“In early adolescence, teenagers are usually dependent on peer approval and acceptance to the exclusion of all else. As they progress through adolescence their sense of individuality usually strengthens. What happens to many bullies is that their social development becomes stuck at the point where they win power and prestige through bullying, and they tend not to progress toward individuation and empathy as adolescents usually do. They get left behind.”
– Sullovan, Cleary & Sullovan (2004, p. 17)

It isn’t just the victims of bullying who can face harsh consequences later in life. Ironically, the bully can also suffer when such behavior is allowed to continue unchecked. The limited research that has been conducted over the past 25 years finds that compared to their peers, those who are consistent bullies throughout their school years face an increased risk for a variety of negative outcomes:

  • Bullies demonstrate poor psychosocial functioning compared to their noninvolved peers
  • They often become antisocial adults
  • Bullies tend to be less successful academically
  • They are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, both in their youth and as adults
  • They are more likely to become violent adults
  • They are more likely to commit acts of domestic violence and child abuse in their adult life
  • Bullies tend to beget bullies, having children who are more likely to become bullies themselves
  • Bullies are more likely to commit crimes, with a 4-fold increase in criminal behavior by age 24. By this age, 60% of former bullies have at least one conviction, and 35% to 40% have 3 or more.

(Sources: Nansel et al., 2001; Olweus, 1992; Smith, 2010)

Why childhood bullies often grow into antisocial adults

Youth who bully their peers in their younger years frequently become more violent over time and often continue to bully others in adulthood through workplace violence, verbal abuse, and even spousal abuse. (Garbarino & deLara, 2002) The reason for this is that destructive social patterns from a person’s youth will carry over into adulthood unless this behavior is corrected. After documenting just such a link in their research, Nansel et al. (2001, p. 2099) report that “their earlier pattern of achieving desired goals through bullying likely inhibited the learning of more socially acceptable ways of negotiating with others.” When too much time is spent in a person’s youth relating to others in a destructive manner, a child never gains the necessary experience for pro-social habits to become established.

The bully’s karma: Future guilt

Of course, not all bullying is committed by budding sociopaths who are bullies by habit. In fact, much of it is situational – arising out of specific feuds or certain group dynamics. Despite how these bullies may act in the heat of the moment, most do have a conscience, and can feel guilty about their actions later on, either as circumstances change or as they grow wiser and more mature.

One teen girl breaks down crying on camera when she talks about how she bullied her former best friend during a period of falling out. (PBS, 12-30-2009) The friendship has since been restored, but it’s quite obvious that the guilt and pain of her actions continue to haunt her. We’ve heard other adults say that their biggest regret and one of their biggest sources of personal shame is remembering how they treated some other kids in school.

So it’s not just the victim who can pay a price. When we work to eradicate such behavior in our schools, bullies benefit too.