Adult Survivors of Childhood Bullying

Childhood peer to peer bullying can be absolutely devastating. Tragically, many children and young people have ended their own lives because of it. Many survivors of childhood bullying are left traumatized into adulthood. It can affect their self-worth and the way that they relate to others for the rest of their lives. 

Bullying is often seen as ‘just’ bullying and is dismissed as the abuse that it very much is. Attitudes about it just being something that happens as part of growing up and something that everyone goes through at some time or other are very damaging and actually reinforce the traumatic effects of the bullying.  

Childhood peer to peer bullying is very real abuse. It is no less valid than any other kind of abuse. Just because it happens between children doesn’t make it any less serious.  

You may have children who have perpetrated bullying with other children, or you may have been a perpetrator of bullying yourself. A person can be both a victim and a perpetrator of abuse at different times and in different circumstances.  

Any abusive behaviour, whether perpetrated by children or adults, can indeed be understood and ultimately forgiven. There are many reasons why people abuse others, and both adult and child perpetrators of abuse also need and deserve help to understand and improve their behaviour towards others. However, this article is very much focused on bringing validity and voice to survivors of abuse.  

Before any sort of real and useful understanding towards the perpetrator, or forgiveness can happen, all the original feelings about the abuse need to be processed and worked through fully. There are no shortcuts to this process. Feeling compassion and understanding towards an abuser without first fully feeling all the deep entrenched painful feelings can actually exacerbate the effects of the abuse and have an enabling effect. 

Many adult survivors of childhood bullying felt that they just had to accept what was happening. They felt that they couldn’t tell anyone because it wouldn’t be taken seriously. They may have tried to tell someone, only to be told that they should toughen up or ‘stand up’ to the bullies. In whatever way, they may have had their valid feelings dismissed by parents, teachers, or others around them. 

All these negative reactions only serve to reinforce the abuse and enable it to continue. The child may feel even more alone and scared than they already did. They may close up altogether and decide that sharing their feelings with anyone isn’t safe. Or they may conclude that there is no point telling anyone how their feel because they won’t be heard anyway. 

Children who learn to suppress their feelings grow into adults who do the same. The people who I see entering therapy have often been suppressing their feelings for many years. In the case of adults who were bullied as a child, they may have been suppressing their feelings about the abuse since childhood. 

If a feeling isn’t fully felt or processed, it doesn’t go anywhere. It stays in the body and builds over time. A lot of depression and anxiety in adulthood is caused by suppressed feelings of anger, pain, hurt, sadness, to name but a few. Whenever there has been abuse, there are always a range of distressing feelings that are felt.  

A child who suffers abuse of any kind will often struggle to understand why it is happening. Children often come to believe that the abuse is somehow their fault. They may start to feel that they are a bad person, or unworthy of love and respect. This will build into their developing identity as they grow into adults. They will enter adult life feeling unworthy and inferior. These deeply ingrained negative core beliefs will not go away on their own and will only worsen as time goes on.  

Toxic shame often forms around the belief that what happened to them was their fault. As opposed to a normal sense of shame, which is a proportionally appropriate guilty feeling about a mistake that one makes, toxic shame is an irrationally large feeling of self-judgment about something that happened. Toxic shame festers over time, and until it is healed, only gets stronger and more damaging. 

From the age of around ten, up into the late teens, children are particularly sensitive to the effects of any abuse. This is the period of human development when the identity is forming. The young person is discovering who they are and how they fit in with the world around them. They are learning about their own uniqueness and personal value. The aim is to enter adult life with a strong sense of exactly who they are, where they are going and exactly what they can offer to the world.  

So, to be told at this age that who they are is not good enough is particularly harmful. To be singled out in a negative way and made to feel worthless is so destructive. The brain is so receptive and ripe for the development of identity and self-concept, and it will come to believe whatever it is fed.  

If a person survives this stage of life without being abused, they will enter adult life with a strong identity and a good sense of self-worth. Any abuse that they then suffer in adult life will be so much easier to deal with. They will be able to easily enforce boundaries and to assert themselves with others, thus protecting themselves from abuse. 

Often, a person bullied as a child will carry on suffering abuse in adulthood. They will be more likely to unwittingly attract partners and friends who are abusive. It is important to point out here that this is very much an unconscious attraction. No one chooses an abusive friend or partner intentionally. It is often because the survivor has a deep core belief that they don’t deserve any better treatment. They have come to identify their self as someone who gets abused.  

Many people in therapy are surprised to find that the origins of their feelings of low self-worth, depression or anxiety originated from childhood bullying. People will often reject it themselves and suggest that it was only a bit of bullying at school or that it didn’t do them any harm. They are often surprised initially when I tell them that they deserved so much better. 

When I point it out as the very real abuse that it was and give the person all the compassion and validation that they deserved back when it was happening, everything starts to change. Through fully processing their deep and buried feelings about what happened, and building powerful self-compassion, they can finally heal and undo the effects of the abuse. 

What adults who were bullied as children really needed when the abuse was happening was a safe place where their feelings could be fully expressed, heard, and validated. This could have been someone whom they could trust, such as a parent, teacher, or counsellor. They needed to be believed, and for their feelings to be acknowledged. They particularly needed to be allowed to express any feelings of anger, hurt, sadness and guilt that they were feeling, in whatever way was right for them.  

The great news is that, however long it has been since the abuse, counselling can give them exactly what they need to heal from the abuse and to move forward with their life.  

They start to feel self-esteem and know their true worth. When someone knows their true worth, they are able to begin to set boundaries and build healthy relationships, protecting themself from any future abuse. 

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