Growing Up Bullied

Helping teens heal from the emotional scars of bullying

Posted Aug 12, 2013

Bullying has finally been exposed for what it is — inexcusable. As a response to its alarming rise in schools, online, and even at home, a growing number of educational programs are taking aim at decreasing this cruel behavior. In the meantime, the victims of bullying continue to suffer, many in silence. Bullying can hurt so terribly that some teens commit suicide to make the pain go away. 

How do we help young people heal from acts of aggression by peers and adults?   

When I grew up in the 1960’s I remember running home from the playground, sobbing uncontrollable when a few older students made fun of my climbing skills. The next day, I was determined to show them that I wasn’t as inept as they thought. 

Responding to taunts and name-calling, I followed an older kid’s lead and slid down the pole of the monkey bars upside down. To my embarrassment and dismay, I landed solidly on my head. The next memory was of blood trickling down my ear as an emergency room doctor sewed up the gash in my scull. 

Surgical stitches healed my wounds on the outside, but I felt demoralized on the inside. I still remember the fear and anxiety of that experience and how interminably long I felt the despair of being bullied. 

Young people live in a world today, where bullying has moved from the playground to all aspects of life.  While sibling rivalry was once considered a normal rite of passage, we now know that aggression between siblings can cause emotional wounds as severe as the torment caused by bullies at school. A new study, summarized in the New York Times article, When the Bully Is a Sibling, suggests that bullying at home should be taken just as seriously as other types. 

Cyber bullying is the new kid on the block. A recent study, Digital Deception: Exploring the Online Disconnect between Parents & Preteens, Teens and Young Adults, found that 50% of teens and tweens have had negative experiences online and 23% have witnessed cruel behavior toward others, mostly on Facebook

How are teens coping with the emotional scars of growing up bullied? Based on research about the mental health of incoming college freshman, the answer may be not very well

Help for Teen Victims of Bullying 

There are many excellent resources for parents and teachers working with victims of bullying. One particularly good  book is Bullied: What Every Parent, Teacher, and Kid Needs to Know about Ending the Cycle of Fear, by fellow Psychology Today contributor Carrie Goldman. This is a must-read for parents and educators, boiling down a very complex topic into understandable themes. It also offers excellent strategies for helping and advocating for victims.  

While Goldman’s work is a perfect resource for adults, a much needed book was recently published for teens and tweens. Bullied: Why You Feel Bad Inside and What to Do About It, by award-winning author Katherine Mayfield, helps young people identify, confront, and cope with the effects of bullying. 

Writing from her experience of being bullied and contemplating suicide as a teen, Mayfield connects with young people in simple, powerful, and personal ways. Helping teens and tweens understand what bullying feels like on the inside, she gently guides them through a four-step plan for regaining emotional health. In less than 100 pages, this book can help teens through the challenge of being a bullying victim as well as understand how their own anger can inadvertently cause them to become a bully. 

Four Steps to Feeling Better 

Mayfield’s four-step guide for teens includes the following:

1. Acknowledge Feelings 

Being a victim of bullying causes many emotions, including sadness, anger, despair and shame. These are all normal. Recognizing how you feel is the first step toward healing. Often, it is helpful to talk with adults to help identify your feelings. But once you learn how to do this for yourself, it is a tool you’ll have a lifetime.

2. Express Feelings

Our emotional lives are a bit like wells. In order to invite more positive feelings into them, we have to get rid of the negative ones. One way to do this is by learning how to express the negative feelings in helpful, healing, and safe ways. This can include venting to a friend or mentor, going to the gym, crying, writing about your feelings, or expressing your anger through forms of physical activity.

3. Let Go of Fear

As the German proverb says, “Fear makes the wolf bigger than he is.” Letting go of fear requires the ability to treat oneself gently. Learning to breathe deeply, meditating, listening to music, and moving your body are helpful techniques for letting go of fear and discovering inner wisdom.

4. Move On

Getting beyond the pain of being bullied is essential to your mental health. Focus on your interests and on building positive relationships with your friends and family. Join a different group, take up a new sport, or volunteer in your community. Instead of letting the negative feelings of being a victim fill up your emotional well, fill your life with new possibilities.

 

References 

J.H. Pryor, et al., The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010 (Los Angeles, CA: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, 2010).

 

Marilyn Price-Mitchell, PhD, is a developmental psychologist working at the intersection of youth development, leadership, education, and civic engagement. 

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©2013 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.

Image Credit: Mitar Gavric