Bullying in School: The Traumatic Effects of Bullying on Children

April 16, 2012
Dr. Terry Ehiorobo
Childhood bullying

The issue of bullying has plagued many school systems in the US. We have all read about issues of bullying causing students to take drastic measures to make the pain stop. Unfortunately, many of these drastic measures have resulted in suicide and/or murder. In 2010, a 15-year-old immigrant from Ireland took her own life because of excessive bullying. A New York Times article noted that the “defendants were accused of relentlessly tormenting Ms. Prince” (Eckholm, 2011).

Even the president has taken a strong stance on the issue of bullying. He stated, “We’ve got to dispel this myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage” (Anderson, 2010).

In my work as a school teacher and principal, I have observed and dealt with numerous cases of bullying. What is not discussed often enough is how these acts of bullying can cause long-lasting effects for the victims.

Recently I watched a video about a young man who successfully sued his school district for turning a blind eye to the abuses he suffered from bullies because he was gay. The vicious acts he suffered lasted from middle school through his secondary-school years. Fortunately, this young man had helpers who encouraged him to fight back against a system that condoned the abuse. Unfortunately, many targets of bullies do not have the chance to fight back. The bullying they suffer sometimes triggers other traumatic events they have suffered; it sometimes even causes victims to become bullies themselves. The trickle-down effect thus becomes an ugly reality for many sufferers.

The world of bullying has a life of its own. It takes no prisoners and its effects can be long lasting and endemic in some cases. Recently, an individual I worked with shared with me some of his personal secrets and how those personal secrets still plague his life today. He shared with me tales of such extreme bullying that his parents had to remove him from the private school they had sent him to, and educate him at home. This individual would not fit the bill for what most people would say looks like a victim. He was often taller and heavier than his peers.

Now in his early thirties, he tells his story with such energy that it is obvious that the pain and trauma he suffered as a result of the vicious acts continues to affect him. He told me that he dreaded the bus rides to school. He told me that kids would pull and twist his nipples on a daily basis so that, at times, his nipples would bleed. This individual noted that his parents made the decision to homeschool him because they could no longer endure the pain they experienced in seeing their son tortured and humiliated.

I also recall conducting one of my first interviews as a new assistant principal. We were interviewing for a hall-security position. The applicant, in expressing harrowing tales of his experiences as a bus driver, shared a story with us about when a teenage girl was raped on his bus while he was driving. Obviously, we did not hire this individual. However, we thought about the child who had had to deal with that trauma and humiliation at the hands of others. Although the perpetrators were dealt with, that certainly could not have provided much relief to the victim. She will always possess the memories of that trauma.

As we dig deeper to the root causes of bullying, several issues should be considered:

  • Can bullying cause traumatic stress?
  • Why does bullying occur?
  • What measures can schools take to stop bullying?

Tying Bullying to Traumatic Stress
Van der Kolk, McFarlane, and Weisaeth (2007) state, “Trauma in childhood can disrupt normal developmental processes. Because of their dependence on their caregivers, their incomplete biological development, and their immature concepts of themselves and their surroundings, children have unique patterns of reaction and needs for intervention.” Many of the children who are affected by traumatic stressors such as bullying can have their developmental processes and parts of their brains affected by the traumatic events (Ziegler, 2002).

If the child also lacks family support, the effects can be more devastating. As the child attempts to make sense of the traumatic event, new behavioral problems can emanate from re-experienced traumatic events. In addition, some children affected by traumatic events may disassociate themselves from the traumatic situations and absorb themselves in behaviors that generate negative attention. These new behavioral adaptations may become so potent that opportunities for typical development and growth are ignored as the child attempts to ensure her own safety.

For instance, a child who has been repeatedly bullied on the playground may exhibit oppositional behaviors in class or may turn in incomplete work just to ensure that she has to stay inside while others are on recess. The child doesn’t pay attention in class, and her thoughts revolve around staying away from the playground. The fear of reprimand for the behavior is less than the fear of being bullied at recess.

The number of youths who experience bullying is alarming. In a recent survey of 1,965 students in seventh through twelfth grades, 48 percent reported being harassed in some way (Anderson, 2011). Since many cases of bullying include violent actions intended to create fear (name-calling; physical attacks; acts of humiliation, denigration, and mistreatment), bullying can cause traumatic stress responses. With these acts of bullying being continuous and going unnoticed, many children who are bulled can in fact develop symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (van der Kolk, Weisaeth, & McFarlane, 2007).

Understanding Why Bullying Occurs
Numerous researchers, educators, and psychologists have theories about why bullying occurs. Although these groups have different semantics for explaining why bullying occurs, there is always a common theme: power and control. From my own experience of dealing with students who have been bullied and students who behave as bullies, it’s clear to me that dominating others provides an element of control to the individual doing the bullying. As Wolk (2010) noted, “Bullies are about power and control, and confronting them or stepping in to stop them usurps their sense of power.”

Unfortunately, in many instances, school officials deal with incidents of bullying much too late. By the time intervention occurs, the psychological damage and pain has become almost indelible. This damage affects not only the bully and the target(s), it also affects the bystanders. Wolk (2010) states, “Most bystanders do not like witnessing another person being bullied. It puts one into an uncomfortable psychological state known as cognitive dissonance to witness a bullying incident and do nothing about it. Cognitive dissonance occurs when our actions do not match our internal code of ethics and morality.”

Steps Schools Can Take to Stop Bullying
School officials must take time to review how they respond to acts of bullying. Wolk (2010) states that “harassment in schools violates Title VI and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of the Education Amendments of 1972.” And in addition to the legal violations, there are emotional and traumatic costs to the individuals involved in bullying situations.

Bullying needs to be addressed swiftly. The consequences should include recommendation for counseling for the bullies. As noted earlier, many bullies have themselves faced terrible difficulties of their own. Some of these difficulties may be abuses (physical and verbal), violent episodes at home, chaotic lifestyles, and other disturbing experiences. As a result of these factors, these individuals displace their pain on others. (Such factors, incidentally, are also linked to self-harm behaviors.)

It is also powerful for school officials and counselors to perform reflective interviews with bullies. Reflective interviews can involve placing the bully in the shoes of his victim and asking him to think about how his actions have affected the victim.

I have found it especially helpful as a school principal to meet with the bully first, and to have him process and reflect on the situation. I then invite the victim to my office and have the bully and the victim meet. Making things right with the victim lessens the bully’s sense of power and control over the victim. This process also allows me to empower the victim and provide him with new tools of confidence and assertion.

Victims must be encouraged to report the acts and actions of bullies. School leaders and/or leaders in other settings that support youths should be vigilant in sending a clear message to bullies that bullying is not tolerated in their setting. They must also send a clear message to victims that failure to report a single act of bullying will ultimately give bullies the notion that it is okay to continue to bully.


About the Author
Dr. Terry Ehiorobo is a school principal at an alternative school in Kenosha, WI. He also serves as an adjunct professor at National-Louis University in the education leadership department. He has over ten years of school administrative experience and has taught for over five years at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee school of continuing education in the area of youth development.

Originally published in the Journal of Safe Management of Disruptive and Assaultive Behavior, March 2012. ©2012 CPI.

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