Bullying trauma: sadness, anger, insecurity and anxiety

Increasing numbers of children and teenagers are the victim of severe bullying.  The short and long term effects from this trauma can be severe and disabling.  Today, the primary reason for near epidemic of bullying is the use of the internet and text messaging to vent excessive anger and ridicule, referred to as cyber-bullying. 

The tragic consequence of cyberbullying to a Catholic New York Catholic high school student has raised important issues about Catholic education (crisismagazine.com a suicide in Brooklyn raises quesitons about parochial education) and about pastoral responses to bulllying (www.hprweb.org  A pastoral approach to bullying).

A 2014 study showed the long term psychological damage to confidence, the ability to feel safe and to trust and to hope. Those bullied in childhood had increased levels of psychological distress at ages 23 and 50. Victims of frequent bullying had higher rates of depression, anxiety disorders and suicidality nearly four decades after exposure. Childhood bullying victimization was associated with a lack of social relationships, economic hardship, and poor perceived quality of life at age 50 (Takizawa, R., et al. 2014). This study did not measure the serious conflicts of excessive anger in those bullied which interferes with the ability to resolve the sadness, anxiety and insecurity caused by the bullying and which is often misdirected at others who do not deserve it.  If the level of anger had been measured in these individuals, it would have been significant and probably would have been associated with impulses for revenge.

New school based programs are urgently needed that teach youth how to address their anger by growth in virtues which current anti-bullying programs fail to address.  Formation of youth in the virtue of forgiveness as the major way to master their anger is also needed in the home. Forgiveness education programs that have been demonstrated to empirically reduce anger in youth are discussed in the second edition of our forgiveness book, Forgiveness Therapy: An Empirical Guide for Resolving Anger and Restoring Hope, APA Books, November 2014.

Factors contributing to bullying

Cultural, family and personal issues are contributing to an increase in the degree of bullying in communities and in schools.  A leading cultural reason is what has been described as the epidemic of narcissism.  An important book on this subject is The Epidemic of Narcissism: Living in an Age of Entitlement by psychologists J. Twenge and H. Campbell.  Narcissism can be described as severe selfishness and predisposes children to treat others in an insensitive manner with a lack of respect and a disregard for the needs of other children.  Severe selfishness interferes with the development of a healthy personality.  Also, Dr. Paul Vitz's book, Psychology as Religion: The Cult of Self-Worship, describes the role of the mental health field in the development of selfishness in the culture.  He explains how a philosophy of indulgent self-actualization now underlies much of today's psychotherapy.


Another factor is the prevalent permissive parenting style in American families.  Permissive parents want their children to be their friends and often lack the wisdom and the courage to correct selfish and angry behaviors.  Their children overreact in anger at home and do the same outside the home.  In addition, many children model after selfish parents that damages their ability to master their anger and to treat others in a respectful, sensitive manner.  Also, selfish children, and adults, have an inflated sense of themselves that leads them to try to dominate others. 


The abandonment of character education in schools is another important contributor to the bullying problem.  In the past character education involved teaching children the virtues that could help them to master their emotional and personality struggles such as anger and selfishness.  For example, children were taught the long-term benefits of trying to master their anger by growth in the virtue of forgiveness and their selfishness by growth in the virtues of generosity, self-control and self-denial. 


The collapse of faith in the culture also influences bullying.  When the faith in families was stronger, children were taught to view all individuals as being made in the image of God who were their brothers and their sisters.  Another factor is divorce epidemic that results in children unconsciously taking into the classroom sadness and its associated anger that can be misdirected at innocent children.  All of these issues have contributed to growing psychiatric disorders in youth.  A 2010 study of mental disorders in over 10,000 adolescents showed that 49.5% of the teenagers met the criteria for one psychiatric disorder.  Anxiety disorders were the most common condition (31.9%), followed by behavior disorders (19.1%), mood disorders (14.3%), and substance use disorders (11.4%), with approximately 40% of participants with one class of disorder also meeting criteria for another class of lifetime disorder. (Merikangas, KR, et al., 2010.)

