When a child is consistently bullied, it impairs their social-emotional growth in several ways. First, the experience of being targeted by your peers, taunted and repeatedly injured by those around you tends to make a person antisocial. The longer a child is bullied, the more their personality will move into the antisocial realm. This hurt and rejection leads to bitterness, anger, and hostility – all consequences of being made to feel like an outcast. Rather than seeing other people as a potential source of comfort and comradery, they begin to view every other person they meet as a possible threat, someone with the potential to dish out torment and pain. They become more shy and timid, more guarded in social situations, more afraid to open up to others. All of this will impede their social development and limit their ability to form strong social connections.
How bullying can limit a child’s ability to make friends
If a child gains the label of being an outcast, it also reduces their options for normal socialization. After all, what child wants to hang out with the reject kid – that loser over there whom everyone seems to despise – especially if they’re desperately trying to establish a social identity of their own? Once a child has been dealt the label of someone who is picked on by peers, this vastly limits the opportunities they have to make social connections. One or two of the more socially secure and well-raised kids in the class may look past this peer rejection and treat them like a normal human being, but the rest won’t give the bullied child the time of day. Making friends and fitting in becomes that much harder.
How bullying changes the way a child is treated
Being bullied can also alter the way in which others relate to you. Many people do not realize this, but in their everyday interactions, their mind is regularly bending reality according to their internal preconceptions, altering the way we experience one another in the process. If we have a negative filter about someone set up in our head, it shifts the way we experience that person: An accident is more likely to be seen as an insult, a benign action is more likely to be seen as something malicious, and acts of courtesy or accommodation that we normally extend towards others are likely to be withdrawn from the person in question. A joke becomes less funny, and a negative mood seems more foul. A question or comment seems more stupid, and an opinion more wrong. A talent seems less impressive, a physical trait appears more ugly or foul, a mannerism seems more offensive. Once other classmates set up this negative cognitive filter about the bullied child, usually through no fault of the bullying victim, it becomes increasingly difficult for that child to ever do anything right, let alone do enough to overcome these perceptions. Imagine being that bullied child, when everything you say or do is misunderstood, trying to overcome a negative image when others are either abusing you or refusing to give you the time of day. You should start to see why chronic bullying can be disastrous to a child’s social development.
The social consequences of bullying
It’s no surprise, then, that the social consequences of bullying can impact the victim well into adulthood. Research shows that later in life, those bullied as kids “often had difficulty making friends with (others) and were wary of people in their own and older age groups, a correlative with the relative ages of their bullies to them.” (Kidscape, 1999, p. 4) The same study found that difficulty in establishing and making friends was a common outcome: Of those that were bullied in their youth, nearly three-quarters of respondents (73%) reported they had problems in the realm of friendships and social connections. This compares to a mere 11% of the adults who were not significantly bullied as children. (ibid, p. 9)
The social consequences of bullying can also include establishing the child as a target for further victimization in the years to come. It’s as if there are somehow unconscious cues that bullied people exhibit in their behavior or mannerisms which invites others to use them as a door mat too, inviting further attacks. It’s been found that 36% of adults who were bullied in their youth report being bullied in their adult life, during higher education or at work. This compares to only 3% of those who had NOT experienced substantial bullying as children. (ibid, p. 9)