From Hurt to Healing: Supporting Loved Ones Through Bullying

ESH Blog
From Hurt to Healing: Supporting Loved Ones Through Bullying
Signs that read: cyberbullying, verbal bullying, exclusion from social circles, physical bullying, homophobia, racism, transphobia
Signs that read: cyberbullying, verbal bullying, exclusion from social circles, physical bullying, homophobia, racism, transphobia

Bullying isn’t a childhood rite of passage – it’s an issue that affects our loved ones and individuals of all ages, from children to adults, leaving its mark in schoolyards, workplaces, and online spaces. Bullying occurs in multiple ways – verbal, physical, exclusion from social circles, and online via texts, email, and social media. As a support human, you can listen and support a friend or family member experiencing the trauma of bullying. Let’s dig into how bullying works and what we can do about it.

Bullying is a repeated aggressive behavior where one person (or group of people) in a position of power deliberately intimidates, abuses, or coerces an individual with the intention to hurt that person physically or emotionally.

Understanding Bullying and Power

Unlike mutual teasing, bullying occurs when unwanted, demeaning behavior involves a real or perceived power imbalance. This means the person or a group of people doing the bullying is more powerful (in either a real or perceived way) than the person receiving bullying, and the people who are bullying are leveraging their power through repeated acts of aggression, threats, and deliberate isolation.

This power imbalance can often relate to racism and other forms of social injustice. Many groups of people who are disadvantaged face a higher rate of bullying due to racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of discrimination and stereotyping. Disproportionately impacted communities include people with disabilities, people in the LGBTQIA+ community, people with underrepresented religions, and people who are Black, Indigenous, and people of Color (BIPOC). According to the Civil Rights Data Collection on School Climate and Safety conducted by the U.S. Department of Education:

  • 23% of bullying allegations involved bullying based on race
  • 16% of bullying allegations involved bullying based on sexual orientation
  • 11% of bullying allegations involved bullying based on disability
  • 8% of incidents were tied to allegations of bullying based on religion

Connecting Bullying and Trauma

Bullying and trauma are directly related. Childhood bullying is classified as an Adverse Childhood Event (ACE), which falls under the category of traumatic experiences. Children involved in bullying incidents are not only more likely to have prior traumas, they also suffer from the traumatic effects of the bullying itself. The consequences of bullying may linger long after the incidents occur, leaving potentially profound emotional scars and lasting impacts on our loved ones. These effects may persist from childhood well into adulthood, potentially resulting in diminished self-esteem, heightened anxiety, depression, and more. When a loved one experiences bullying, it may affect their social interactions, disrupt school attendance/performance (or work, for adults), and may even lead to substance use and suicidal thoughts and behaviors.

Resources on Trauma:

  • For more on the link between bullying and trauma, as well as advice on how children and adults can be an upstander—both to stop bullying and to prevent it—visit
  • National Child Traumatic Stress Network also offers content on bullying, including traumatic effects and resources, as well as detailed descriptions of some populations at risk including LGBTQIA+ youth.

Recognizing the Signs of Bullying

Recognizing the signs of bullying, whether in children or adults, can be challenging. After all, people who experience bullying may stay silent, perhaps afraid or ashamed to speak out. They may exhibit physical and emotional signs that we might not always notice. But, if we pay attention, we may notice a pattern. Here are few signs to look out for in your loved ones who may be experiencing bullying:

  • Strange injuries
  • Often “loses” personal belongings
  • Eating or sleeping disorders
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Loneliness and isolation
  • Work or school absences
  • Withdraw from society, family, and friends
  • Feeling sick, frequent headaches or stomach aches, or faking illnesses
  • Loss of motivation
  • Sudden loss of friends
  • Self-destructive habits/overall deterioration of lifestyle
  • Darkened perspective on life and relationships
  • Development of mental health issues

Helping as an Emotional Support Human

Finding out about our loved ones’ bullying can be hurtful – learning that our loved ones were suffering in silence without our knowledge can raise feelings of guilt, anger, or sadness. However, as an emotional support human, you possess the power to help, especially if you’re witnessing the bullying:

  1. Listen, reassure, and express support
  2. You can show support to your loved ones by offering a listening ear and emotional support – if the person experiencing bullying stayed silent for some time before sharing their story, the act of sharing may be very emotional for them.

