Bullying in children: The road to psychopathology?

© 2020 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

shadows of to children confronting each other - image by Alex_Linch istock

Bullying in children is linked with long-term problems, and it isn't only the victims who are affected. Kids who bully are more likely to develop symptoms of "antisocial personality disorder" -- a condition colloquially known as "sociopathy" or "psychopathy."


You've probably heard that bullying can cause lasting harm. For example, children who get bullied at higher risk for

  • clinical depression or anxiety;
  • self-injury;
  • suicidal thoughts and actions;
  • weapon-carrying; and
  • involvement in school shooting.

And childhood victims of bullying are more likely to suffer from emotional problems as adults (Takizawa et al 2014).

But what about children who perpetrate bullying? Are they, too, at risk?

Yes. And their personal problems can pose a risk to society in general.

That's because children who bully are more likely to develop "antisocial personality disorder" -- a condition colloquially known as "sociopathy" or "psychopathy."

The affected individuals have little respect for the rights of other people. They exhibits what psychologists call "callous/unemotional" traits: showing limited emotions, failing to use empathy, and lacking feelings of guilt or remorse (Fontaine et al 2008).

So how do we know that bullying is a red flag, and what should we do about it?

Let's start with a study in Finland, a long-term study that followed the development of more than 2500 randomly-selected, 8-year-old boys (Sourander et al 2007b).

Headed for trouble

At the beginning of the study, researchers asked kids to choose one of the following self-descriptions:

  • "I bully other children almost every day,"
  • "I bully sometimes," or
  • "Usually I do not bully."

In addition, they asked the boys if they themselves had ever been bullied; and, if so, how often this occurred.

On the basis of this information, the boys were divided up into four different categories:

  • Uninvolved (kids who were usually neither bullies nor victims)
  • Victims only (kids who were frequently victims, but not bullies)
  • Bullies only (kids who were frequently bullies, but not victims)
  • Bully/victims (kids who frequently experienced both roles)

Next, the researchers collected information about the children's adjustment and mental health.

When the kids were 8 years old, they were screened for symptoms of conduct disorders, hyperactivity, and emotional problems.

When the kids turned 18, they were given a government-administered mental health examination.

What did this all show? That childhood bullying was an important risk factor for developing serious mental health problems.

Compared with "uninvolved" children, kids who had been "only bullies" had three times the odds of getting diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder.

Kids who had been both bullies and victims had more than seven times the odds of developing antisocial personality disorder.

And these kids had other problems, too. They were at higher risk for developing clinical anxiety, depression, and/or a psychotic disorder (like
schizophrenia).

For example, the "bully/victim" children had approximately seven times the odds of suffering from clinical anxiety, and nearly nine times the odds of being diagnosed with one or more psychotic disorders (like schizophrenia).

More evidence linking bullying in children with long-term pathological outcomes

The Finnish study is important because it was the first to track the psychiatric outcomes of child bullies into early adulthood. But it isn't the only evidence regarding bullies and pathological behavior. Far from it.

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).

And researchers in other countries have followed suit, tracking the outcomes of kids who bully.

In Sweden, researchers report that childhood bullies are, as young adults, "heavily over-represented" in crime registers (Olweus 2011). In addition, bullying others is predictive of "aggressive, antisocial behaviors over the lifetime" (Wallinius et al 2015).

In Australia, researchers tracked 800 adolescents, and found that kids who bullied were more likely to engage in crime, violence, and anti-social behavior over the following decade (Randa 2011).

And when researchers analyzed the trend across hundreds of studies -- studies conducted throughout the world -- it's clear that bullying is linked with key psychopathic traits: callous-unemotional disorder, narcissism, and impulsivity.

In a meta-analysis of more than 840 published studies, these traits were more prevalent among youth who bully others (van Geel et al 2017).

As bullying expert Dr. Kristi Kumpulainen writes:

"Rarely does any single behavior predict future problems as clearly as bullying does…" (Kumpulainen 2008).

So does acting out as a bully cause psychopathology?

I'm sure the reality is far more complex, and we need more research to tease things apart.

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).

But there is evidence that bullying can be a contributing factor to the development of antisocial behavior problems.

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. And the results were pretty suggestive.

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 kids had exhibited at baseline.

Moreover, students who had bullied were more likely to have developed new aggressive behaviors at the end of the 10-month period.

So kids who engaged in bullying got worse over time. The researchers concluded that bullying is "a strong risk factor for the later development of psychopathologic behaviors" (Kim et al 2006).

What about cyberbullying? Is cyberbullying also problematic?


Yes. A rapidly-expanding literature indicates that cyberbullying is linked with psychopathic traits, including both moral disengagement  and callous unemotional traits (e.g., Orue and Calvete 2019; Hoareau et al 2019). 

In addition, there is evidence that cyberbullying contributes to behavior problems downstream.

For example, in a study tracking middle school students, researchers found that cyberbullying involvement predicted a worsening of self-control and social awareness over time (Coelho and Marchante 2018).

Okay. So how do we prevent psychiatric disorders associated with bullying in children?

The investigators who conducted the Finnish research have a recommendation: Implement routine psychiatric screening for all children who display frequent bullying behavior (Sourander et al 2007b).

If a child is displaying psychiatric symptoms, don't wait. Take this seriously. Provide the child with the appropriate, professional therapy.

But if we really care -- if we really want curb the rise of anti-social behavior problems -- we need to restructure children's lives.

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


More information about bullying in children

For more information about bullying in children, check out these Parenting Science articles: 


Copyright © 2006-2020 by Gwen Dewar, Ph.D.; all rights reserved.
For educational purposes only. If you suspect you have a medical problem, please see a physician.


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Portions of this text appeared in a previous version of this article.

Image credits for "Bullying in children":

title image by / istock AlexLinch / istock

image of teen being cyberbullied by Sam Thomas / istock


Content of "Bullying in children: The road to psychopathology?" last modified 5/2020


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