How Does Childhood Bullying Play a Role in Future Relationships?

You Can Have Strong Relationships After Being Bullied

Bullying is a difficult thing to overcome, especially if it happens to us as children. We recently got a message from someone who lived through childhood bullying, and I think their struggle is one many can relate to:

"I was bullied as a kid, and it really hurt me. It was heartbreaking to be made fun of whenever we crossed paths at school. No matter how nice I tried to be, or how many favors I did for the person who bullied me, it was never enough for him. He was always cruel. It's been a long time since middle school, but sometimes I wonder if the issues I have in relationships now have something to do with how I was treated as a child. Can you help me understand how childhood bullying impacts my relationships, and if there's anything I can do about it?"

Childhood is the time when our perceptions of people, and the responses our brain and body have in various situations, are being formed. If you were bullied as a child, you probably respond to people in your life today in ways that were shaped by that experience. 

The good news is, when we understand how our relationships are shaped by painful experiences, we can make the choice to think and act differently. Here are some of the challenges you may have, and some suggestions for how you can shift your mindset.

Difficulty Trusting 

Trust issues can take many forms in our relationships. For you, this may look like:

  • Assuming the worst about a person or situation.
  • Believing that nice things people say are backhanded compliments, or that people are not being sincere
  • Having a feeling that anything you say or do could get you punished or made fun of by someone else, even if you're trying your best

If you struggle with trust, it’s important to remember that all relationships are different because all people are different. Whoever hurt you in the past is not the same person you are making friends with now. Their reactions will be different, their treatment of you will be different, and your relationship will follow a different path.

Sense of Fear and Uncertainty

In the message I shared with you, the person who contacted us said that no matter what they tried to do to be kind to the person who hurt them, they were bullied.  I understand the fear and uncertainty that kind of experience can bring. When you feel this way with a friend or romantic partner, it may help to:

  • Talk about your feelings with them, and ask them for help and encouragement. 
  • Remind yourself of all the ways they have been there for you.
  • Express gratitude to them for acts of love and kindness they show you.

It's true that we’re going to carry childhood pain with us into future relationships, but there’s hope. If you think about it, there isn't anyone you care about who hasn't experienced something painful that they are still healing from. Perhaps it helps to think of it as the two of you working through your fears and uncertainties together, and growing closer together in the process.

Feeling Unable or Unwilling to Make New Friends

If your experience with bullying meant that you didn't have many friends as a child, or if you were bullied by someone you thought was your friend, the thought of making new friends could be intimidating. Or maybe you feel like it's not worth it to make new friends since you were so disappointed in the past. 

The good news is, you don't need to crowd your life and your time with friendships and relationships, especially if relationship building is a taxing process for you. You can focus your energy on one or two people who have shown care, compassion, and concern for you. Give them time, energy, and focus as you're able. With time, you will likely become more comfortable expanding your circle of friends. But for now, it's okay to start small. 

If a good person is no longer in our life because of childhood bullying, that doesn’t mean we’ll never find another good friend. We will always find good people, because the majority of people are trying their best to be good. If we are still surrounded by people who are attacking us, it’s time to re-evaluate what we are prioritizing in our lives.

For example, if you started spending time with people to become more popular, but they were unkind to you, perhaps you can focus instead on meeting people with common interests and common life goals. If you’ve noticed that people have been kind to you who might not have as much in common with you as you thought, try opening your mind to a unique new friendship that may not have been what you expected, but will be rooted in care and mutual kindness.

It's helpful to remember that we were all created for community and relationship. I believe that God created you with love, for loving relationships with Him, and with the people He has put in your life. When you are unsure about the future of your friendships and relationships, or when you need help healing from the pain of past wounds, He is always there for you.

Affects the Way, We See Ourselves

Childhood bullying can do a number on our self-esteem well into adulthood. It's important to feel and acknowledge that pain. But it's necessary to dig deeper if you want to get to the other side of it. 

There are two big truths to consider here. The bully who hurt you was in pain themselves. This doesn't make what they did or said okay. But they were not thinking clearly, and what they said or did does not represent the truth about you. A lot of times, people lash out at others because that person has something they see as missing from their own lives. Perhaps they saw your talent, your good relationships, or your personality and responded to what they felt they were missing out of a place of jealousy. Think about the good truths you can uncover about yourself beneath their distorted reaction. 

Here's another thing to keep in mind: if you choose to see yourself as the bully sees you, they win. They retain that power and control over your emotions, even if they are long gone from your day-to-day life. Letting go of their hold on you must involve rejecting unkind lies they told you, and embracing the kinder, more loving truth about yourself.

Attaching or Clinging to People

Since bullying makes us fearful of the relationships ending or going sour, some people who were bullied as kids attach or cling to people they want to befriend when they get older. If this is something you struggle with, you might be especially clingy to people who give you a little more wiggle room to be yourself.  That can sometimes cause people to pull back or retreat. But reminding yourself that they want to be a part of your life, and that it is kind and respectful to give them time and space if they need it, might help correct some of the unhealthy boundaries in your relationship.

You don't have to navigate the relationship challenges that come up as a result of childhood bullying by yourself. TheHopeLine trains our HopeCoaches to offer mentoring that can help you grow more confident in current friendships and relationships, while learning to let go of past pain. 

Talk to a HopeCoach today about how childhood bullying affected you, and how you'd like to break free and get back to being yourself. We are here for you, and we believe great things can happen in your friendships and relationships.

Perhaps childhood bullying has caused you to struggle with hating yourself. You are not alone. Many people struggle with self-hate. Here are 5 things to think and do when you hate yourself. 

TheHopeLine Team
For over 30 years, TheHopeLine has been helping students and young adults in crisis. Our team is made up of writers and mental health professionals who care deeply about helping others.
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