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How Bullying affects the developing mind


Bullying is something that barely needs a definition anymore due to its unfortunate presence in the lives of many and even most people. If you have not experienced the wrath of a bully firsthand, you likely know someone who has. To hardly any surprise, research shows that 48% of Canadian parents report having a child that is a victim of bullying, and 1 in 3 adolescents report having been bullied recently. 

Nonetheless, however, a bully is defined as someone who seeks to harm, intimidate, or coerce someone (perceived as vulnerable). This involves targeted, aggressive physical, social, and/or verbal behavior that is often repeated. Bullying behaviors can range from teasing, name-calling, rumor-spreading, threatening, and excluding, to hitting, pushing, getting others to “gang up” on one person, stealing belongings, abuse, and mistreatment within a real or perceived power imbalance. 

Although this topic is one that causes many of us to look back into school years, there are many children, adolescents, and young adults who currently experience bullying as a daily part of their lives. Research shows that bullying happens once every 7 minutes on the playground and once every 25 minutes in the classroom. This does not even count as one of the most common forms of bullying today due to the vast majority of internet access which is cyber-bullying. Although likely underestimating, research shows that 37% of young people between ages 12 and 17 have been bullied online, while 23% of students admit to having said or done something mean or cruel to someone else online. So if bullying is still so prevalent amongst young people, how must it affect the developing mind and the rest of the individual’s life? 

The Brain

There are many myths about bullying out there. Some of the biggest myths are that “kids will be kids”, “kids need to learn to stand up for themselves and should fight back harder”, or that “being bullied builds character”.  Not only do these statements downplay bullying behavior as not serious or stoppable, but they also encourage the cycle of bullying to exist and invalidate its consequences. In reality, bullying is a learned behavior that should never be acceptable as it can cause serious psychological harm. When looking at the brain, studies using fMRI scanning have shown that adolescent individuals who have been chronically bullied had structural differences in brain areas such as the putamen and caudate, which both happen to be linked with anxiety disorders, as well as white matter changes in the brain, commonly seen in depression. 

With this being said, it is almost not surprising that researchers have linked bullying to an increased risk of developing depression and anxiety. Other studies have also shown bullying to alter levels of stress hormones, increase the risk of low personal drive and self-esteem, behavioral, social, and relationship issues, self-harming behaviors, substance use, and even suicidal ideation both in childhood and later in life. 

Perhaps even more difficult to fathom, is that studies have also shown that long-term bullying can lead to cognitive and emotional deficits in the brain that are as serious as the harm that is done by child abuse. Therefore, chronic bullying could easily be considered a form of childhood trauma.


Not Just Kids


While not as often talked about, bullying can and is experienced by adults too. While less common to be physical in nature, an adult bully has the same goal as any other: to ga

in some sort of power over another person. Research shows that 40% of Canadian workers experience bullying on a weekly basis. Although this statistic suggests that bullying is just as common in adults as it is in children and young people, it may be more complex in some ways. For example, adult bullies can be more subtle in their ways and much better at hiding their behavior from superiors. This can leave the victim of an adult bully feeling frustrated and confused about what is really happening and often fearful of possible consequences to confronting the behavior. No matter the age, let me reiterate that bullying is never acceptable and never pleasant to endure. 

Brighter days 

While the thought of long last effects on the brain is frightening to consider, especially to parents of children living this experience on a daily basis, there is always hope for brighter days ahead! The network and circuits of the brain have the ability to change over time in response to their environment. Additionally, anxiety and depression are both very treatable with evidence-based psychological treatments such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), the most commonly used therapy approach CMAP Health which all our therapists and students are trained in! 


Help Is Available

Although experiencing bullying is not a form of mental disorder of any kind, it is the effects of bullying that can cause damage to the individual experiencing it. If you are currently suffering as a result of past or current bullying, do not hesitate to reach out to us by submitting a self-referral:



About the Author

Olivia Lundy is one of our (Qualifying) Registered Psychotherapists [RP (Q)] and a senior therapist under supervision at CMAP Health. She has an Honours Bachelor’s Degree in Behavioural Psychology from St. Lawrence College and is currently finalizing her Master of Arts Degree in Counselling Psychology at Yorkville University.  To find out more about Olivia you can review her profile.

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