Childhood Bullying as a Part of Complex Trauma

I have spoken with countless survivors who report not only having endured narcissistic abuse by parents and spouses, but also by school-aged peers.

Childhood bullying can cause PTSD and even be a part of Complex PTSD. As Dr. Babbel (2011), a psychologist who specializes in trauma and depression, notes in her article, “Child Bullying’s Consequence: Adult PTSD“:

“Interestingly, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was traditionally considered to be a disorder that arose from a single traumatic incident. However, in recent years, experts have begun to identify a second definition for PTSD that allows for the victims of repeated traumatizing incidents. Bullying falls into this category…although PTSD has traditionally been thought to be caused by a single, life-threatening event (or, at least, an event that seemed to be life threatening), in the case of trauma such as bullying, PTSD can also come about by way of an “accumulation of many small, individually non-life-threatening” incidents.

With Complex PTSD, victims are “held captive” by their situations. Children who are subject to regular bullying may not have any way out of what they perceive as a trapped situation. Reporting incidents to teachers or other authority figures can be a daunting prospect, as this sort of “tattletale” behavior is so apt to exacerbate the bullying instead of halting it.”

Bullying can range from verbal and emotional assaults to physical violence. When childhood bullying survivors are also abused at home by toxic parents, the trauma becomes compounded. Children who endure maltreatment both at school and at home are at higher risk for developing mental health problems in adulthood (Lereya et. al, 2015).

Whether there is an association between being abused at home and at school remains unclear, as studies have had mixed findings. Some research suggests that teens who suffer from depression tend to be more at risk for being bullied due to their difficulty making friends (Kochel et. al, 2012). This makes sense, as survivors of narcissistic parents are likely to struggle emotionally and are perhaps more socially withdrawn than their peers due to the abuse they’re suffering behind closed doors. Bullies may be on the lookout for targets that, at least on the surface, appear to be vulnerable.

Yet other experts suggest that bully victims can be targeted if they tend to be more talented, more attractive or more popular than their peers. Diane Felmlee, a professor of sociology at Penn State and co-author of one of these studies says, “We did find that students who are isolated do get bullied. However, for most students, the likelihood of being targeted by aggressive acts increases as a student becomes more popular, with the exception of those at the very top” (Swayne, 2014).

Dr. Gail Gross (2013) also asserts that among female bullies and their victims, relational aggression can serve as a way to pull down girls who bring up the insecurities of other girls:

“It is important to note that not only are the weak targeted but often a girl that is considered to be too pretty, too smart, too nice and therefore making the other girls feel inferior. In fact, bullies may describe a target as “too full of herself.” And, because of the competition and striving for popularity as well as positions of power, peer groups may form alliances to cast out and isolate the offending girl.”

One thing is certain: if there is anything that makes victims of bullying at home more susceptible to bullying at school, it is in no way their fault and the impact needs to be taken just as seriously as any other form of childhood abuse.

Many children who endure severe bullying – whether emotional or physical – are harmed by traumas that affect them for a lifetime during crucial developmental stages of their life. Indeed, many of the survivors I’ve spoken with tell me that bullying during childhood affected their self-esteem, their choice of relationship partners (interestingly, many of whom were narcissistic), and inevitably shaped their life-course trajectory. Research tells us that bully victims are at increased risk of decreased academic achievement, developing depression and anxiety and, if combined with factors such as abuse by parents, suicidal ideation.

“Many issues contribute to suicide risk, including depression, problems at home, and trauma history. Additionally, specific groups have an increased risk of suicide, including American Indian and Alaskan Native, Asian American, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth. This risk can be increased further when these kids are not supported by parents, peers, and schools. Bullying can make an unsupportive situation worse.” – The Effects of Bullying, StopBullying.gov

Combined with narcissistic abuse at home, survivors of bullying both by parents and by peers endure a complex trauma that is unbearable and can place them on the higher end of the Adverse Childhood Experiences scale (SAMHSA, 2017).

Are Childhood Bullies Narcissistic?

But what does this have to do with narcissism, you may ask? Plenty. The Childhood Narcissism Scale, for example, measures interpersonal and psychological attributes that are similar to adult narcissism, such as self-appraised superiority, social evaluative concern, relational aggression following ego threat and a lack of empathy for others in children (Thomaes, et al. 2008).

A child can still demonstrate abusive behavior that is eerily reminiscent of the way abusive narcissists interact with their victims as adults. Spreading gossip, chronically putting down someone else’s appearance, abilities and intelligence, making the victim a scapegoat – these are all behaviors that also come to life within the context of an adult relationship with a narcissist – yet if it occurs chronically during a time when a child is still developing, it has even more far-reaching consequences.

Although Narcissistic Personality Disorder is a disorder that is diagnosed in adults, not children, there has been interesting research that shows a correlation between narcissistic, antisocial or even psychopathic tendencies in children and their bullying behavior.

In fact, in one study, psychopathic narcissism was associated with being the ‘ringleader’ of a bullying group, while another study found that bullying behavior in childhood predicted anti-social, even criminal behavior years later (Stillwagen et. al, 2012; Renda et. al 2011). 

