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Adults Who Were Bullied as Children Can Suffer From Debilitating Symptoms Similar to PTSD

The negative symptoms of Adult Post-Bullying Syndrome can mimic those of PTSD or the effects seen from child abuse.

Photo Credit: Monkey Business Images / Shutterstock.com

The following is an excerpt from the new book Bullying Scars by Ellen deLara (Oxford University Press, 2016): 

In interviewing the people in my research study, I began to notice something unusual. While many of the participants spoke of the bullying episodes they experienced as traumatic and described the impact they felt at the time and what they are left with now in terms of traumatic memories, no one explicitly said they felt like they had PTSD. However, collectively, they listed many symptoms that did fit the PTSD diagnosis. Still others clearly experience what I call adult post-bullying syndrome, or APBS. I have named it this to distinguish it from PTSD.

While APBS can share some symptoms with PTSD, there are distinct differences. One is that there can be both negative and positive aspects to APBS, whereas there are no positive aspects in the research literature associated with PTSD. The negative symptoms of APBS can mimic those of PTSD or the effects seen from child abuse. These effects, similar for child abuse, APBS, and PTSD, and lasting into adulthood, can include shame, anxiety, and relational difficulties. Further, negative cognitions about the self often occur after a trauma. This trauma-related thinking is often inaccurate and serves to support and maintain PTSD. The changes in emotional reactions that characterize PTSD can lead to unexpected and often unpredictable outbursts of anger and aggression. Something can happen to which the person with PTSD just reacts. There does not appear to be an intermediary step of thinking. There is the event, then the reaction. This is a critical difference between PTSD and APBS, where adults do not tend to show this kind of event/reaction immediacy but rather seem more inclined to take no action and instead ruminate on past and present events.

While there are negative aspects of adult post-bullying syndrome, there are some unexpected positives that seem to accompany it also. In interviewing people who appear to experience APBS, I noticed that they have a tendency to exhibit some, if not all, of the following issues:

Self-Esteem Issues and Shame

“I have low self-esteem, a poor self-image, and virtually no confidence in myself.”

“Unfortunately, I took right to heart, literally, the hurtful things that were said to me. Now that I am grown up I try to see things differently, but in my core I still believe they are true.”

Self-doubt and harsh self-judgment are byproducts of childhood bullying. They leave an indelible mark on self-esteem for those who suffer with APBS. Children take to heart relentless torment through name calling and castigation of their character and looks. Years later, as adults, people can still easily recall what they were bullied about: their weight, their height, their clothes, having acne, the people to whom they were attracted. People with APBS typically report having low self-esteem. They feel a sense of shame connected to the core of their being. People who feel a great deal of shame or who are shame-based can manifest this in arrogant behavior. This can be seen in vacillations in thinking between: “I’m a loser” and “I’m better than all of you.”

Problems Trusting Others

“I find it hard to trust other men at work.”            

“My worry that people are judging me is constant.”

Problems trusting others can take a generalized state form (as in “I don’t trust anybody”) or can be very specific to certain groups. People suffering with APBS tend not to trust others. They are particularly cautious in intimate relationships such as friendship and marriage, always expecting that they will be betrayed. Further, they do not trust people who look, act, or even dress like those who bullied them. This lack of trust is problematic for establishing relationships in the first place and for managing them.

Problems in Relationships

“You begin to think you don’t deserve anything. You don’t deserve a good relationship.”

“At the first sign someone is not nice, I distance myself.”

The problem of mistrusting others significantly impairs a person’s ability to connect with other people and then to stay connected. People who trust easily establish relationships readily and maintain them. They do not have attachment problems. Children who have been bullied and then end up with adult post-bullying syndrome often appear to either run from relationships or manage to get into abusive ones. After all, they have learned as children that their peers or siblings will treat them badly. For the most part, they never learned how to stop bullying as children. Consequently, they do not know how to and often do not even want to extricate themselves from physically or emotionally abusive relationships as adults. This is all they know. At the other end of the continuum are adults so scarred from their bullying experiences that they are willing to end even their marriages based on what, to others, might seem reparable. But to some adults suffering with APBS any hint of disrespect or bullying is intolerable.

People-Pleasing

“My strategy in relationships is to be a people-pleaser.”

A majority of those with adult post-bullying syndrome declared that they were “people-pleasers.” Never feeling quite good about themselves, never being good enough, based on the maltreatment they endured through bullying, they have determined that pleasing others is their best defense. It makes a kind of emotional sense. Having experienced numerous forms of bullying from verbal to emotional to sexual to physical, becoming someone that no one could object to seems like a good strategy. However, in the process authenticity of self can be lost. This is a high price to pay.

Food and Other Substance Misuse

“I drink a lot and I have used drugs to help me with the anxiety I feel about the bullying in my past.”

