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Child Bullying's Consequence: Adult PTSD

Victims of child bullying can end up with PTSD later in life.

We hear so much in the news lately about school bullying. One story I read recently highlighted the experiences of Rebecca Golden, a now-adult writer who chronicled for Salon the endless bullying she was subjected to as an overweight child. In her case, the bullying started at a very young age, being teased by boys in her class, and progressed up through high school. Even the teachers joined in on the bullying at certain times of her life.

The sad truth is, being tormented and teased—and even physically attacked—by other children has been a fact of life for many young people for as long as there have been schools. According to, 77% of students experience bullying in some form: mental, verbal, or physical. Every seven minutes, a child gets bullied. But this does not make it any less traumatizing or troublesome.

What makes child bullying unique from other types of traumatic experiences is that the perpetrators are often also children.

Kids bully other kids for a variety of reasons, some more obvious than others. lists the primary motivations that compel bullies:

  • A family environment of either neglect or physical abuse
  • A school or institution's lack of standards around interpersonal treatment
  • Positive reinforcement around "acting out" in the form of added attention
  • Our culture's glorification with winning, power, and violence
  • A history of the perpetrator him or herself having experienced rejection, failure, or bullying

Usually, bullying comes about as a result of a number of the above factors existing at once.
In clinical terms, to officially be considered "bullying," the behavior needs to take place repeatedly. Interestingly, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was traditionally considered to be a disorder that arose from a single traumatic incident. However, in recent years, experts have begun to identify a second definition for PTSD that allows for the victims of repeated traumatizing incidents. Bullying falls into this category. points out that the most recent version of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistic Manual, which all doctors use to diagnose mental illness) recently updated its definition of PTSD to note that, although PTSD has traditionally been thought to be caused by a single, life-threatening event (or, at least, an event that seemed to be life-threatening), in the case of trauma such as bullying, PTSD can also come about by way of an "accumulation of many small, individually non-life-threatening incidents." (Note that this is often referred to as "Complex PTSD.")

So by its most simple definition, PTSD is brought on by one or a series of terrifying events and results in delayed and prolonged symptoms such as anxiety, depression, withdrawal, suicidal behavior, alcohol and drug abuse, and emotional issues.

Some examples of types of bullying:

  1. Physical violence toward a child
  2. Verbal teasing
  3. Spreading rumors about a child
  4. Excluding a child from a group
  5. "Gang up" behavior
  6. Cyberbullying—using the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, text messaging, or other technology to demean a child

In worst-case scenarios, the abuse of bullying can lead its young victims to suicide, sometimes called "bullycide." But even though most children grow out of the stage of bullying and being bullied, victims of this hateful crime are still at risk for the long-term effects of PTSD.

With complex PTSD, victims are "held captive" by their situations. Children who are subject to regular bullying may not have any way out of what they perceive as a trapped situation. Reporting incidents to teachers or other authority figures can be a daunting prospect, as this sort of "tattletale" behavior is so apt to exacerbate the bullying instead of halting it. A pattern of bullying can also be exacerbated by parents—especially, and traditionally, fathers - who may believe that being pushed around or beat up by your peers "toughens you up" and is just a "natural part of childhood."

Of course, the best way to avoid PTSD from school bullying later in life is to prevent or stop the problem early on. This takes a vigilant approach on the part of parents and especially on the part of school administrators, as school is the most common place that children experience the harassment of bullying.

Here are some potential signs that a child is experiencing repeated bullying:

  1. Isolated or disconnected behavior that is not normally a part of the child's personality
  2. Sudden physical complaints - especially ones that prevent the child from attending school or other events
  3. Degraded performance with schoolwork or difficulty concentrating
  4. Sleep issues or nightmares
  5. General malaise, withdrawal, or depression
  6. A sense of hypervigilance, anxiety, or a high temper

The good news is that the recent media interest in school bullying has resulted in wider awareness of this epidemic, and there are now many resources available throughout the U.S. that children, parents, peers, and teachers can turn to if they know or suspect that bullying is happening.

For more statistics, information, and stories, visit


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