    Being a good listener is the first step, let them know you believe and love them. Showing you care about their feelings may inspire them to take action against bullying.

    It can be a challenge to avoid internalizing bullying, so it's crucial to reassure your loved one(s) that they are not at fault for the bullying they're experiencing. Reminding them of this fact can have a positive and comforting effect.

    The conversation may turn to helping them find appropriate resources. For adults, if bullying happens in the workplace, this may include mental health counselors, support groups, or human resources departments. Also, you may be able to arrange to be with them in situations where bullying typically occurs, for instance, if you are coworkers with someone experiencing the bullying in the workplace. Your presence can be a significant source of strength in their lives, as knowing someone is on their side can empower them to find the courage to report bullying behavior. Additionally, you can play a role in encouraging others to support the individual facing bullying by educating them about the harmful nature of such behavior and urging them to report what they witnessed.

    For children experiencing bullying, parents, teachers, and other caretakers must proceed to taking action after listening and providing care.

  3. Get the facts and document of the bullying
  4. For children who are bullied, ask them open-ended questions: Is anyone doing anything that is making them feel upset, uncomfortable, or embarrassed? Are they or you receiving mean messages on social media? If so, who is sending them, how often, and when? You may need to reach out to others who may know more. For digital bullying, you may also be able to document through printing emails, text messages, and screenshots from social media and online forums, as well as saving voice messages. Write it all down and try to create a timeline of what happened and when.

    If you witness bullying, speak up While the bullying is still occurring, you may find yourself present to witness the behavior. If you observe a loved one experiencing bullying, consider speaking up. When you choose to intervene, maintain a calm and firm approach, avoiding escalation into arguments, planning retaliation, or engaging in unkind behavior or violence. It's important to remember that responding to bullying with violence will not improve the situation; instead, it can exacerbate it.

    For adults who are bullied, your role as a support human is to listen and not to take over. If they ask for help, suggest they also take the step of documenting the history of bullying, so they are prepared to share their story when they are ready.

  5. Report
  6. For children experiencing bullying at school, meet with the teacher if the bullying is happening in the classroom or the principal if the bullying is happening outside of class. Bring the documentation you prepared and ask what the school will do, when, and request an action plan should the bullying continue. In cases of cyberbullying, consider reporting it to the relevant social media platform in addition to the school administration.

    In Howard County, parents and caregivers may visit the Stop Bullying website of the Howard County Public School System. Stop Bullying includes information on Howard County’s approach and policies, as well as an online form to report bullying, including cyberbullying, harassment, and intimidation.

    For adults, your role as a support human is to support them as they take the reporting step, when they are ready. Continue to listen and offer encouragement.

  7. Monitor—and keep offering support
  8. Maryland has anti-bullying laws, as do all 50 states.

    For children experiencing bullying, the school may need to take specific actions once you report bullying to comply with the law. Monitor what actions the school takes and keep documenting and notifying them of any new incidents. Write down who you spoke with at the school, their response, and add this to your documentation file.

    If you do not hear back from the school in a timely fashion, or the bullying continues, contact the school district superintendent by phone and in writing. (To call or email the Howard County Public School System’s Superintendent, visit here.) In your message, ask for their help to stop the bullying and provide your documentation again.

    For adults experiencing bullying, follow up if they share that they reported the incident, ask them how the process went, and ask them how they are doing. Use open-ended questions and listen.

    For both children and adults, keep offering your support. Hopefully, the school, workplace, or any other venue where bullying is taking place will take quick and supportive action. In any case, your loved ones who are experiencing bullying may still feel a lot of emotions during and after the process.

Providing the Support We Want to See

No one should have to suffer in silence, especially our loved ones. When we support our loved ones who are experiencing bullying—whether connected to racism, other forms of social oppression, or a power imbalance—we provide them with a source of inner strength to stand up to injustice and protect their health.

Sometimes, what we provide as support humans is greater than we realize, helping them navigate and overcome the challenges of bullying. During Bullying Prevention Month in October, and all year round, Horizon Foundation encourages you to be a support to those experiencing bullying and trauma.

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