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.
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 StopBullying.gov.
- 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:
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.