Coping with being bullied

In this blog post, I discuss recent research suggesting that being the victim of bullying can have a long-lasting impact on mental and physical health.  But there’s a ray of hope in this literature as well:  the lasting impact may depend on the ways that victims cope with being bullied.

In November of 2000, Dawn Marie Wesley, a 14-year-old Vancouver resident, took her own life to escape the constant bullying she faced at her school.  In her suicide note, she told her family “If I try to get help, it will get worse…They are always looking for a new person to beat up and they are the toughest girls. If I ratted, they would get suspended and there would be no stopping them.”

Jodee Blanco, a publishing executive from New York, was bullied throughout her childhood.  At each new school, she quickly fell into a cycle of being picked on, telling on her tormentors, and then losing more friends for being a tattle-tale.  In a recent book (Blanco, 2003), she described these experiences and her triumph over them:  “When [you are an outcast]…you can become a bitter loner who goes through life being pissed off at the world…Or, you can find another outlet for your love, where it will be appreciated and maybe even returned” (p. 139).

Sadly, stories of being tormented at the hands of bullies are all too common.  But something else jumps out in this pair of stories:  one victim was driven to suicide, while the other managed to put it into perspective over time.  Recent research on the stress of being bullied suggests that, while bullying has a strong, negative, lasting impact on its victims, the nature and extent of its impact may depend on how the victims learn to cope.

Research conducted over the last twenty years suggests that the victims of childhood and adolescent bullying are at higher risk for a number of negative outcomes, including depression, anxiety and suicide risk (see Griffin & Gross, 2004, for a review).  More recent work has started to explore how the stress of being bullied might lead to residual negative effects in the long run. Findings from studies using both college student (Roth, Coles, & Heimberg, 2002) and community (Faith, Storch, Roberti, & Ledley, 2007) samples suggest that memories of adolescent teasing are positively associated with adult levels of anxiety, depression, and loneliness.   Work from my own lab suggests that college students with a history of victimization report an increase in stress and an increased use of avoidant coping strategies—that is, they are more prone to using alcohol and drugs, out of an inability to deal with stress (Newman, Holden, & Delville, 20052011).

A study out this year in the American Journal of Psychiatry suggests that the negative impact of being bullied can last for decades.  Louise Arsenault and her colleagues analyzed data from a longitudinal study of over 7,000 participants in the British National Child Development Study.  All the participants were born in 1958, and their parents had reported on their bullying exposure between the ages of seven and eleven.  In follow-up assessments-at ages 23 and 50-adults who had been frequently bullied reported higher levels of psychological distress, including depression, anxiety, and suicide risk.  The sizes of these effects were comparable to the stress of being placed in foster care and experiencing more “serious” childhood adversities. 

But here’s the good news:  Research also suggests that this lasting impact may depend on the ways that victims learn to cope with being bullied.  In several studies, victims who perceived a high degree of social support were buffered from many of the negative outcomes of bullying (Newman et al., 2005Rigby, 2000).  In another longitudinal study of American primary school students, Kochenderfer-Ladd (2004) reported that emotional reactions to bullying scenarios had implications for one’s choice of coping strategy.  Specifically, students who reacted fearfully reported that they would cope by seeking advice, which led to a decrease in victimization.  Students who reacted angrily reported that they would cope by seeking revenge, which led to an increase in victimization. 

Finally, in a recent paper from my lab (Newman et al., 2011), we found that avoidant coping partially mediated the link between victimization history and current stress, suggesting that the majority of chronic victims may have prolonged stress because they did not learn effective strategies for coping with daily stress.  On the other hand, victims who learned to cope with problem- or emotion-focused strategies were able to break the link between victimization history and current stress.  These studies all suggest the possibility that coping strategies can have a dramatic impact on outcomes for victims of bullying. 

So what does all this mean for the victims?  There is ample evidence that anti-bullying efforts need to go beyond declarations of “zero-tolerance”; the most effective programs are long-term solutions, constantly measured, and involve the entire community (e.g., Ttofi & Farrington, 2011).  The growing research on the importance of coping suggests that this would be an important addition to any anti-bullying program.  “Zero-tolerance” policies do not work because it is nearly impossible for adults to catch every instance of bullying—and cyberbullying makes this even more difficult.  

What if victims could be taught how to cope effectively?  This seems to be a key factor distinguishing the stories of Jodee Blanco and Dawn Marie Wesley—the former found a way to cope with her torment.  It is an open question right now whether and how children can be taught to cope with being bullied.  It seems to me that we owe it to the victims to tackle this question in earnest.


Faith, M. A., Storch, E. A., Roberti, J. W., & Ledley, D. R. (2007). Recalled Childhood Teasing among Non-Clinical, Non-College Adults. Journal of Psychopathology and Behavioral Assessment, 30(3), 171-179. 

Griffin, R. S., & Gross, A. M. (2004). Childhood bullying: Current empirical findings and future directions for research. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 9(4), 379-400.

Kochenderfer-Ladd, B.  (2004).  Peer victimization:  The role of emotions in adaptive and maladaptive copingSocial Development, 13, 329-349.

Newman, M. L., Holden, G. W., & Delville, Y. (2005). Isolation and the stress of being bullied. Journal of Adolescence, 28(3), 343-357.

Newman, M.L., Holden, G.W., & Delville, Y. (2011). Coping with the stress of being bullied:  Consequences of coping strategies among college students.  Social Psychology and Personality Science, 2, 205-211.

Rigby, K. (2002).  New perspectives on bullying.  London:  Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Roth, D. A., Coles, M. E., & Heimberg, R. G. (2002). The relationship between memories for childhood teasing and anxiety and depression in adulthood. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 16(2), 149-164.

Ttofi M. M., Farrington D. P. (2011). Effectiveness of school-based programs to reduce bullying: A systematic and meta- analytic review. Journal of Experimental Criminology. 7(1),27–56.