject, summarizes some effects bullying victims may experience the following short-term effects:

  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Avoidance of settings where bullying may occur.
  • Illness
  • Lower grades than non-bullied peers
  • Suicidal thoughts and feelings

In one British retrospective bullying experiences survey I came across, 20% of the sample attempted suicide secondary to having been bullied, whereas only 3% of participants who were not bullied attempted suicide.

In the long term, survivors of bullying may experience:

  • Reduced occupational opportunities
  • Lingering feelings of anger and bitterness or a desire for revenge
  • Difficulty trusting people
  • Interpersonal difficulties, including fear and avoidance of new social situations
  • Increased tendency to be a loner
  • Perception of self as easy to victimize, overly sensitive, and thin-skinned
  • Self-esteem problems
  • Increased incidence of continued bullying and victimization

Interesting observations of factors that seem to lessen the negative impact that bullying has on people include the following:

Perception of Control

A 2004 Spanish college student sample study suggests that there is a direct relationship between the victim's perception of control over their bullying experience and the extent of long-term difficulties they experience as a result of bullying. This is to say that bullied students who believed they were able to influence and/or escape their bullies reported fewer negative long-term effects from having been bullied than did students who felt helpless to influence their situation while it was happening. Perception of control (and not reality of control) was key in this study, as no relationship was found between the ways students coped with being bullied and how they turned out.

I can see the outline of a mechanism working here (where students who believed they still had control over their situations avoided developing learned helplessness and, therefore, had less of a chance of experiencing depression). However, the study doesn't help us know what to recommend to lessen the chances of long-term problems. Remember, it didn't matter what the students did; it only mattered what they believed.

Let's go with the idea that believing you have control over events is important. The thing to do if you are being bullied is to keep persevering in your efforts to stop the bullying, as though those efforts will result in your getting the bullying to stop. No single thing you do may stop the bullying, but the effect of continually working under the assumption that you haven't tried all options and may still get the bullying to stop may do the trick. And, of course, you might get the bullying to stop because of something you do or don't do.

Rather than try to control the past (which is impossible), it might make more sense for survivors to focus on what they can control in the present to benefit their future happiness and fulfillment. As the poet George Herbert's classic phrase wisely advises, "Living well is the best revenge."

Early Exposure

The age at which kids are first bullied seems to be important, according to research on bullying. Young children who are first bullied during their preteen years appear to be less negatively impacted in the long term than children who are first bullied as teens. People first bullied as young children report experiencing higher long-term stress levels than people who were never bullied.

However, people who were first bullied as teens report more long-term social withdrawal and more reactivity to violence than other groups. There is a greater tendency towards the use of self-destructive coping mechanisms in the first-bullied-as-teens group, and an interesting but hard-to-make-sense of sex difference, where women tend to become more aggressive as a result of their bullying experience, and men demonstrate a greater tendency to use substances.

I can't help but wonder if the increased independence and emancipation that teens enjoy makes them more likely to experiment with and then get locked into maladaptive coping strategies, such as substance use, than their younger peers.

Social Support

Finally, multiple researchers point to the protective effect a good social support network has on the survivor's short- and long-term outcomes. Having supportive family members and peers around who can be confided in when one has been bullied and who can offer support and advice tends to lessen bullying's impact.

There are several reasons why it makes sense that a supportive social network should help, but one of them deserves to be made explicit. Namely, when a survivor of bullying is surrounded by and brought into a supportive social network, they receive many positive messages about their worth from network members. There are, therefore, fewer opportunities for bullies' negative messages to be internalized and take over self-esteem. If bullies can only succeed in harming people physically and they do not succeed in harming them emotionally, then relatively little lasting damage can be done.

Undoing the Damage

Suppose the primary damage that bullying causes is damage to identity and self-esteem. In that case, taking steps to repair identity and self-esteem is for people looking to heal from past bullying experiences. What needs to heal, in most cases, is not the physical body but rather identity and self-concept. Bullied people need to learn how to feel safe again in the world (or safe enough). They need to learn that they are acceptable people with much to offer, to feel in control over their moods and urges, and to know they can accomplish goals. 

I'll refer people to our topic centers on Depression and Anger Management for ideas about how to treat these. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is likely to be of particular utility concerning depression and anger.

In the language of cognitive behavioral therapy, depression and anger are based on dysfunctional core beliefs. They could be addressed using cognitive restructuring techniques that encourage people to closely examine the beliefs and dispute them when they contain exaggerations and distortions.

Social withdrawal problems and social anxiety also can be very profitably addressed within the context of cognitive therapy. One positive aspect of the therapy setting is that role-playing can take place between therapist and patient to provide patients with the opportunity to practice and improve how they interact in social situations. When basic social fears and skill deficits have been addressed, it should become easier for socially withdrawn people to find the connections they need to finally feel fundamentally accepted by others.

I typically hate the overused word "empowered," but I'm going to use it here because it fits. People who have been bullied have been fundamentally disempowered. Their feelings of personal safety have been violated, and their belief in their competency and adequacy has been minimized. They may exist in a state of perpetual avoidance and paralysis.

To feel good about themselves, they need to break through that paralysis and engage in something that helps them feel like they are gaining power—not power over others, but power over themselves. No one else can do this for them. Each person has to decide to empower themselves.

There are a million avenues a person can take to fulfill an empowerment goal. However, the right avenue is based on that person's talents and opportunities. Anger can be productively funneled into a competitive endeavor, such as education, business, sports, or gaming, or creative expression, such as art or music. Fears can be faced down, and courage can be discovered.

Doing this entails picking out a goal you desire to accomplish, which will assert yourself, and then deciding to make it happen. As with any self-improvement goal, it is good to start small and dissect larger goals into their smallest possible elements so that each step you take on the way to a big goal is manageable. You can read more about this process in our Psychological Self-Tools self-help book.

In confronting the complex issue of bullying, understanding its profound and lasting effects is crucial. The scars inflicted by bullying—whether through physical confrontations, verbal harassment, social exclusion, or online attacks—reach deep, impacting individuals' mental health, social relationships, and self-esteem long into the future.

Addressing the repercussions of bullying with urgency and compassion is imperative. Creating environments of empathy and understanding paves the way for victims to speak out and seek the support they need. It takes a collective effort to combat bullying effectively through implementing robust prevention and intervention strategies that foster a culture of kindness and respect.

The importance of seeking help and offering support cannot be overstressed. Every individual has a role to play, whether as a friend, family member, educator, or community member. Advocating for those who feel voiceless, facilitating open discussions about bullying and its impacts, and providing resources for recovery are vital steps toward healing.

Additional Resources

As advocates of mental health and wellness, we take great pride in educating our readers on the various online therapy providers available. MentalHelp has partnered with several thought leaders in the mental health and wellness space, so we can help you make informed decisions on your wellness journey. MentalHelp may receive marketing compensation from these companies should you choose to use their services.

MentalHelp may receive marketing compensation from the above-listed companies should you choose to use their services.