The road to psychopathy? Why bullying in children affects us all
© 2008 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Bullying in children is linked with all sorts of terrible outcomes,
ranging from emotional problems to teen suicide and school shootings
(Brunstein et al 2007; Unnever 2005).
But do the effects of bullying end with childhood?
recent Finnish study has reported that boys who frequently bullied
others at the age of 8 years were more likely to suffer from antisocial
personality disorder as young adults (Sourander et al 2007b).
The disorder refers to a condition that was once termed psychopathy or sociopathy.
affected by anti-social personality disorder have little respect for
the rights of other people. They exhibit what psychologists call
“callous/unemotional” traits: showing limited emotions, failing to use
empathy, and lacking feelings of guilt or remorse (Fontaine et al 2008).
To determine whether there was a link between bullying in
children and anti-social disorders in adults, researchers in Finland
asked 8-year old boys to choose one of the following self-descriptions:
“I bully other children almost every day”
“I bully sometimes”
“Usually I do not bully”
also asked kids how often they were bullied themselves. In addition,
researchers questioned teachers and parents about the boys’ behavior
(Sourander et al 2007b).
On the basis on these reports, the researchers identified boys who were
• Not frequently bullies or victims
• Frequently only bullies
• Frequently only victims
• Frequently both bullies and victims (also called
The vast majority (85%) of boys fell into the first category.
The rest were either identified as “frequently only bullies” (6%),
“frequently only victims (6%), or “frequently both bullies and victims”
Researchers also administered psychiatric tests to each boy,
probing for symptoms of conduct, hyperactivity, and emotional
Then, ten years later, each young man was administered
a mental health examination as part of their obligatory registry in the
What were these young men like?
Boys who had been both frequent bullies and frequent victims suffered the worst outcomes
Researchers discovered that 30% of the bully/victims suffered from some kind of adult psychiatric disorder.
The disorders included anxiety, depression, psychosis, and substance abuse.
But the most common disorder among these bully/victims was anti-social personality disorder.
In fact, over 11% of all bully/victims had developed this disorder as young adults.
with boys who had not been involved in frequent bullying, the
bully/victims had almost 7 times the odds of being diagnosed with
Boys who had been frequent bullies only were also at risk:
Compared with boys uninvolved in frequent bullying, “pure” bullies had three times the odds of developing the disorder.
Not a fluke
The Finnish study is important because it is the first to track the psychiatric outcomes of child bullies into early adulthood.
But it’s not the only evidence regarding bullies and antisocial disorders.
fact, when researchers conducted a separate study on the criminal
records of the Finnish boys, they found that frequent bullying predicted
most types of crime-—including violent crime. The link remained
significant even after controlling for parent’s education level
That’s consistent with other studies that have
reported links between bullying in children and criminality in young
adulthood (Farmington 1995; Olweus 1991).
Another study tracking
elementary children has found that being a bully at a young age is
linked with social deviance during adolescence (Kumpulainen and Rasanan
As bullying expert Dr. Kristi Kumpulainen has noted,
“Rarely does any single behavior predict future problems as clearly as
bullying does…” (Kumpulainen 2008).
Can bullying in children cause psychopathy?
We need more research to answer this question. But the preliminary evidence is suggestive.
instance, we know that kids are more likely to develop psychopathic
traits if they have been subjected to multiple, traumatic life events
And there’s evidence that bullying in children can precede the onset of new, psychopathologic symptoms.
a longitudinal study of Korean kids, researcher Young Shin Kim and
colleagues tracked over 1600 middle school students for 10 months (Kim
et al 2006).
To measure bullying in children, researchers asked
students to identify peers who frequently bullied others, as well as
peers who were frequently victimized.
interviewed each child to screen for symptoms of psychopathologic
behavior, like cruelty, defiance, or conduct problems.
At the end of 10 months, researchers compared each child’s outcome with his or her baseline profile.
The results were pretty interesting:
with students who were not involved with bullying, bullies and
bully/victims were more likely to exhibit externalizing problems and
aggression (such as cruelty)--even after researchers controlled for any
psychopathologic behaviors they had exhibited at baseline.
Moreover, kids who had bullied were more likely to have developed new aggressive behaviors at the end of the 10-month period.
researchers concluded that bullying is a “strong risk factor for the
later development of psychopathologic behaviors” (Kim et al 2006).
Untreated, bullies tend to get worse.
Preventing psychiatric disorders associated with bullying in children
What can we do?
The Finnish longitudinal study uncovered an important point:
bullies who were at significant risk of antisocial personality disorder
were those who already showed psychiatric symptoms at 8 years old.
Those 8-year olds who screened negative for psychiatric symptoms were not at in increased risk of a psychiatric disorder as young adults.
point led researcher Andre Sourander and his colleagues to recommend
routine psychiatric screening for all children who display frequent
If the screening does not reveal a high
level of psychiatric symptoms, “the primary intervention focus should be
on regulating the child’s behavior at school and enhancing peer
relationships (Sourander et al 2007, p. 402)”
But bullies who screen positive should also receive treatment for their psychiatric problems.
More than counseling
Is psychiatric treatment enough?
Research suggests that
bullies may need a major change of life—-one that protects them from
experiencing multiple adverse life events.
Studies of British
teenagers have reported that psychopathy is correlated with the sheer
number of adverse life events that a young person experiences.
other words, the more bad things that happen, the more likely kids are
to develop psychopathology (Flouri and Kallis 2007; Flouri and Tzavidis
Where to find more information about bullying in children
For more information about bullying in children, check out these articles:
• The psychology of the "pure" bully
• School-based programs designed to stop bullying in children
• How bullies think about moral issues
References: Bullying in children and the development of psychopathy
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Farrington DP. 1995. The
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Flouri E and Kallis C. 2007. Adverse
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Sourander A, Jensen P, Rönning JA,
Elonheimo H, Niemelä S, Helenius H, Kumpulainen K, Piha J, Tamminen T,
Moilanen I, Almqvist F. 2007a. Childhood bullies and victims and their
risk of criminality in late adolescence: the Finnish From a Boy to a Man
study. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 161(6):546-52.
Jensen P, Rönning JA, Niemelä S, Helenius H, Sillanmäki L, Kumpulainen
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Unnever JD. 2005. Bullies, aggressive victims, and victims: Are they distinct groups? Aggressive Behavior 31: 153-171.
Content last modified 6/08