Bullying can have profound, complex mental health impacts that we carry with us from childhood into our adult lives. Without even realizing it, experiences of being bullied can affect your self-esteem, physical wellbeing, and how you raise your own children. Here’s how to uncover past trauma and heal at any age.
The very real adult consequences of childhood bullying
Childhood bullying can grow into genuine mental health consequences throughout your lifetime. It can be particularly stressful and tricky for adults to unearth the early source of childhood trauma as we get older — it’s common for formerly-bullied adults to deny, repress or consciously forget memories of bullying.
As adults, we frequently tell ourselves that the bullying we endured “wasn’t so bad” or didn’t have a long-term effect. This is a common self-defense and protection tactic we use as kids to survive bullying.
While this can sometimes temporarily work into our teens and very early adulthood, as we get older it’s well documented how adults of all ages are more likely to experience severe, direct physical and mental outcomes if they were bullied as children:
- Chronic depression
- Increased risk of suicidal thoughts, suicide plans, and suicide attempts
- Anxiety disorders
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Poor general health
- Self-destructive behavior, including self-harm
- Substance abuse
- Difficulty establishing trusting, reciprocal friendships and relationships
How adults can deal with their childhood bullying
Unpacking the trauma of childhood bullying as an adult can be particularly difficult because our psyche processes experiences as a child differently than it does when we’re older.
Children are less equipped to articulate and understand the nuances of what’s happening to them. When a bullied child grows up, they retain some of that lasting child-like lens on the experience of being bullied. This can make it especially hard for adults to comprehend and accept the impact childhood bullying — which might have occurred decades ago — has had on them as grown-ups.
Suggestions for Adults:
1. Acknowledge that what happened to you is real and you were not responsible for it
As adults, we can tend to brush off childhood experiences as things we’ve imagined or made more extreme than they were. Usually, the opposite is true, and the bullying that we dealt with as children was worse than we remember it now.
The first step is to accept that being bullied as a child can have extreme effects on your mental health. You might be able to map things you’ve felt and experienced your entire life back to early childhood trauma.
Feelings of self-blame or believing that you wouldn’t have been bullied if you’d tried harder to get over it are common, but they make the adult impacts feel even worse. To start to heal, allow yourself to feel that what happened to you was very real.
Even more importantly, focus on learning that you were not responsible for the bullying.
This is much easier said than done, but it’s a crucial aspect to opening up what you went through and beginning to see it for what it is — something that, as a child, you could not have stopped or controlled.
2. Examine and embrace what you felt as a child
We bury feelings of trauma deeply because they can feel uncomfortable or even downright terrifying to re-experience. But part of releasing these feelings is admitting that they’re true.
This means not only intellectually but emotionally diving into what we experienced as bullied children.
Give yourself a lot of patience and self-compassion when you begin to explore these feelings. These are delicate, complex memories that carry with them a lot of shame, blame and hurt.
“Think of how you felt as a child” can be pretty broad and not specific enough for some people to get started. Another way into exploring how you felt as a child is to think of if you have any memories of these common symptoms of bullying in children:
- Feelings of shame and self-blame
- Sleep disturbances and nightmares
- Social isolation and a feeling that you “had no friends”
- Avoiding school and poor school performance
- Low self-esteem
- Symptoms of anxiety and depression
- Higher risk of physical illness
- Psychosomatic symptoms with no medical cause (stomach pains, headaches, muscle aches, etc.)
If you can remember any of these physical symptoms, ask yourself why you felt them and if they might have been connected to bullying you were also enduring at the time.
3. Prioritize your adult and family healing
Deciding to investigate how childhood bullying has affected you is a big deal. You should feel proud for taking the step to take more care of yourself and prioritize it in your life.
It can be especially challenging if you have your own children and might re-experience trauma through witnessing or worrying about them being bullied.
4. Take steps to become more mindful
Mindfulness is the foundation of learning how to let go of stress, become aware of our true feelings, and ease anxiety’s physical symptoms.
Meditation is a time-honored and scientifically proven way to connect more closely to your psychological health. There’s a long list of overall health benefits thanks to meditation, but particular to your experience of childhood bullying is that you’ll learn how to release shame, connect more truthfully to your feelings, and release the negative stress and discomfort that rise up in us from examining past trauma.
5. Talk to a mental health professional
It can take years to work through the bullying you experienced decades ago. There isn’t a quick overnight fix, but you can feel some relief sooner than later by talking to a therapist, psychologist, or other mental health professional.
Asking for help is a huge step and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Though stigma often teaches us to think that people who need assistance with their mental health are weak, it takes an incredible amount of strength to seek out and accept help.
Interested in more? I would love to meet to you! Email or call anytime to schedule an in-person or virtual session. (817) 701-5438 | firstname.lastname@example.org
CRT, CCDC, CACC | Counselor & Life Coach
Empowering individuals, families and communities to grow and heal through advanced approaches in Creative Arts Therapy, setting the standard for treatment, practice and training within the field.