Student Well-Being

No, Being Bullied or Ignored Doesn’t Make Kids Stronger

By Alyson Klein — April 07, 2023 4 min read
Paper cut outs of people with one not included in the chain. On a blue background.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Some educators may feel a natural impulse to comfort students who sit alone at a lunch table, get picked on, or are just generally ignored by their peers by telling them these experiences will help make them stronger and more resilient down the road.

But they’re wrong, according to research.

In fact, teens who feel left out, bullied, or have a history of negative peer interactions tend to feel the sting of being excluded much more intensely than those whose social experiences have generally been positive, according to a study by Karen Rudolph, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a researcher at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, and Haley Skymba, a doctoral student in developmental psychology at the university.

Teens who haven’t felt accepted by their peers tend to interpret new rejections “in terms of ‘there’s something wrong with me. This has happened before. It’s happening again. It must be something about me,’” Rudolph said.

On the other hand, a teen who has had mostly positive social interactions is more likely to look for another explanation when they feel left out or when someone is mean to them. They’ll think: “’That’s just something about them’ or ‘they were having a bad day,’” Rudolph said. For those teens “self-worth [is less likely to be] tied up in approval from or belonging to a peer group.”

To investigate these issues, researchers interviewed 89 girls ages 14 to 17 who were recruited from schools in the midwestern United States. They asked the teens extensive questions about whether they had experienced adversity in peer interactions, either just in the last few months, systemically throughout their lives, or something in between.

Then they had them play “cyber ball,” a simple game where players toss a digital ball to one another online. The subject can’t see the other two players. Instead, each is represented by an avatar, a photo of a conventionally attractive teenage girl. In reality, however, the entire game is computerized. The other two girls are entirely fictional.

At first, all three players get an equal amount of time with the ball. But as the game goes along, the human subject is excluded more and more by the two computerized players. Eventually, the subject stops getting the ball altogether. Since the test subject doesn’t realize the other two players are fake, she is expected to conclude that two other girls her age were deliberately excluding her.

None of the teens liked being left out. Those whose past social interactions were generally positive bounced back from the experience much quicker.

But “the ones who had been victimized or bullied or had a lot of conflict in the past, they continued to feel [fallout from the exclusion] up to half hour later,” Rudolph said. “So, it seems like this system [of feeling rejected] is getting activated in most girls. But then the ones who have this history can’t get back to their baseline. They continue to be feeling more rejected, less like they belong.”

Encourage students to judge themselves by their own standards

That feeling of nonacceptance could lead girls to engage in risky behavior in order to win their peers’ approval, another experiment showed. This experiment also involved a simulated game. But instead of tossing a ball, students were driving a car. Players got more points for their team when they went through a yellow light. But they could also crash.

Students who had more adverse peer experiences—getting bullied, feeling left out socially—were more likely to make risky moves in the driving game to help their team win, and presumably, make the other players like them more, the researchers found.

“That’s why kids succumb to peer pressure to do drugs or drive fast or [engage in] other risky behaviors because they think they might get approval from peers,” Rudolph said. “So it can be risky if the [neurological] system we’re talking about goes into overdrive and they can’t regulate it.”

So what can educators do to help students who have a history of negative social experiences, especially in school?

Encourage children to have their own, internal standards for judging social success, Rudolph said. Students who have developed those tend to think that “if they have good friends and they get along with people, they don’t have to be the most popular kid in the grade,” Rudolph said.

And definitely ditch the idea that somehow getting bullied or feeling excluded empowers kids to be mentally tougher later in life.

“We’re really struggling against that idea that this makes you stronger,” Rudolph said. “There is a huge, vast amount of research showing that victimization has very negative consequences and sometimes lifelong consequences. And there’s really no research suggesting that it makes you stronger, and it’s good for you.”

Related Tags:


Budget & Finance Webinar Leverage New Funding Sources with Data-Informed Practices
Address the whole child using data-informed practices, gain valuable insights, and learn strategies that can benefit your district.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Classroom Technology Webinar
ChatGPT & Education: 8 Ways AI Improves Student Outcomes
Revolutionize student success! Don't miss our expert-led webinar demonstrating practical ways AI tools will elevate learning experiences.
Content provided by Inzata
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Tech Is Everywhere. But Is It Making Schools Better?
Join us for a lively discussion about the ways that technology is being used to improve schools and how it is falling short.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Student Well-Being Opinion Art Can Be Transformational, Even If You're Not 'Artistic'
Encouraging students to create art is important, even if it's in the form of humming or crafting mood boards.
Susan Magsamen
1 min read
Images shows a stylized artistic landscape with soothing colors.
Student Well-Being In This District, Students Are Part of the Mental Health Response
Lack of transportation, unreliable internet and other barriers can sometimes make it hard to find mental health care in rural settings.
5 min read
Hands holding a monochromatic head shaped puzzle of a classroom with three colorful pieces of green grass, sunshine, and trees floating around the puzzle . Mental health concept.
Collage by Gina Tomko/Education Week (Images: iStock/Getty Images Plus)
Student Well-Being How Principals Can Help Support Students Through a Mental Health Crisis
Principals know the challenges—and can help with solutions.
5 min read
mental health 182746825
Student Well-Being Chaplains Could Work as School Counselors Under Bill Passed in Texas
Critics see the measure as a continuation of the erosion of the concept of separating church from state.
3 min read
This June 1, 2021, file photo shows the State Capitol in Austin, Texas.
This June 1, 2021, file photo shows the State Capitol in Austin, Texas.
Eric Gay/AP