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?

Probably not.

A 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.

People 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”

They 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 “bully/victims” )

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” (3%).

Researchers also administered psychiatric tests to each boy, probing for symptoms of conduct, hyperactivity, and emotional disorders.

Then, ten years later, each young man was administered a mental health examination as part of their obligatory registry in the Finnish military.

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.

Compared with boys who had not been involved in frequent bullying, the bully/victims had almost 7 times the odds of being diagnosed with anti-social personalities.

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.

In 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 (Sourander 2007a).

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 2000).

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.

For instance, we know that kids are more likely to develop psychopathic traits if they have been subjected to multiple, traumatic life events (see below).

And there’s evidence that bullying in children can precede the onset of new, psychopathologic symptoms.

In 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.

Researchers also 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:

Compared 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.

The 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:

The 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.

This point led researcher Andre Sourander and his colleagues to recommend routine psychiatric screening for all children who display frequent bullying behavior.

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.

In other words, the more bad things that happen, the more likely kids are to develop psychopathology (Flouri and Kallis 2007; Flouri and Tzavidis 2008).

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

Brunstein Klomek A, Marrocco F, Kleinman M, Schonfeld IS, and Gould MS. 2007. Bullying, depression, and suicidality in adolescents. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 46(1):40-9.

Farrington DP. 1995. The Twelfth Jack Tizard Memorial Lecture: The Development of Offending and Antisocial Behaviour from Childhood: Key Findings from the Cambridge Study in Delinquent Development. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 36(6): 929 – 964.

Flouri E and Kallis C. 2007. Adverse Life Events and Psychopathology and Prosocial Behavior in Late Adolescence: Testing the Timing, Specificity, Accumulation, Gradient, and Moderation of Contextual Risk. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 46(12):1651-1659.

Flouri E and Tzavidis N. 2008. Psychopathology and prosocial behavior in adolescents from socio-economically disadvantaged families: the role of proximal and distal adverse life events. Eur Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2008 Apr 21. [Epub ahead of print]

Fontaine N, Barker ED, Salekin RT, and Viding E. 2008. Dimensions of psychopathy and their relationships to cognitive functioning in children. J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol. 37(3):690-6.

Kim YS, Leventhal BL, Koh YJ, Hubbard A, and Boyce WT. 2006. School bullying and youth violence: causes or consequences of psychopathologic behavior? Arch Gen Psychiatry 63(9):1035-41.

Kumpulainen K. 2008. Psychiatric conditions associated with bullying. Int J Adolesc Med Health. 20(2):121-32.

Kumpulainen K, Räsänen E. 2000. Children involved in bullying at elementary school age: their psychiatric symptoms and deviance in adolescence. An epidemiological sample. Child Abuse Negl. 24(12):1567-77.

Olweus D. 1991. Bully/victim problems among schoolchildren: basic facts and effects of a school based intervention program. In: D. Pepler and K. Rubin (eds): The development and treatment of childhood aggression. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

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.

Sourander A, Jensen P, Rönning JA, Niemelä S, Helenius H, Sillanmäki L, Kumpulainen K, Piha J, Tamminen T, Moilanen I, and Almqvist F. 2007b. What is the early adulthood outcome of boys who bully or are bullied in childhood? The Finnish "From a Boy to a Man" study. Pediatrics. 120(2):397-404.

Unnever JD. 2005. Bullies, aggressive victims, and victims: Are they distinct groups? Aggressive Behavior 31: 153-171.

Content last modified 6/08