I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the felt experiences of youth who have to deal with bullying at school or online, and how it may have a traumatic effect on some of them. One might argue that most bullying incidents don’t induce trauma, and that may be true if we view all forms and their impact from a macro level. However, it stands to reason that some incidents do have major long-term impacts. As such, it is callous of us to try to qualify or dismiss that away. We are outsiders. We are not walking in the shoes of the target. We don’t know their past wounds or current stressors, and how repeated harassment and exclusion in the school lunchroom or in an online gaming environment might be deeply affecting them.
Let’s explore this further.
What is Trauma?
Trauma results from “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”1 Bullying, widely considered a form of school violence, often occurs as a stressor that over time can have traumatic effects.2 Indeed, bullying was labeled an “Adverse Childhood Experience” (ACE) by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2017,3 and has been strongly and consistently linked (as is the case with many other ACEs) to poor outcomes later in life.4-8 Apart from the harm, what seems to be most important is the repetitive nature of bullying and cyberbullying because it disrupts trust in oneself, others, and the world. One study showed that the level of frequency of exposure to bullying is the greatest factor in predicting level of trauma.9
Trauma results from “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”1
How Can Bullying and Cyberbullying Lead to Trauma?
Chronic exposure to bullying has been linked to greater emotional, psychological, and physical distress, symptomatology, and pathology in children.10-13 For instance, numerous studies reveal that being bullied compromises the physical, 14-16 emotional,17-19 psychological,13,16,20 academic,16,21 mental,22-26 behavioral,27-29 economic,30 and social31-33 health of youth. Outside of these immediate consequences, studies have shown that these disturbances can have long-term consequences on children and even into their adult years10,34-36 (to our knowledge, no prospective studies have followed the experiences of cyberbullied youth into adulthood to see its long-term effects).
Studies have shown that bullying can have long-term consequences on children and even into their adult years10,34-36
The Link Between Bullying and PTSD
Notably, a number of studies have shown that bullying symptoms resemble that of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and that the former is correlated with (although not predictive of) the latter.12,13,37-39 For instance, 37% of an British sample of adolescents who were bullied indicated clinically significant levels of posttraumatic stress,40 As another example, 25% of adults studied still seemed to experience PTSD symptoms such as intrusive memories of bullying even many years after they had finished their schooling,41 Finally, in a meta-analysis of 29 cross-sectional studies, 57% of bullying targets on average reported symptoms of PTSD above thresholds for caseness (i.e.,, enough to formally classify it as trauma).13
What Does It Mean To Be Trauma-Informed?
Given the empirical link between bullying and trauma, our goals in schools should be to move towards trauma-informed care42-45 – also known as a trauma-informed approach or trauma sensitive. Basically, we need educators to be familiar with 1) the research about the prevalence, trends, and impact of trauma on youth and 2) know the best practices and methods to support children and families who have experienced trauma.46 Inherent in this approach is the prioritizing of specific care leading to better outcomes especially when considering the heavy costs, burdens, and negative impact of trauma when untreated or otherwise unaddressed.
We need educators to be familiar with 1) the research about the prevalence, trends, and impact of trauma on youth and 2) know the best practices and methods to support children and families who have experienced trauma.46
Who Is Best Positioned to Help Address Trauma in Schools?
While ideally every adult in a school should become trauma-informed, school counselors, school psychologists, school social workers, and other mental health professionals are the best positioned to help students recover from traumatic experiences given their work with students individually and in small groups. Many students who are bullied engage in avoidant coping, where they repress the intrusive thoughts or feelings that arise specific to the abuse they’ve experienced.47 This manifests in a blunt affect, a general numbness, and the avoidance of any stimuli that may potentially trigger traumatic thoughts.48 What appears most productive, then, is a solution focused approach49 that revolves around providing emotional and practical support, as well as developing productive coping mechanisms to manage anxiety and traumatic symptoms.11,50,51 Allow me to share some of these solutions below.
Three Strategies to Prevent Trauma
Practice Self Care
First, it is essential for self-care to be prioritized – among students, among educators, among everyone involved. Only after we take care of ourselves are we positioned to personally thrive while also optimally serving and supporting those around us. Here is a collection of videos where youth of varying ages discuss how journaling, taking walks, drawing, playing with slime and fidget toys, breathing exercises, physical activity, watching movies, hanging out with friends or pets, treating yourself, meditation, and prayer help them Many of these can (and should) be used by adults as well!
Crisis Intervention Plans
Second, schools must create a Crisis Intervention Plan. Basically, this involves proactively creating an “emotional first aid” response to a traumatic event. This plan is determined by a building team made up of the administrator(s), counselors, and perhaps some teachers, social workers, and related staff members. The team has email templates, protocols, flowcharts, resources for dissemination, and more – all at the ready. We have to realize that schools are not only dealing with all of the tragedies they usually face (e.g., suicides, natural disasters like hurricanes, cancer or related illnesses among students) but also the added burden of COVID-19. Plus, we know that bullying and cyberbullying continue to occur even with distance learning, further compounding the intensity of the stressors that a school community may face. As such, creating and implementing a crisis plan is paramount. Here is an introduction to a plan, which includes the most critical components.
You can also find various templates available here.
Third, to reduce the impact of trauma we need to lower intense hyper-arousal (an atypical heightened state of anxiety) while improving the ability to regulate emotions.52-55 When stress affects the body, numerous responses are triggered on a neurological, cognitive, emotional, and physical (somatic) level. As such, students and staff need to learn how to sense and understand what exactly is happening in these situations in order to temper or even forestall their negative impact. One way this can happen is through experiential grounding. Also known as centering, this iswhere those who have experienced trauma practice certain techniques to keep them in the present, instead of being swept away in more autonomic outcomes like withdrawal, rumination, panic, disassociation, defensiveness, and denial.56-59 The video below shares some practical techniques that can be used to help trauma survivors towards this end.
We hope these strategies help you to become a school that appreciates the reality and gravity of trauma as an outcome of bullying and cyberbullying. Obviously, it takes a lot of effort to become a trauma-informed school, but doing so can prevent a significant amount of negative health-related outcomes for our students. Consider sharing these points and tips with others. We are here to help you – and them – in any way we can, and we’ll continue this conversation as new knowledge becomes available from research and practice.
***I’d like to thank Dr. Julie E. McDaniel-Muldoon, Student Safety and Well-Being Consultant at Oakland Schools in Waterford, Michigan for our discussions and her guidance and expertise in this area.
Image source: https://bit.ly/2Du5lNC
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