Numerous studies detail an association between bullying as victim, bully, or bully/victim and substance use in childhood. In my study, some adult participants reported using alcohol, other drugs, and food management to quell the feelings of anxiety or depression they experience related to bullying episodes from their childhood. Other research substantiates these findings. At this point, research on the consequences to adult mental health demonstrates long-term correlations between childhood bullying and outcomes such as anxiety, substance abuse, depression, and adult conduct disorders. One inquiry investigated bullying during 5th grade and its relationship to later heavy drinking and marijuana use. The sample was from the Raising Healthy Children project and included over 900 children. The study determined that “childhood bullying was significantly associated with violence, heavy drinking, and marijuana use” in adulthood even after controlling for other risk factors.

Emotional Problems and the Development of Psychiatric Disorders

“I am a cold person because of it (bullying).”

“It has virtually destroyed my spirit.”

“I have panic attacks and an anxiety disorder because of bullying.”

Research indicates there is a greatly elevated risk of developing adult psychiatric disorders for those who were involved in bullying as children. A Finnish study examined the impact of bullying and victimization on boys over a 15-year period into young adulthood. The long-term results found that those who were classified as frequent bullies when they were 8 years old had developed a personality disorder. Those who were frequent victims had an anxiety disorder, and those who were considered bully/victims were more aggressive than any other group. In my study, Chris explained that she experienced bullying and harassment throughout her school days. It affected her overall physical and mental well-being. She said, “Bullying had an extreme impact on my psychological health, anxiety, and the obsessive compulsive disorder I had. Bullying exacerbated it all. I developed depression; people thought I might be bi-polar. I developed an eating disorder as an adult. I was bullied for being overweight. Then I developed bulimia. Now I have panic attacks. But even with this, I see that I am a survivor; I see positive things in my life as a result.” The impact on Chris is severe as a result of being bullied as a child. While she does not meet the criteria for PTSD, she might be a candidate for adult post-bullying syndrome.

Feelings of Anger, Rage, and Revenge

“When I was bullied, I held back my aggression and turned it in on myself.”

Children who are bullied and sexually harassed often feel shame that can lead to anger and rage. Those feelings often do not dissipate. Those with adult post-bullying syndrome can experience feelings of anger and rage when they ruminate on past bullying. Feelings of rage can also occur when similar situations present themselves. One adult said he “can’t stand to be around anyone who looks like a frat boy.” Another is triggered by athletes because of the bullying he endured at their hands. Often adults with APBS check out their school time bullies on Facebook but not out of friendship or mere curiosity, rather with thoughts toward revenge. They are hoping to find that their tormentors are doing poorly and thus feel that the bullies got what they deserved. The person with APBS feels vindicated when this is the case. Of course some adults have been able to move past what occurred to them and have even befriended former bullies online.

Body Issues

“I’ve tried starving myself so I would never be bullied again.”

There is considerable research on the issue of weight bias, bullying, and the immediate impacts on children’s well-being. Adults with APBS continue to have body image issues carried over from their days of being bullied as children. Bullied, sexually harassed, and “teased” about how they were built or how they looked, these adults are left with lasting impressions. They conclude something was and still is wrong with them to have received this kind of treatment. People who have been bullied still do not consider themselves to be acceptable. People who have been bullied based on being overweight seem to be particularly subject to a lifetime of concern about body image. One woman in my study said rationally she knew that she was thin enough now as a 5’10” 125-pound adult, but could not feel adequate or comfortable with herself because she feared a new friend or friends might begin to exclude her based on her looks.

Positive or Unexpected Aspects

“I feel proud of having overcome being bullied.”

“Being bullied for me was a positive thing because I learned how to cope with criticism and to stay humble. I see that I need that, it’s useful, in all kinds of relationships: with friends, at work, or with my partner.”

There are positive aspects, or unexpected outcomes, seen in adult post-bullying syndrome. Numerous people reported finding inner strength they believe they would not have discovered otherwise. They figured out how to take control of their own lives so that they were no longer helpless. They noted that they had developed empathy for the vulnerable where they thought they might not have. Importantly, most were committed to doing something important with their lives. Sometimes this was to prove their bullies were wrong about them. But whatever the reason, it was a crucial outcome for many of the participants with APBS. There are copious examples of people enduring the negative aspects of APBS and using the positive aspects to better their lives. It was very interesting to find this positive feature along with the negative aspects of APBS.

Reprinted from BULLYING SCARS: The Impact on Adult Life and Relationships by Ellen Walser deLara with permission from Oxford University Press. Copyright © 2016 by Oxford University Press.

Ellen W. deLara, PhD, MSW, is Associate Professor on the faculty of the School of Social Work at Syracuse University. She is also a practicing family therapist with over 35 years' experience working with children, adolescents, and adults in both school and clinical settings. 

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