What to Know About PTSD From Bullying

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Most of us think of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as something that results from life-threatening experiences, such as being in a war, experiencing a natural disaster, or being in a car accident. But experiences that are thought of as more commonplace and with less immediate dangers can also cause PTSD. One of these is bullying.

Bullying is, unfortunately, very common. For example, up to 20% of children aged 12 to 18 have been victims of bullying. Bullying is so common, in fact, that many people think of it as a childhood rite of passage.

The problem is that bullying can have deep psychological impacts, including PTSD. One study found that 57% of people who have experienced bullying have signs of PSTD.

Let’s take a look at how bullying can cause PTSD, what PTSD looks like among people who have been bullied—and most importantly, what can be done to treat PTSD from bullying.

What Is Bullying?

Bullying

Bullying is defined as aggressive behavior that is unwanted, happens repeatedly, and includes a power dynamic of dominance on the part of the person who is doing the bullying.

Bullying is considered a form of youth violence and can be physical, verbal, social (spreading rumors, for example), and may include damage to one’s physical property. Bullying doesn’t just happen in person: many instances of bullying that happen today include cyberbullying.

Most instances of bullying happen at school, or during childhood, but bullying can also happen to adults. For example, workplace bullying is a frequent experience for many people, with a prevalence of about 15%.

Why Do People Develop PTSD After Being Bullied?

Bullying is considered an adverse childhood experience (ACE) and can lead to both immediate and long-term psychological harm. Children who experience bullying have an increased vulnerability to anxiety and depression. Adults who experienced bullying as children have increased rates of agoraphobia (a fear of crowds), generalized anxiety, and panic disorder.

There is a strong relationship between bullying and PTSD. For example, a study published in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health found that among children who had experienced bullying at school, 50% had signs of PTSD.

Another study, published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, determined that among children who were bullied, 27% of boys and 40% of girls had clinical symptoms of PTSD.

How to Recognize PTSD From Bullying

Children who have experienced bullying may have different reactions and may display their trauma in different ways.

Some children may have outward signs of stress, anxiety, and agitation, while others may keep their feelings inside more and experience intrusive thoughts or flashbacks. Others may become numb, and appear distant.

What Are the Symptoms?

People who experience PTSD as a result of bullying have many of the same symptoms as anyone who experiences PTSD.

These symptoms may include:

  • Feeling “on edge”
  • Being easily startled
  • Experiencing nightmares
  • Having flashbacks to the traumatic experience
  • Having difficulty falling asleep and staying asleep
  • Having intrusive, scary thoughts
  • Blaming yourself for what happened
  • Feeling guilty
  • Having angry outbursts
  • Having trouble concentrating
  • Avoiding situations that trigger memories of the event

Your child may experience PTSD from bullying differently, depending on their age. For example, very young children may experience more separation anxiety. School-aged kids may experience increased shame and may have trouble concentrating in school.

Adolescents may experience more depression and may practice self-harm.

How to Cope

If you are a parent observing signs of PTSD from bullying in your child, or if you believe you are personally experiencing PTSD from bullying, you have every right to be concerned.

PTSD is not just something people should “put up with” or push through. Untreated PTSD can profoundly affect mental health, relationships, and one’s ability to function at school, at home, and at work.

Treatment Options

If you suspect you or your child is experiencing PTSD, you should consider seeking psychological help. A good place to start is a school psychologist or your primary care doctor. They may be able to help you understand if you or your child is, in fact, experiencing signs of PTSD, and they can refer you to a therapist or counselor with expertise in treating PTSD from bullying.

PTSD from bullying can be addressed through talk therapy, where you learn to recognize what your triggers are, and learn techniques to manage them.

A therapist can also help clarify for a child that they are not to blame for what happened to them.This is key for many children as they recover from PTSD from bullying.

Traditional “talk therapy” may not work well for younger children, and children may not feel comfortable talking directly about their traumatic experiences at first. For young children, “play therapy” is often used, where the child uses playing, drawing, or writing to explore the traumatic event and work through it with a therapist.

Older children may be good candidates for cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a therapy modality that is often used to treat PTSD.

PTSD may also be treated with medication to control symptoms, though some medications may not be appropriate for younger children.

Addressing the Bullying

Importantly, before therapy for PTSD can be effective, the bullying itself needs to end, and be prevented from continuing. Preventing bullying is truly a group effort: your child’s school administrators, teachers, and community may need to be involved. In some cases, law enforcement needs to be notified.

As a parent, you can learn about what your school’s policies are for handling bullying, as well as what state and federal laws are in place to protect your child.

It’s important to understand that not all children will tell you directly when they have experienced bullying; in fact, a child may first show signs of disturbances, such as symptoms of PTSD, before you know for sure that they have experienced bullying.

If you suspect that your child has experienced bullying, you should talk to their teacher or a school counselor. They may be able to help you understand better what your child is experiencing at school, so that you can initiate a conversation with your child.

A Word From Verywell

It’s upsetting and challenging enough if you or your child has experienced bullying. To then experience PTSD as a result can only make the experience more distressing. You should know that experiencing PTSD from bullying is, sadly, quite common. Thankfully, there are effective ways to treat PTSD.

Many people are quick to dismiss the symptom of PTSD or believe that their best option is to muscle through, and wait till it disappears. But treatment for PTSD is vital, and it’s not something you should delay. Mental health is everything, and everyone deserves to feel strong, balanced, and well.

If you or someone you love is struggling with PTSD, reach out for help as soon as possible. You can contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 to find support and treatment facilities in your area. For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database

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9 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Library of Medicine. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Updated October 14, 2021.

  2. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Facts About Bullying. Updated September 9, 2021.

  3. Nielsen M, Tangen T, Idsoe T, et al. Post-traumatic stress disorder as a consequence of bullying at work and at school. A literature review and meta-analysis. Aggression and Violent Behavior. 2015;21:17-24. doi:10.1016/j.avb.2015.01.001

  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Preventing Bullying. Updated September 2, 2021.

  5. Copeland W, Wolke D, Angold A, et al. 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

  6. Ossa F, Pietrowsky R., Bering R, et al. Symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder among targets of school bullying. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health. 2019;13(43). doi:10.1186/s13034-019-0304-1

  7. Idsoe T, Dyregrov A, Idsoe E. Bullying and PTSD symptoms. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. 2012;40(6):901-911. doi:10.1007/s10802-012-9620-0

  8. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Bullying and Trauma. Updated May 19, 2020.

  9. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. What You Can Do. Updated November 10, 2021.

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