This means that our childhood bullies are not just kids who struggle with low self-esteem (though there are certainly bullies of this type as well!). While there are many bullies who do outgrow their bullying ways and evolve, among them may actually be potential “narcissists in the making” – with a sense of superiority and grandiosity that is not too different from our adult perpetrators.

These childhood predators have been shown to actually have high self-esteem in adulthood, tend to fare well in adulthood and do not seem to be affected by their behavior as their victims were (Wong and Koh, 2015). The ruthlessness, lack of empathy and penchant for sadism of more malignant bullies can place their victims at high risk for harmful consequences in adulthood.

Bullying Should Not be Normalized or Ignored. It Changes the Brains of Victims.

Bullying in childhood is often normalized as something that occurs to all children, but this dismisses and minimizes its destructive impact on those who already have a trauma history and are more susceptible to suicidal ideation. When bullying adds onto a pervasive sense of helplessness for the victim, it causes that victim to feel unsupported in all facets of his or her life.

Bully victims are vulnerable to mental health problems and the experiences of being bullied change the structures of their brain. In bully victims, the amygdala, the area of the brain related to emotion regulation and fear – is enlarged, while the prefrontal cortex, responsible for social behavior and decision-making, is thinner, related to an increase in impulsive and dangerous behavior behavior.

“Bullying is not just a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up. Victims of bullying are at increased risk for emotional disorders in adulthood. Bullies/victims are at highest risk and are most likely to think about or plan suicide. These problems are associated with great emotional and financial costs to society.” – William E. Copeland, Adult Psychiatric Outcomes of Bullying and Being Bullied by Peers in Childhood and Adolescence

When we consider that this bullying is a source of trauma that literally rewires the malleable childhood brain and can affect a child’s interpersonal behavior, their belief systems and their sense of worthiness when navigating the world and making choices in adulthood, we recognize that bullying can drastically change a person’s entire life.

Educators, school administrators and child psychologists all must intervene in ways that support the bully victim and hold bullies accountable for their actions. Victims of bullying who are ignored by the administration when attempting to speak out about the bullying are unfortunately placed at even greater risk for becoming increasingly isolated and alienated.

On the other hand, the victims of bullying also develop a great deal of resilience and motivation from their adversity. The bullying they suffered can provide numerous incentives for them to “prove their bullies wrong” and carve out a path to success and victory in the future.

References

Babbel, S. (2011, March 15). Child Bullying’s Consequence: Adult PTSD. Retrieved October 10, 2017, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/somatic-psychology/201103/child-bullyings-consequence-adult-ptsd

Copeland WE, Wolke D, Angold A, Costello EJ. Adult Psychiatric Outcomes of Bullying and Being Bullied by Peers in Childhood and Adolescence. JAMA Psychiatry. 2013;70(4):419–426. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2013.504

Gross, D. G. (2013, October 03). Girls Who Bully and the Women They Learn From. Retrieved October 10, 2017, from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/dr-gail-gross/girls-who-bully-and-the-women-they-learn-from_b_4034100.html

Kochel, K.P., Ladd, G.W., & Rudolph, K.D. (2012). Longitudinal associations among youth depressive symptoms, peer victimization, and low peer acceptance: An interpersonal process
perspective. Child Development, 83(2), 637-650. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8624.2011.01722.x

Lereya, S. T., Copeland, W. E., Costello, E. J., & Wolke, D. (2015). Adult mental health consequences of peer bullying and maltreatment in childhood: Two cohorts in two countries. The Lancet Psychiatry, 2(6), 524-531. doi:10.1016/s2215-0366(15)00165-0

Renda, J., Vassallo, S., & Edwards, B. (2011). Bullying in early adolescence and its association with anti-social behaviour, criminality and violence 6 and 10 years later.Criminal Behavior and Mental Health, 21(2), 117-121. Retrieved October 10, 2017, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21370297.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017, September 5). Adverse Childhood Experiences. Retrieved October 10, 2017, from https://www.samhsa.gov/capt/practicing-effective-prevention/prevention-behavioral-health/adverse-childhood-experiences

Stellwagen, K. K., & Kerig, P. K. (2012). Ringleader Bullying: Association with Psychopathic Narcissism and Theory of Mind Among Child Psychiatric Inpatients. Child Psychiatry and Human Development,43(6). doi:10.1007/s10578-012-0355-5

StopBullying.Gov (2012, February 29). Effects of Bullying. Retrieved October 10, 2017, from https://www.stopbullying.gov/at-risk/effects/index.html

Swayne, M. (2014). Bullying targets popular kids, not only those who are marginalized. Retrieved October 10, 2017, from http://news.psu.edu/story/309968/2014/04/01/research/bullying-targets-popular-kids-not-only-those-who-are-marginalized

Thomaes, S., Stegge, H., Bushman, B. J., Olthof, T., & Denissen, J. (2008). Development and validation of the childhood narcissism scale. Journal of Personality Assessment, 90(4). doi:10.1080/00223890802108162

Wong, J., & Koh, J. (2015). Survival of the Fittest and the Sexiest: Evolutionary Origins of Adolescent Bullying. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 32(17). doi:10.1177/0886260515593546

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