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Lasting Scars: Bullying Can Have Long-Term Impact on Children

The emotional and psychological effects of being bullied

“I was working a high-stress job and was fortunate enough to be laid off,” recalls Melissa Peters, whose name has been changed for privacy. “I say fortunate because it gave me more time with our three kids. After a few months, I started to notice at that point that my 8-year-old, Zoey, was acting like an introvert,” Her daughter was her usual bubbly and outgoing self around close family and friends, but around certain school friends, she would act extremely introverted. She stopped talking to people, looked at the ground in social settings and also started having nightmares. In a word, Zoey’s behavior had become inconsistent.

“Over the course of about five months, I told my husband that things seemed off. I talked to Zoey, but she said she was fine,” the Dallas mom remembers. Still, a pattern was slowly emerging, and her second-grader started to have unexpected and heightened responses to common social situations — like when two friends paired off at the swimming pool to play without her, and Zoey broke down sobbing. The concerned mother took her daughter to see a licensed counselor; after several sessions, Zoey was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of bullying.

The news came as a shock to Peters, but Zoey’s case is not unique.

A profound impact

According to an analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 27 percent of middle school students have been bullied, while the Texas Association of Psychological Associates reports that at least 10 percent are bullied on a regular basis. Cyberbullying is also widespread — NoBullying.com indicates that 52 percent of young people admit to being bullied online.

“Adults today have allowed the mean behavior to continue to exist by saying ‘kids will be kids,’ ‘turn the other cheek’ or ‘just ignore them,’ which may have supported mean behavior as it seems to grow worse each year,” says Cynthia Bethany, a licensed clinical social worker-supervisor and certified trauma treatment specialist and critical incident coordinator for Fort Worth ISD. “Another area of concern is on the digital platform as the use of technology increases. The prevalence of cyberbullies is disconcerting. Hurtful remarks are easier to make and anonymity creates a higher level of cruelty.”

Others say a number of factors are at fault. School officials may be reticent to intervene in conflicts between students for fear of inviting litigation. Conversely, teachers and parents may be unaware that bullying is going on. Plus, there’s the question of what actually constitutes bullying.

To qualify as bullying — which takes many forms, from name-calling and teasing to physical assaults such as shoving or hitting — the offense needs to occur on more than one or two occasions. “Persistent, pervasive and severe are key words in the definition of bullying,” Bethany explains. Social or relational bullying can be harder to spot because it typically happens quietly over a long period of time between friends, but it causes just as much emotional damage. Relational bullying might entail exclusion, harmful gossip or rumors.

Zoey met and became friends with Isabella (not her real name) in her kindergarten after-school program. The bullying started shortly thereafter; Isabella wouldn’t let Zoey play with any other kids.

“We know that it got physical when Zoey’s close friend joined them in the after-care program the next year during the first grade,” Peters recalls. “I think Zoey struggled with how to incorporate her friend in the dynamic. We would get reports from Zoey and her friend that Isabella would push them, hit them or try to knock them off the monkey bars.”

Research shows that bullying is corrosive to children’s mental health and well-being, causing anxiety, depression, high levels of stress and poor social skills development, as well as a negative self-image and even physical ailments such as headaches and sleeping problems.

“I have seen students develop eating disorders as a reaction to being bullied for their body image,” says Tasha Moore, a licensed master social worker and chief strategy officer for secondary campuses with Communities in Schools of North Texas. She has also seen children as young as 9 or 10 develop self-harm behaviors and suicide ideation because of extreme bullying.

Children who are bullied again and again often feel vulnerable, powerless and unable to defend themselves, which can lead to stress-related conditions like PTSD.

People often associate PTSD with a profound traumatic event such as a serious car crash or being under enemy fire, but PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder that can occur after repeated mental and emotional anguish — in this case, bullying — and seems to affect girls more than boys. In fact, a study published last year in the Social Psychology of Education journal revealed that childhood victimization by bullies was the strongest predictor of PTSD symptoms among college students and can inflict the same long-term psychological trauma on girls as severe physical or sexual abuse.

Children with PTSD experience nightmares and crippling anxiety. Sometimes, they’ll show signs of PTSD in their play, like making their dolls act out the traumatic situation. They’ll often avoid situations that remind them of the incident. This might mean finding ways to get out of school altogether or staying away from activities where they know they will encounter the bully. Or it might mean suffering in silence.

For Zoey, the symptoms manifested as social anxiety. Because Isabella had kept Zoey isolated from other children while also belittling her, Zoey lacked confidence and did not develop the same social skills as other children her age.

“[Zoey didn’t exhibit] aggression; there were no issues at school — behavioral or schoolwork wise — to indicate that something was affecting her,” Peters says. “We thought, kids are resilient; she’ll get over this.”

Easier said than done. The emotional fallout for a child is proportional to the length of time she was bullied, according to researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital. Furthermore, the negative effects can accumulate and worsen over time.

Eleven-year-old Bobby Tandy, whose name has been changed for privacy, has been the target of bullying since the second grade. Bobby speaks with an accent. One classmate ridiculed the way Bobby talked. Other kids joined, openly expressing frustration when Bobby was called on to read aloud in class, leaving the 8-year-old feeling ashamed.

Instructors at his elementary school in Southlake alerted his mom, Susan Tandy. “There was a lot of watching and keeping [Bobby and the bully] separate. [The teachers] talked to the other kid and praised Bobby in front of the other kids, which helped,” his mom says.

