International Bullying Prevention Association

Viewing Bullying through the Lens of Trauma

Viewing Bullying through the Lens of Trauma

By: Julie E. McDaniel-Muldoon, PhD

Part of the IBPA Trauma Series

In August 2017, the US Department of Health and Human Services released Bullying as an Adverse Childhood Experience on its StopBullying.gov site. This fact sheet calls for all involved in bullying prevention efforts to have a strong understanding of trauma, to see the relationship between trauma and bullying, and to develop a shared vision of how bullying prevention might become a part of trauma-informed practices. 

What is Trauma?

Trauma is an experience that leaves a person feeling hopeless or helpless, perceiving a tremendous loss of safety and fear for survival. The details of a traumatic event itself are not important; instead, the focus must be on the way people experience the event.  When the brain perceives threat to safety, whether that threat is real or imagined, the most instinctual part of the brain (often called the reptilian brain) goes into survival mode. This powerful automatic response is often categorized as “fight”, “flight”, or “freeze”. Survival mode reduces cognitive and emotional capacity. 

In this survival mode, the body is in a state of hyper-arousal: where heart-rate is accelerated and emotions are unregulated. Additionally, stress hormones (such as cortisol and adrenalin) are released. What makes this most concerning in children is that the surge in these hormones over an extended period of time may cause damage to a still-developing brain.

The effects of childhood trauma on adulthood is a relatively new area for research; however, studies confirm that the trauma experienced by children/young people has long-lasting social, emotional, cognitive, and physical effects into adulthood. This impact is no less than the Post-Traumatic Stress diagnosed in veterans of war or first responders in devastating natural disasters.

What Is the Relationship between Trauma and Bullying?

A traumatic experience brings feelings of hopelessness and helplessness; the same feelings as those targeted by bullying behavior. The important distinction between bullying and other acts of aggression, the perceived or real imbalance of power, is at the heart of what constitutes bullying as a traumatic experience. 

Exposure to a childhood traumatic event can cause some children to exhibit harmful behavior that can last into adulthood. For example, the original ACEs Study documented 10% of females and 15% of males with high incidents of childhood trauma that became perpetrators of domestic violence in adulthood. The trajectory for those engaged in bullying behavior into adulthood is equally concerning. Bullying researchers Dan Olweus and colleagues found that males who engaged in aggressive behavior and are identified by age 8 are more likely to be convicted of a crime and have a serious criminal record in adulthood. We know that hurt people hurt people, therefore, childhood trauma intervention may be the key to ending this cycle of violence.

No matter if directly or indirectly involved, the impact of a traumatic event can be found in anyone. A bullying situation similarly affects everyone involved: the perpetrators, the victims, and the witnesses. Looking through the lens of trauma, bullying is viewed as the complex experience that it is.

Julie E. McDaniel-Muldoon, PhD

  • Social Media Director, International Bullying Prevention Association (IBPA)
  • Student Safety and Well-Being Consultant, Oakland Schools (Waterford, Michigan)
  • Advanced Practitioner and Trainer, National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children (TLC)
  • julie.mcdaniel@oakland.k12.mi.us

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