Bullying and Trauma

The effects of bullying are felt by everyone involved: the bullied, the bystanders who witness the bullying, and the bully themselves. Bullying is considered an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines trauma as a result of an event, series of events, or circumstances that an individual experiences as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening. These experiences have lasting effects.

Childhood traumatic stress occurs when traumatic events overwhelm a child’s or teenager’s ability to cope, such as:

·         Neglect and psychological, physical, or sexual abuse.

·         Domestic violence or intimate partner violence.

·         Violence in the community and at school (such as bullying).

·         Natural disasters, Terrorism, war, and refugee experiences.

·         Serious Accidents

·         Life Threatening illnesses

·         Sudden or violent loss of a loved one

·         Military stressors – such as parental deployment, loss, or injury

Even though every child reacts differently to trauma, parents, caregivers, and teachers may recognize some signs of traumatic stress. For instance, preschool children may experience nightmares or fear separation. Children in elementary school may feel ashamed or anxious or have difficulty concentrating. Children in middle and high school may display signs of depression or self-harm. Academic problems and involvement with child welfare and juvenile justice systems are more common among child trauma survivors.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), children and teens exposed to trauma and violence may be more likely to bully or be bullied. Trauma and bullying can result in strong feelings of distress in some children, whereas other children may appear desensitized to it. For example, a study on bullying and posttraumatic stress found that some children repress their emotions.

There is also a possibility that children experience intrusive thoughts, such as sudden flashbacks of their bullying experience, which results in numbness or loss of interest in activities.

What helps after bullying trauma? Parents, teachers, and other trusted adults can help children or teens who have experienced traumatic bullying-related stress.  As outlined in NCTSN’s Effective Treatments for Youth Trauma, some approaches that can help children and adolescents who have been traumatized, including bullying, are:

·         Making sure the child or teen is safe and preventing bullying in the future

·         To clear up misconceptions about their role in the traumatic event, talking about what happened and why.

·         Helping them cope with stress by teaching them relaxation techniques

The stress that children and teenagers experience due to bullying and other trauma may also require professional treatment.

Schools can help create a trauma-free environment by teaching staff how to recognize and respond to signs of traumatic stress. These skills help teachers provide support and services to students in need. Resources like the Trauma-Sensitive Schools Training Package from The National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments (NCSSLE) can help schools adopt a trauma-informed approach to create safe and supportive learning environments.

These include: educating school staff about trauma and its effects, promoting physical and emotional safety in relationships and the environment reducing trauma-consistent triggers in the school environment considering trauma in all assessment and protocol behavior plans, ensuring students have voice, choice, and empowerment by adopting a trauma-informed approach, schools can help prevent bullying and its harmful effects. Parents, caregivers, teachers, and schools all play an important role in preventing and addressing bullying.

Bullying outside of school

At its most basic level, bullying is behavior that hurts or harms another person. It can be physical, emotional or psychological. It can occur between friends or within groups, either in-person or online. Bullying can be overt and direct, with physical behavior such as fighting, hitting or name-calling, or it can be covert, with social interactions such as gossip or exclusion. And it doesn’t just happen at school. As the summer break rapidly approaches and students try to enjoy their summer vacation there’s an uptick in cyberbullying which can be just as hurtful and bullying that occurs in person. 

Parents need to remain vigilant during the break and remain mindful of any signs of bullying. Many students attend summer school where bullying can sometimes more easily take place because teachers and faculty tend to have a lower awareness and a higher student to teacher ratio. All students deserve to be free of bullying and feel safe. If you think your child has been a victim of bullying seek help immediately, do not take a passive stance. If necessary, file a report with your local police department.