Janine was the biggest bully in my elementary school—and she was assigned to the desk next to mine in fifth grade. Short and obese with cropped black hair and bulging black eyes, she wore a constant sneer beneath her olive complexion. We were complete opposites: I loved school and excelled in it; Janine hated it and did poorly. I wore new clothes with crisp and sharp colors; Janine wore faded and patched hand-me-downs. I had parents who adored me, a fact everyone in school knew since my dad lovingly coached our girls’ basketball team and my mom was our adventurous Girl Scout leader. Janine’s parents shouted obscenities at her, a fact we all witnessed anytime they dropped her off at school.
I can’t say it was inevitable that Janine would pick on me—she picked on so many kids—but the location of my desk certainly made me an easy target. When I arrived in the morning, she snarled about my clothes. Throughout the day she belittled the care I took with classwork. At recess, she smirked to other students about my parents. In short, she made me miserable the entire year.
Thankfully, I had a lot of support at home. My parents listened to my woes and offered suggestions for responses and emotional management. When necessary, they knew exactly when only an ice cream cone would soothe the sting.
Of course, every childhood has its share of meanness. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a gruesome tale recounting the survival instincts of schoolboys stranded alone on a Pacific island, remains a classic metaphor for the utter unkindness kids can rain down on one another. By the time the boys are rescued by a British Navy ship, there’s been more than one murder of humans and animals alike. While Golding’s survivors may be headed back home after what they’ve experienced, their lives cannot continue as before; they will be permanently changed.
If only the research team at the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London could have debriefed Golding’s characters upon rescue and then again 40 years later. The findings would have added an extra layer of subtlety to the experiment that’s been going on since 1958, the results of which were recently published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.
When it was launched, the ambitious British National Child Development Study (BNCDS) set about collating data on more than 7,000 children born in England, Scotland, and Wales during a single week. Over subsequent years, the study collected data from the parents about each child’s exposure to bullying at the ages of 7 and then 11. Follow-ups continued until the children reached the age of 50. Of all the participants, 28% had been bullied occasionally and more than 15% had been bullied frequently, conditions the study’s researchers say are similar in Britain today.
Technically, bullying refers to the hurtful actions directed toward a child from children of a similar age against which the child does not feel he can amply defend himself. BNCDS is groundbreaking study, since it’s the first to examine the effects of bullying past the age of early adulthood, and the results are stunning, although not surprising: Significant childhood bullying leads to remarkable impairment in later years. Even after adjusting for variables like childhood IQ, low parental interaction, and behavioral and emotional issues, the study found that being bullied in childhood consistently led to an increased risk of mental disorders (such as anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation), poor physical health, and lower quality of life. Additionally, men bullied as children experienced an increase in unemployment and lower earnings. Subjects also displayed decreased educational achievement, cognitive functioning, and meaningful romantic connection.
While it’s uncomfortable, being poked at, picked on, and teased is a natural part of the childhood experience. In fact, it often helps us develop useful adult survival mechanisms that can lead us to great success. From petty playground antics, we learn to develop a thick skin, craft a retort, stand our ground (or know when to retreat), plus both expect and accept that there will always be adversaries whether we’re in the school cafeteria or the office lounge.
Bullying, however, transcends the boundaries of personal growth and instead appears to plant the seeds of failure and withering. The BNCDS study reveals the importance of policy in playground politics. Adults need to know when to step in and take action. Louise Arnesault, a senior author on the study, suggests what is perhaps the experiment’s biggest takeaway when she remarks on the importance of moving “away from any perception that bullying is just an inevitable part of growing up.” It isn’t. Rather, it can prevent successfully growing up.
The unequivocal BNCDS evidence offers schools, parents, and organizations greater motivation to develop programs to both reduce bullying and also teach children to access a sense of their own self-worth while strengthening their ability to self-defend and protect. If peer unkindness should be expected as a natural part of childhood learning, then the resulting positive growth skills should be expected too.
Janine often made me cry, but from enduring her meanness—standing up for myself sometimes, being silent at others—I learned the valuable lesson that sometimes you will be called upon to like yourself even when the person next to you tries to convince everyone else you’re unlikeable.