When bullying stops the effects remain leaving children to suffer in silence
Bullying is an interpersonal event and there are many noticeable aspects of children’s development that may make repeated bullying experiences especially harmful. In adolescence, bullying might affect the development of cognitive abilities that control and regulate other abilities and behaviors including attention, response inhibition, and organization and planning.
PTSD symptoms related to school bullying have rarely been investigated, and never in national representative samples as far as the researchers are aware. In this study Dr. Thormod Idsøe, PhD, from the University of Stavanger (UiS) and Bergen’s Center for Crisis Psychology and colleagues Ella Maria Cosmovici Idsøe at the UiS Centre for Behavioral Research and psychologist Atle Dyregrov from the Center for Crisis Psychology examined to what extent is the association between bullying and PTSD symptoms.
For this study researchers used data from a national survey conducted in Norway in 2008. A representative sample of municipalities was randomly selected in accordance with the Norwegian Central Bureau of Statistics’ standard of municipality classification. The study included 963 children aged 14 and 15 in Norwegian schools.
The study measured the extent of intrusive memories and avoidance behavior among pupils. These are two of three defined PTSD symptoms. The third, physiological stress activation was not covered.
The results revealed a high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms among bullied pupils. These signs were seen in roughly 33 per cent of respondents who said they had been victims of bullying.
“Bullying is defined as long-term physical or mental violence by an individual or group.” “It’s directed at a person who’s not able to defend themselves at the relevant time. We know that such experiences can leave a mark on the victim,” states Dr. Idsøe.
Some recent research on the potential relationship between bullying and PTSD symptoms has focused on workplace bullying among adults revealing high levels of these three defining signs such as two Norwegian studies. In one of them 63% of a sample of victims of workplace bullying (n = 102) reported high levels of PTSD symptoms, especially intrusive memories and avoidance. In the other study 76% of those being bullied at work (n = 118) reported PTSD symptoms.
“Traumatic experiences or strains imposed on us by others can often hurt more than accidents.” “That could be why so many pupils report such symptoms,” says Dr. Idsøe.
These symptoms can cause great difficulty concentrating and having a disruptive effect along with preventing sufferers from functioning normally in daily life. Idsøe has personally seen how PTSD symptoms can create problems for schoolchildren.
According to Dr. Idsøe “Pupils who’re constantly plagued by thoughts about or images of painful experiences, and who use much energy to suppress them, will clearly have less capacity to concentrate on schoolwork. Nor is this usually easy to observe — they often suffer in silence.”
The results showed signs of PTSD symptoms were seen in 33% of those who responded.
The study also revealed that girls are more likely to show PTSD symptoms than boys, which accords with studies on other types of strain remarks Dr. Idsøe.
“We also found that those with the worst symptoms were a small group of pupils who, in addition to being victims of bullying, frequently bullied fellow pupils themselves.”
Dr. Idsøe remarks he finds it difficult to give an exact explanation of why some groups are more likely to develop PTSD symptoms, but says this question is a general issue among trauma specialists.
He provides one explanation as an example, that it “could be that difficult earlier experiences make the sufferers more vulnerable, and they thereby develop symptoms and mental health problems more easily.”
He hopes that this study can help boost awareness that a number of bullied schoolchildren may need support even after the mistreatment has ended.
“We know that Norwegian schools devote much attention to putting a stop to bullying it, and that pupils who need immediate support do receive it,” Idsøe says.
“But we also see that such assistance stops too early. Although the bullying may have ended, PTSD symptoms could persist for a long time with some children.”
In their conclusion the researchers write; “School psychologists and teachers should be informed about these findings. Teachers could become more competent and sensitive to identifying PTSD symptoms in order to refer the children to specialists and re-adjust teaching and learning environments in order to alleviate symptoms.”
“The issue of PTSD symptoms among victims or how to deal with them is virtually non-existent in many well-known anti-bullying programs. Our results show that it is important for intervention programs aimed at bullying to address PTSD symptoms among victims, and how schools can deal with these in an appropriate way. A school-based intervention for treating this particular group of children might be needed. As the actual number of children who experience bullying and resulting post-traumatic reactions yearly are high, developing appropriate group approaches could be a priority.”
Dr. Idsøe said there were limitations to their study such as using a self-report measure of bullying, and this should ideally be supported through peer, parent, and/or teacher report and that more detailed studies of the link between bullying and PTSD are therefore required.
“Although we asked about PTSD symptoms related to episodes of bullying, we can’t exclude the possibility that the responses may relate in some cases to other traumatic incidents,” he says.
This study is published in the in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, with greater detail.
Dr. Idsøe also belongs to a national research group investigating the link between being bullied and the psychiatric diagnosis of PTSD. That involves more criteria than a high level of symptoms.
Information on bullying can be viewed online at Stop Bullying
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Bullying can affect you in many ways. You may lose sleep or feel sick. You may want to skip school. You may even be thinking about suicide. If you are feeling hopeless or helpless or know someone that is, please call the LIFELINE at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)