Bullying as a Behavior Learned Through Trauma

By: Sally Kuykendall and Maria DiGiorgio McColgan, M.D., MSEd, FAAP

Article #2 of the IBPA Trauma Series

The relationship between trauma and bullying is complex. Bullying can create a traumatic experience and traumatic experiences can create bullying. This article discusses two mechanisms through which traumatic experiences may cause a child to act violently. In understanding bullying as a reaction to trauma, caregivers and teachers can gain insight into underlying motivations and develop constructive ways to re-shape behavior. 

In Article #1, Dr. McDaniel-Muldoon describes how threats activate the neuroendocrine network. In fight mode, the person is hyper-vigilant, constantly surveilling the environment and primed to respond quickly and aggressively. In flight mode, the individual withdraws socially, emotionally or physically. In freeze mode, the person appears numb and unresponsive. Exposure to severe or reoccurring trauma conditions the body to shift into the preferred reaction. In the developing brain, neurons grow or are pruned as a result of interactions with the environment. Frequent activation of the neuroendocrine network can influence permanent brain structure and function. The mind is not only conditioned to respond with fight, flight or freeze, the neurological system is hard-wired to favor a particular response. The child who loses his temper easily or always seems to be looking for a fight is doing so because his brain is conditioned to aggression. The child who does not have any close friends and seems to be an easy target for bullying is also doing what his brain tells him to do, retreat from possible danger. In this way, both bullying and victimization can be conditioned responses. 

A second way that children learn violence-related behaviors is by watching peers and adults acting aggressively. Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) offers an overview to understanding violence as learned behavior. A few of the basic constructs of SCT are observational learning, self-efficacy, expectations, expectancies, reinforcements and reciprocal determinism. With observational learning, the child sees others acting aggressively. Opportunities to witness aggression may be in the form of family violence, community violence, media or personal experience with being attacked. Trauma is one way that children witness violence. In addition to modeling how to perform an aggressive behavior, observation introduces behaviors that the observer may not have thought of. If someone intervenes to stop the behavior, the observer learns that the behaviors are unacceptable. If no one intervenes or only intervenes on occasion, the observer learns to dismiss instincts against hurting others. The youth is conditioned to accept violence against others. Self-efficacy is the confidence to perform a particular behavior. Aggressive behaviors are not difficult actions to perform. With a few attempts, the youth can easily master hitting, pushing, shunning, name-calling, cyber-bullying or other forms of attack. If others intervene to stop attacks, self-efficacy is diminished. Expectations are what the attacker believes will come out of the attack and expectancies are the value of that outcome to the attacker. If the attacker believes that peers will admire her for bullying an unpopular peer, the attacker has a certain expectation of the outcome. If the attacker desires peer admiration, the expectancy has value. The behavior is reinforced by peer admiration. Of course, bullying is not just about aggressive behaviors. Bullying involves an imbalance of power. When bystanders fail to intervene to protect the target, behavior is strengthened. Chronic failure to intervene creates a toxic environment. Newcomers adjust their behavior to match existing social norms. Violence becomes ingrained in the community. 

Not all bullying-related behaviors are related to the conditioned or learned response. There are many other biological, social and psychological reasons why someone bullies. The good news is that both the neuroendocrine reaction and learned behavior may be unlearned- or at least tempered. The brain is continually taking in and processing new information. Consistent, respectful, and objective intervention can interrupt conditioned responses and teach new ways to interact in society. 

Sally Kuykendall is mother and stepmother of three sons and two daughters. She studied bullying in schools for nine years before writing the reference book, Bullying: Health and Medical Issues Today. She has been cited by many news agencies and served as content consultant on the public television show Beyond the Bully (KSMQ, Rochester, MN).

Maria DiGiorgio McColgan, M.D., MSEd, FAAP is a Child Abuse Pediatrician at The CARES Institute, Associate Professor of Pediatrics at Rowan SOM, and the CARES Child Abuse Pediatrics Fellowship Director at Cooper University Health.  Dr. McColgan is board certified in Pediatrics and Child Abuse Pediatrics. Dr. McColgan received a Master’s in Elementary Education and her Medical Degree from Temple University. Dr. McColgan completed her pediatric residency at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children and was the founding Medical Director of the Child Protection Program, a position she held for over 13 years.  Dr. McColgan is the founding Advisory Board Chair and Pediatric Advisor of Prevent Child Abuse Pennsylvania. In 2018, she was appointed to the School District of Philadelphia Board of Education and has served on the Pennsylvania Children’s Trust Fund Board and the Philadelphia Academy Charter School Board.  

Suggested resources are:

Center for the Developing Child, Harvard University, Three Core Concepts in Early Development, Available at: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/three-core-concepts-in-early-development/

Bullying in North American schools: A social-ecological perspective on prevention and intervention by Dorothy L. Espelage and Susan M. Swearer

Romania’s abandoned children: Deprivation, brain development, and the struggle for recovery by Charles A. Nelson, Nathan A. Fox, and Charles H. Zeanah

The Sanctuary Model by Sandra Bloom

Stopbullying.gov, Available at: https://www.stopbullying.gov/

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