Bobby was also put in a lunchtime club led by a school counselor, where students discussed the events of their day and learned important social skills. The move was a mixed blessing. “It was good because it took him out of lunchtime, which was when a lot of the bullying happened,” Tandy admits. “But again, it made him different.”

He still laments to his parents on an almost daily basis. “I have to be very careful about my response to what he tells me so that he feels heard, and let him cry if he needs to cry,” Tandy says. “If he tries to stop himself, we say, ‘If you feel like crying, this is a place to cry.’”

Warning signs

Since bullying can have such lasting — and detrimental — effects, experts agree that early intervention is crucial.

Not all children will freely admit to being bullied like Bobby. In fact, most kids hold it in like Zoey did.

Children who are repeatedly bullied either physically or emotionally may start abnormally isolating or disconnecting themselves; complain about frequent physical ailments, especially those that prevent them from attending school or other social events; have difficulty concentrating or experience a sudden drop in grades and schoolwork; endure sleep issues and nightmares; or undergo a sense of hypervigilance, anxiety and high temper.

“Other signs might be expressing desire to hurt or kill oneself, any type of self-harm — cutting, burning — or expressing hopelessness, sadness, helplessness, rage, uncontrolled anger or seeking revenge,” Bethany explains.

Experts say parents should be sensitive to any changes in their children and talk to their pediatrician if anything seems amiss.

If a child is legitimately being bullied to the point that it is affecting her behavior (not wanting to go to school, academic performance is declining, dropping out of extracurricular activities), parents should not hesitate to also get a teacher or administrator involved, Moore notes.

To be sure, school programs such as student assemblies with guest speakers and national anti-bullying campaigns like STOMP Out Bullying have helped raise awareness. And Texas state law requires that all school districts that receive federal funding (including charter schools) adopt specific steps for addressing bullying, such as parent notification and counseling for victims and bullies. The law requires staff training on the subject and allows for the transfer of students involved as well. And though not explicitly included in the law, most private schools have adopted some form of anti-bullying policy too.

When to get involved

But how do you, the parent, protect your child against bullying and its long-lasting effects like PTSD without becoming a paranoid helicopter mom or dad?

Well-meaning parents often err on the side of overprotection and keep their child from learning frustration tolerance, notes Leda Owens, a licensed counselor who has treated children and teens with PTSD as a result of bullying at The Housson Center in Dallas. Although the psychological impact of bullying can be severe, intervening too quickly can have an adverse effect on a child’s emotional development. Owens refers to overly protective moms and dads as “lawnmower parents.”

“A lawnmower parent is the parent who walks in front of their child and mows down all the weeds and high grasses of life so their child has this nice smooth path to follow,” she explains. “That’s all fine and great until the lawnmower parent isn’t there anymore and now the child is faced with the weeds and they don’t know what to do.”

Experts note that the key to raising independent, self-sufficient children who will grow up to become productive members of society is helping them develop social skills, including learning to assert themselves and to recognize that they cannot control other peoples’ thoughts or behaviors.

“Talking with and listening are the most important ways a parent can comfort a child who has been subjected to bullying,” Bethany says.

Getting your child to speak out — whether to you, a counselor or other trusted adult — when she is being bullied helps her overcome the emotional damage that can result from continually being put down and pushed around, experts note.

“It is a parent’s job to keep their child safe, but parents can only do that by knowing their child,” Bethany says. She recommends that parents ask a lot of questions and really listen to the answers. And if relevant, parents can share their own experiences with bullying and watch for their child’s reaction.

Owens says it can be difficult for kids to make the first move and talk to their parents about recurring bullying because young kids don’t understand cause and effect. They know they’re frustrated, hurt or sad, but they might not know why exactly.

Help kids build their own safety net. “Ask your child to name an adult on campus with whom they feel safe,” Bethany advises. “This is something every parent should ask before there is a reason to be concerned. Then ask the child if she feels safe letting that person know what is happening on campus and volunteer to be there for support.”

“[Bullying] could be happening in the hallway or at the lunch table,” Moore adds. “If someone at the school — a teacher, a counselor or an administrator — knows to look out for it, there is another advocate, another caring adult that is there when the parent is not.” 

When to seek outside help

While parents and schools take bullying seriously and administer counseling and other solutions to the victims, many end the counseling too early.

“Kids need help developing coping skills and learning how to react in certain situations,” Owens explains, who uses role-play to help kids with different scenarios. “It can be as simple as asking a child what advice he or she would give a friend who was being mistreated and encouraging them to reach out to a teacher.”

It’s also important to provide kiddos with a safe space to talk through their feelings, including meeting with a licensed professional counselor, who can help children process difficult emotions and develop self-reliance and resilience.

“We thought we fixed our situation by removing Zoey from the after-school program and getting a nanny,” Peters says. “But we failed her, and the school counselor failed her because none of us followed up on the situation.” And it wasn’t until the second grade that Zoey’s PTSD symptoms started to surface, 18 months after the bullying stopped.

Peters enlisted the help of a professional counselor on the advice from a friend. “I told Zoey she was seeing a social coach, and she instantly opened up to the counselor,” Peters says. “We saw huge strides in Zoey’s confidence right away.”

Now after several counseling sessions, Zoey smiles again, confidently talks to her friends and excels in sports. And the process isn’t over.

“What I feel like we’re doing for Zoey is not only giving her coping, social and life skills,” Peters says. “She is receiving the tools to help her overcome her experience and give her confidence that will give her a better foundation for future social situations.”