Gender Differences in the Relationships among Childhood Peer Victimization, Perfectionism, and General Distress in Adults

Kimberly M. Burkhart
Clinical Psychology, University of Toledo
December, 2009


Bullying is a pervasive problem affecting hundreds of thousands of students each year across the world. Little is known, however, regarding the long-term effects of indirect peer victimization and direct peer victimization. Based on the Belongingness Hypothesis, Sociometer Theory, and Social Reaction Model, exposure to a harsh peer environment may lead to perfectionist tendencies as individuals are motivated to attain acceptance and belonging. A harsh peer environment could be created when bullies thwart the achievement of goals that are valued by their victims’ same-gender peer group, eliciting feelings of shame and inadequacy. Perfectionism is a stable trait, and once perfectionism is adopted as a coping strategy, it is believed that it is used throughout adulthood and that those who use perfectionism as a way to cope may experience significant overall distress. For this reason, indirect aggression, which damages dyadic relationships, may contribute readily to the development of perfectionism in females. In contrast, direct aggression, which threatens superiority, autonomy, and dominance, may relate to perfectionism in males.

Undergraduate students (88 females and 112 males) from the midwestern United States completed victimization, perfectionism, and general distress scales. As hypothesized, results demonstrated a positive relationship between female participants’ recalled experience of indirect peer victimization and self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism. Results also indicated a positive relationship between the recalled experience of direct peer victimization (physical and verbal) and self-oriented and socially prescribed perfectionism for male participants. For female participants, recalled indirect peer victimization and self-oriented perfectionist tendencies were significant predictors of current general distress. For male participants, recalled direct physical and indirect peer victimization and socially prescribed perfectionist tendencies were significant predictors of current general distress.

The results indicate that gender plays a key role in the values and goals stereotypically held by members of the same-gender peer group and influences the type of aggression perpetrated. The results also suggest that the recalled victimization experiences and type of perfectionism found to be most distressing differs for males and females. The current study contributes to the victimization and perfectionism literature by providing evidence that a harsh peer environment is associated with perfectionist tendencies and the experience of current general distress for both males and females. It would be beneficial if bullying prevention programs could address cognitive distortions/negative automatic thoughts related to performance both academically and socially.

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