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  • Bullying Victimization, College Adjustment, and the Role of Coping
  • Amanda Macht Jantzer (bio) and Mary Louise Cashel (bio)

Few studies have evaluated the long-term social and psychological impacts of bullying, particularly as they may manifest among young adults navigating the transition to college. What if, unlike the popular campaign suggests, it does not always “get better” for bullied youth after leaving secondary school and entering college (It Gets Better Project, 2013)? We investigated the relationship between previous bullying victimization and adjustment to college, as well as the potential moderating role of coping style.

The majority of earlier research has focused on characteristics of primary and secondary school bullies and victims. Olweus (1993) indicated that few outcomes for former victims of bullying differed from those for adult peers, with the notable exceptions of depression and lower self-esteem, suggesting that nearly all maladaptive characteristics of victims were situationally determined. However, more recent research has shown the long-term consequences of school-aged bullying victimization include shyness or inhibition in intimate relationships, difficulties establishing friendships, and depression (Gilmartin, 1987; Hawker & Boulton, 2000; Hugh-Jones & Smith, 1999; Rivers, 2001). Among college students, prior victimization has been associated with more emotional loneliness, difficulties in maintaining friendships, lower self-esteem, more fearful attachment, lower health-related quality of life, higher rates of bullying victimization in college, lesser friendship quality, shyness, and lower levels of trust (Chapell et al., 2006; Chen & Huang, 2015; Jantzer, Hoover, & Narloch, 2006; Schafer et al., 2004). Recently, Holt et al. (2014) found that childhood bullying victimization was related to poorer mental health functioning, as well as lower general perceptions of physical and mental health, but not with social or academic functioning, as assessed with use of a brief, 4-item measure of global college functioning. However, a more comprehensive measure of college student adjustment would shed additional light on the impact of bullying victimization as students navigate the transition to college.

For many young adults, including those who were victims of bullies, going to college presents major developmental challenges. Successful adjustment may be regarded as coping well with the multiple, highly intercorrelated social, emotional, and academic demands of college (Baker & Siryk, 1989; Gerdes & Mallinckrodt, 1994). Folkman and Lazarus (1980) proposed two broad types of coping strategies: problem focused (altering a stressor) and emotion focused (managing stress-related emotions). Given that existing research on bullying (Holt et al., 2014) has [End Page 283] inadequately addressed the complex nature of college student adjustment, more research is needed to explore the relationship between bullying victimization and coping with the complex adjustment demands associated with the transition to college.

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Table 1.

Descriptive Statistics and Reliability Coefficients for the BRS, SACQ, and COPE Scales

For this study we investigated the relationship between school-aged victimization and adjustment to college. Adjustment research is important, particularly to university student affairs professionals, because of its use in identifying students who are experiencing difficulty adapting to college and who may benefit from interventions (Baker & Siryk, 1984). This is especially important for victims of bullying because of the potentially high risk for depression and other difficulties (Holt et al., 2014; Jantzer et al., 2006; Olweus, 1993; Schafer et al., 2004). Given that bullying victimization and adjusting to college both present numerous stressors, we examined the role of coping as a moderator of negative outcomes of bullying victimization with the following hypotheses: Hypothesis 1: An inverse relationship exists between bullying victimization and adjustment to college; and Hypothesis 2: Coping styles moderate the relations between bullying victimization and college adjustment.



Undergraduate students (N = 270: 148 men and 122 women) were recruited to complete surveys from an introductory psychology course, listed as an option to meet general requirements, at a midsized Midwestern public university. This was an option for partial fulfillment of course research participation requirements. The mean age was 19.41 years (SD = 2.74). The sample included 171 freshmen (63.3%), 71 sophomores (26.3%), [End Page 284] 20 juniors (7.4%), and 8 seniors (3.0%). The majority of participants (n = 181) were European American or White (67.3%), with 62 (23.0%) African American or Black, 14 (5.2%) Hispanic...


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