Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from bullying is common, with up to 40% of students who have experienced bullying showing symptoms of PTSD.1 Being bullied can cause a host of emotional consequences. People who experience bullying are at increased risk for developing PTSD symptoms, such as increased anxiety, withdrawnness, and displaying uncharacteristic aggression.
What Is Bullying?
Bullying behavior has three common characteristics: the behavior is aggressive and unwanted, there is a perceived power imbalance between the aggressor and the person being bullied, and the behavior is repeated or likely to be repeated. Unfortunately, bullying is a common occurrence, with up to 20% of students reporting that they have experienced bullying between the ages of twelve to eighteen.
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that develops after a person witnessed or experienced an event that caused extreme distress. The event could have been physically or emotionally harmful and possibly life-threatening. Symptoms of PTSD may include recurring nightmares, PTSD flashbacks, avoidance of situations that remind them of the trauma, and increased anxiety or depression.
Why Is Bullying So Harmful?
Bullying causes a range of negative effects that can last into adulthood. It can lead to, or worsen, feelings of anxiety, isolation, and despair, and can contribute to the development of other mental health disorders. Additionally, bullying can impact a person’s success in school and relationships.3 Bullying does not only harm the victim but also those who witness it.2
Common effects of bullying for the victim include:
- Low self-esteem
- Anxiety and panic attacks
- Physical health problems
- Poor performance in school
- Isolation from friends and family
- PTSD symptoms
Common effects of bullying for the bystander include:
- Higher risk of developing a subtance use disorder
- Increased likelihood of developing mental health disorders
- Avoidance of school
Can Bullying Cause PTSD?
Bullying is a traumatic event that can lead to the development of PTSD. A child who experiences bullying will likely feel fear, physical pain, and feelings of helplessness that can have significant negative effects on their mental health.4 PTSD occurs when symptoms of bullying, such as depression and anxiety, persist for at least one month. A child can develop complex PTSD, when instances of bullying are repeated, persistent, or ongoing.
How to Recognize PTSD From Bullying
If you suspect your child is suffering from bullying PTSD, there are some signs to watch for. Symptoms of PTSD in children can include difficulty remembering or misordering parts of the bullying incidents. Children may believe the bullying was their fault, or that they could have prevented it if they had seen the warning signs.
Signs of PTSD will vary, depending on the age of the child. Small children who have been bullied may also notice their child acting out the events in their play or their artwork. Signs of PTSD in teens are more similar to those of adults, including an increase in startle responses, repeated nightmares or flashbacks of the event, avoidance behaviors, and an increase in risk-taking. One significant effect that seems to be more prevalent in adolescents is acting out with anger or aggression.5
Signs of PTSD in children can include:
- Time-skewing, or misordering events, when recalling the traumatic memory
- Omen-formation, or the belief that the child should have seen the warning signs and have been able to prevent the trauma from occurring
- Re-enactment of the traumatic event in play or drawings
- Post-traumatic play, which can involve fighting or playing violent video games
Signs of PTSD in teens include:
- Repeated, disturbing thoughts or memories of the event
- Feeling that the event is happening again
- Avoidance of people and places that remind them of the bullying experience
- Irritability or anger
- Being hypervigilant, jumpy, or easily startled
- Isolation or disconnection from others
- Difficulty experiencing positive emotions
- Avoiding risks, or conversely, seeking out risky behaviors
When a child is experiencing bullying they often will not say anything about the incidents of bullying. Therefore, it is important for you to know the behavioral signs of bullying PTSD, so you can support your child who has experienced bullying, whether or not they disclose to you what is going on.
How to Help Your Child Cope With Bullying Trauma
If you suspect that your child is being bullied, it’s important to communicate with both your child, as well as their school teachers and administrators. Children are more likely to tell their parents than their teachers if bullying is occurring. It’s important to listen to what your child shares, and advocate for them to their teachers, administrators, and other parents in the school.
When advocating for your child’s needs it is important to understand the school’s belief system on bullying. One of the best things you can do to prevent bullying is to be involved in your child’s school and to have open communication with their teachers. It’s also important that parents get to know and communicate with other parents. You may be tempted to call the bully’s parents, but take a pause before making this call. This can often result in retaliation by the bully and make the experience for the bullied child even worse.6
Treatment for PTSD in Children & Teens
Therapy is the best way to help a child heal from bullying and develop skills for moving forward. Therapists who specialize in PTSD in children are qualified to address the effects of bullying trauma and help the child heal from complex PTSD. Therapy can also help victims of bullying to increase their self-esteem, develop healthy relationships and flourish again in school.
Treatment options for PTSD from bullying include:
- Trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT): TF-CBT helps a child to evaluate the negative beliefs they developed from being victims of bullying, and gives the child tools to restructure these beliefs, which can lead to more positive thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.
- Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT): DBT for PTSD teaches a lot of valuable tools for coping with negative emotions and increasing the ability to tolerate distress.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR for PTSD uses bilateral stimulation to help the brain process trauma. It is one of the most effective therapies for trauma recovery.
- Play therapy: Play therapy utilizes toys, art, and sand trays, to help a child enact, and thereby process their PTSD from bullying. Play therapy is a particularly good option for younger children who often don’t benefit from traditional talk therapies.
Addressing the Bullying
If your child is being bullied, don’t hesitate to ask for help. Bullying is a difficult situation with long-term effects, but help is available and things can get better. Parents of children who are struggling with PTSD from bullying can use an online therapist directory to find professional help. Additionally, online therapy platforms are a good choice for finding a therapist who specializes in PTSD for children.
Watching your child suffer from bullying PTSD can feel devastating. Remember that a child may not verbally disclose the bullying, but there are signs to watch out for. Parents can support their children by listening to them, speaking to their teachers and school administrators, and finding a therapist specializing in childhood PTSD.