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Children and Youth Bullied by Adults Need Strategies to Heal

Evidence-based approaches to help youth recover from adult bullying.

Key points

  • Children being bullied by an adult may find the abuse normalized by other adults who witness, but do not intervene.
  • When an adult is bullying, children's clarity is further eroded if those she reports to dismiss and deny her request for help.
  • We make the mistake of thinking children can return to health and safety after a bullying adult is removed.
  • Children need to learn how to manage their stress response system, along with their parasympathetic nervous system.

We are a society that mostly focuses on child-to-child bullying without examining the equally, if not more harmful bullying done by adults in positions of trust and power. We have a dismal track record of stopping adult bullying and this is why we need strategies to support children and youth who have been exposed to it. There are excellent resources on what constitutes parent, coach, and teacher bullying, but few discuss the aftermath for victims.

When adults who bully are not held accountable, children are re-victimized

Re-victimization occurs when children’s reports of adult bullying and abuse are dismissed or denied. This further abuse intensifies the pervading sense of confusion since children are told to report bullying, yet when they do, too often they are further maltreated by other adults in positions of trust and power. This kind of societal gaslighting and re-victimization even occurs when children report sex abuse.

Adding to the confusion, adults who bully frequently have another bullying adult who participates in, or simply witnesses, which serves to normalize the abusive conduct. Due to the power imbalance between adult and child, victims may believe the humiliation or coercion is deserved in order for them to learn.

This “poisonous pedagogy” is reinforced by the witnessing adults, who do not stop the bullying, as well as the adults receiving reports, who deny that it is happening. Imagine the confusion of a child faced with an adult in a respected authority position using their empowered role to harm, rather than enhance children and youth’s learning.

We tend to make the mistake of assuming victims are safe and can recover effectively once the abusive adult has been removed. However, research shows that children and youth who appear healthy can in fact have a brain riddled with invisible neurological scars and a body tilted onto the path of mid-life chronic disease. In his extensive research into the destructive impact of adult bullying and abuse on children, Dr. Vincent Felitti describes it as a “reverse alchemy” whereby a child’s once golden health and potential are turned into lead by the adults who rule their lives.

Strategies to Support Children’s Recovery from Adult Bullying

Once the abusive adult is held accountable and removed from a position of trust and power over victims, healing can begin. In addition to mental health counselling, educational supports can be dedicated to repairing the harm done.

Children and youth need to devote time to re-establishing clarity. They need to be repeatedly taught that the bullying was not their fault and not deserved. They need to know they are not to blame for what the adult did to them, nor are they to blame for the adult's loss of position or reputation.

Children and youth can be supported in unpacking conflicted feelings like having a "loyalty-bind" to the one who abused them. They can learn that their training throughout childhood to respect and obey adults may have led them into a destructive situation due to an untrustworthy, bullying adult.

Understanding the protective sympathetic nervous system

To support children and youth in understanding the negative impact of all forms of bullying and abuse, they need to learn how the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems work. The lessons on these systems and why they function the way they do can gain in complexity along with the age and stage of the children.

Even young children can understand that their brain and body are designed to keep them safe. Analogies like a smoke alarm or a bell on a bicycle can be used to get them to see the advantages of an early warning system. Likewise, children can be taught that the brain and body release stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol to ramp up the body and get it ready to fight, flee, or freeze. Images and discussions around animals, that use these tried and true strategies for survival, work effectively to support children in understanding why their sympathetic nervous system acts the way it does.

Rather than shying away or minimizing the bullying done by adults, this is a time to role-model having a courageous discussion with children and youth. You can ask questions about whether or not their sympathetic nervous system—their fight, flight, freeze reaction—was activated when they were being bullied. Have them reflect on it, and talk amongst themselves in pairs or small groups.

As Dr. Dan Siegel says, there is great stress reduction that comes when you “name it to tame it.” Children can imagine their stress response as an aggressive beast that their brain and body unleashed in order to keep them safe, which can then lead to a discussion around how to calm down or “tame” it.

Empowering children to manage their parasympathetic nervous system

Children and youth need to know that their own health depends on learning how to purposefully activate their parasympathetic nervous system. They can envision their two systems like a seesaw. When threatened or in danger, their sympathetic nervous system tilts up, but when socially relating or in safety, they can consciously put down the stress response system.

They need to know that it is also possible to purposefully tilt up their parasympathetic system, their "rest and digest" system, in order to calm their stress levels, lower their stress hormones, relax, and rejuvenate. Parents, teachers, and coaches can empower children to activate their rest and digest system when they are safe.

Children can learn that aerobic fitness, mindfulness, and brain-training (designed by neuroscientists) are all evidence-based ways to prevent the stress that comes from having been bullied. They can put into daily practice these three activities in order to repair the harm done to their brain and body. Instead of having a body and brain perpetually primed to fight, flight, or freeze, they can discover richer, more nuanced emotional states so they have many more responses to choose from depending on the situation.

Children can learn to deconstruct negative reactions and anticipations that bullying may have built within them. They can be taught to assign thoughtful “emotion-concepts,” not just reactive or default ones that they needed when being bullied. Arguably, these kinds of lessons are as vital as anything else a child learns at home, in school, or in sports.

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