Of Bullies and the Bullied

Peer rejection  can create a ifelong tendency to depression.

By PT Staff, published January 1, 1993 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016


Nobody likes me, everybody hates me....So the rhyme goes. Some elementary school kids feel like eating worms daily, as their classmates taunt, insult, and ostracize them.

It's no minor matter, a new study shows. Peer rejection can wound young kids emotionally for good. Feelings of inadequacy can generate not only loneliness but a lifelong tendency to depression.

Low social acceptance at elementary school age predicts social and emotional problems later on, report psychologist Antonius Cillessen, Ph.D., of Duke University and a team of Dutch researchers who conducted a long-term study of 231 Dutch boys. At ages 6, 7, and 11, the boys rated themselves and each other in terms of popularity. That way researchers could follow and rate each child's social standing.

Social status can change at the drop of a baseball cap, and sometimes kids who were rejected at 6 or 7 were running with the big kids at age 11. But most of those rejected were consistently so from the outset through the five years of observation. Those kids, says Cillessen, are the ones to worry about.

Peer rejection has long been a chicken-or-egg issue. Are kids rejected because of an emotional problem (incidental model) or do they develop an emotional problem because they were rejected (causal model)? Cillessen's findings suggest that both models can be operating at the same time; there is often interplay between the two.

Those singled out for rejection are mainly kids who are shy or, at the other extreme, aggressive. The bullies and the bullied are the least popular kids in school. But they're very different types - both in attitudes that set them up for rejection and in reactions to it.

Withdrawn kids take rejection very personally, and it becomes a major contributor to later depression and other problems of internalization. Aggressive kids tend not to take it to heart as much. They often have problems of externalization, like delinquency and alcoholism, later in life. But these problems am predicted by their earlier aggressive behavior, not the peer rejection that resulted from it.

The shy-kid pattern bears out the causal model while the bully pattern supports the incidental model. Still, there's definitely crossover. "The experience of being rejected is closely related to shy kids being very lonely. But it can also be true for aggressive kids," says Cillessen.

Because kids rejected throughout their school careers are set up to experience problems later in life, Cillessen believes that sociometric testing on kids in elementary school is worthwhile to pinpoint the troubled ones. With the right kind of intervention, they could be spared a lifetime of depression and loneliness.