Bullying Can Lead to PTSD

Discover how PTSD manifests itself in kids

unhappy girl sitting in corner

Bullying can leave a lasting impact on victims. They often experience anxiety, fear, nightmares, sleeplessness, depression and a host of other symptoms. And because victims often feel vulnerable, powerless and unable to defend themselves, it is not surprising that bullying also can lead to stress-related conditions like posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In fact, recent research has shown that there is a direct link between bullying and PTSD.

PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder that occurs after a trauma like bullying. Although any kind of stress can lead to PTSD, it typically involves a direct personal experience where the victim felt threatened, was injured or saw someone else die, being threatened or injured.

Research also shows that girls are more affected by PTSD than boys. Moreover, the stress experienced by bullying does not necessarily cease when the bullying stops. As a result, PTSD can show up in a person’s life long after the bullying has ended.

What does PTSD look like in children?

While PTSD symptoms are similar in adults and children, there are a few things that are different. These differences are worth noting especially if you feel your child may have PTSD.

School-aged children (ages 5-12). Children often do not have flashbacks or problems remembering parts of the trauma or bullying, the way adults with PTSD often do.

But, they might put the events of the bullying in the wrong order. Kids also might believe that there were signs that the bullying was going to happen. As a result, they believe that if they pay attention, they can avoid future traumas. This belief can cause hyper vigilance.

Sometimes kids show signs of PTSD in their play.

For instance, they might keep repeating a part of the trauma over and over while playing. Unfortunately, playing this way will rarely make their worry and distress go away. Kids also may fit parts of the trauma into their daily lives. For example, a child might carry a baseball bat to school if a bully threatened him with a baseball bat.

Teens (ages 12-18). Because teens are approaching adulthood, some PTSD symptoms in teens begin to look like those of adults. For instance, they may have upsetting thoughts or memories, recurring nightmares, flashbacks and strong feelings of distress when reminded of the event. The one difference is that teens are more likely than younger children or adults to show impulsive and aggressive behaviors. What’s more, even though kids may be plagued by thoughts of painful experiences, this does not mean they are easily observable. In fact, kids often suffer in silence.

In addition to PTSD, children and teens often experience other effects of bullying including fear, worry, sadness, anger, loneliness, low self-worth, inability to trust others, depression and sometimes even thoughts of suicide.

Be sure you know the signs of bullying, especially because some kids never mention the bullying to their parents. Early intervention in a bullying situation is the best way to reduce the likelihood of long-term consequences. 

What can parents do to help?

For many children, PTSD symptoms go away on their own after a few months. Yet some children show symptoms for years if they do not get treatment. One of the best ways to help your child overcome bullying and deal with symptoms of PTSD is to pay attention to how your child is doing. Watch for signs such as sleep problems, anger and avoidance of certain people or places. Also watch for changes in school performance and problems with friends.

If symptoms do not seem to be improving, recognize that you may need to get outside help for your child. Ask your pediatrician to refer you to a mental health provider who has treated PTSD in children. Then, meet with the counselor and ask how PTSD is treated. Ask how the therapist treats PTSD, Feel free to meet with several counselors until you find someone who makes you and your child feel at ease. 

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