Civil Rights

Bullying effects stay with a person for life

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When the topic of bullying comes up in the news or conversation most people identify the victims as school aged children or adolescents who may be victimized by a classmate and once the victimizing events are over, so too is the problem. This mindset has sent numerous researchers questing to understand the “bully” or “how to stop the bully.”

However, understanding the bully doesn’t change the fact that in the United States it is estimated that between eight percent to 15 percent of students experience bullying each year. Additionally, stopping the bully may prevent further victimization but it doesn’t help those who have already been victimized.

{mosads}Researchers in the field of psychology have found that victims of bullying present with a diversity of symptoms such as depression, anger, sadness, suicidal ideation, low self-esteem, interpersonal difficulties, anxiety, social phobia, and loneliness, to name a few.

It is interesting that these are similar to the symptoms found in survivors of child abuse. Both child abuse and bullying are traumatic stressors that are repetitive or prolonged in nature, and inflicted with malicious intent on someone perceived as weaker.  

It is well understood that the effects of child abuse can last into adulthood for many of the victims; however, it is believed that the victims of bullying are “better” after the victimization has stopped. This understanding could not be further from the truth.

Bullying doesn’t just involve trauma, it also involves the element of developmental timing. As a person grows, transitioning from childhood through adolescence to adulthood, their brain has critical developmental periods. If the trauma from bullying happens in early childhood, the victim may develop a preference for harm avoidance.

Harm avoidance usually will manifest in the form of anxiety, anger, introversion, or the child’s selective bias toward familiar rather than novel experiences. The trauma also shifts the victims toward a preference toward detachment from and avoidance of relationships. If the trauma happens during school age or pre-adolescence victims may display mental health symptoms such as depression, social anxiety, PTSD, dissociative disorder (Knight, 2009), and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder.

In the United States, students are required to attend school, so the traumatizing bullying is done under conditions of captivity. This sense of captivity puts the victim in a relatively powerless position, both physically and mentally. The child grows up in an environment that continuously reinforces the message that life is always fraught with danger, as creates a sense of distrust and fear that others will harm them.

This injured worldview can cause the person to misinterpret events in a manner that makes them feel re-traumatized and helpless. In response to these misinterpretations, the victim would organize their relationships around the expectation of re-traumatization in hope of preventing abandonment and/or victimization.

In their attempts to avoid abandonment or victimization, the person may engage in excessively clinging, oppositional, and/or distrustful behaviors, become more compliant, or hold onto revenge or retribution fantasies. Because of the injured worldview, the victim may also experience an impact on their education, career, legal issues, and peer and/or family relationships.

Finally, since the trauma has turned relationships with others into sources of pain and fear, the survivor may have an inability to achieve a balance on how close they become with people physically, emotionally, or sexually.

In the grand scheme, the impact of bullying does not end once the bullying stops. The effects of the trauma can follow the victim for the rest of their lives. It can create a world where the victims feels disempowered and disenfranchised. The pain and loneliness can lead the victim do engaging in self-harming behavior or suicide or into relationships that re-traumatize them.

Their world becomes one that sees more tears than smiles, more agony than joy, more black skies than sunny days. Unless dealt with, all trauma lives on in the minds of the victims, even those whose trauma is that of bullying.

R. Brian Salinas, Psy.D., is a mental health professional and professor at Argosy University, San Francisco Bay Area. He served as a school counselor, working his way to having a private practice, and spent years conducting therapist and teacher workshops as well as teach weekly anti-bullying classes to children of different age groups.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.


Tags Anger Bullying childhood trauma

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