Specific reasons for bullying

The most common reason for being bullying is the clothing worn by a child and his/her appearance.  Other common reasons include:


Problems in children who are bullied

Children who are bullied by their peers often develop a number of psychological difficulties including social isolation and loneliness (Boulton, 1992), psychosomatic symptoms and hyperactivity (Kumpulainen, 1998), anxiety, social phobia (Gilmartin, 1987), depression and suicidal ideation (Rigby, 1999), fear of going to school and low self-esteem. Also, their peers regularly side with the bullies against them, do not support them and even develop strong anger toward them (Rigby, 1991). As a result of harsh treatment by their peers these can develop severe insecurities and fears, depression and intense anger with, at times, violent impulses for revenge against their tormentors.

Embarrassment concerning the abusive treatment by peers often keeps the child from relating their feelings to their parents. Subsequently, parents are often unaware of the causes of their children's excessive anger, sadness, insecurity and social isolation.

A 2009 study found the risk for psychotic symptoms nearly doubled among children who were victims of bullying at age 8 or 10 years, independent of other psychiatric illness, family adversity, or the child's IQ, and increased nearly 4-fold when victimization was chronic or severe (Schreier, A, et al., 2009).  The experience of being bullied severely damages a child's ability to feel safe in the world and, in some individuals, can subsequently progress into paranoid thinking.

The strong anger in these children that is really meant for their peers can be misdirected into the home toward siblings, the mother or themselves and in the community.  These children may have such fears of rejection by those of the same sex that they develop what can be viewed as friendship phobia.  Their isolation contributes to intense loneliness and, in some children, depressive illness. 

Case Study

Miguel, a ten-year-old boy, told his parents whenever other children made him a scapegoat at school or at sports. Although he was the smartest student in his class and a good athlete, he became increasingly anxious and angry as a result of the constant ridicule by peers. The apparent reason for the abuse was his protruding front teeth. They called him Bucky the Beaver at every opportunity. To his credit, even when he was outnumbered, he was emotionally strong and had no difficulty responding in an assertive way to his tormentors. However, he developed symptoms of anxiety as a result of peer ridicule.

The anger with his peers regularly spilled over into his relationships with others in the family. Miguel knew he was misdirecting anger and was motivated to try to resolve his resentment with his peers. He was asked daily to try to view his peers as being jealous of his intelligence and athletic abilities and then to think of forgiving them. He was helped in this process with his fathers encouragement. Miguel's dad told his son that he had been subjected to similar treatment as a boy. Miguel actually came to feel compassion for his peers and viewed them as being weak males who could not face him individually, but needed to hide in a group.

The response of schools and forgiveness education

Teachers, regardless of length of service, report not being confident in their ability to deal with bullying and 87 per cent want more training (Boulton 1997). New programs for teachers and students need to be developed to protect children in our schools, to help victims learn how to resolve their strong anger with impulses for revenge, to encourage peers to understand bullies and to support victims, and to provide treatment protocols for the hostility in bullies.  Our article in the American School Board Journal, Learning to Forgive,can be beneficial to assisting teachers in helping students learn to master their anger.  Also, an important documentary on bullying by girls in middle schools that is available for school presentation is Finding Kind, www.youtube.com/watch?v=woZTiMgWYDo .

Dr. Robert Enright, U. Wisconsin-Madison, has offered forgiveness education protocols for teachers and parents of students in research studies for 10 years in Belfast and Milwaukee. His research demonstrates the effectiveness of forgiveness education in the classroom and in the home for the excessive anger in students. These studies are available atwww.internationalforgiveness.com/about-us-research/. Dr. Enright has recommended that schools employ forgiveness education to combat bullying, http://www.internationalforgiveness.com/conversat....

When parents complain to the school about the bullying of a child, a common response from school administrators is to hold the victim equally responsible for the conflict(s). In our clinical experience this often is not the case. Then, parents can present a written list of the bullying episodes with the name(s) of the bully and insist that bullies participate in an empirically proven anger management program. They may also request that teachers receive more training on dealing with anger in the classroom and with bullying.

The angry, defiant child who bullies other children in Catholic schools should be required to participate in ongoing treatment with a mental health professional who has expertise in the resolution of excessive anger.  Principals and teachers should communicate with the treating professional to ascertain whether the child is willing to grow in the virtues that can decrease excessive anger such as forgiveness, respect, generosity, charity and kindness.  Given the severe harm caused to children by excessive bullying, if the angry child is unwilling to change and children at the school are being harmed by his/her anger, then we recommend that the parents be informed that the child must be removed from the school.

This intervention can be effective not only in protecting innocent children, but also in helping the angry, defiant child to realize that there are strong negative consequences to bullying behaviors. Also, such a strong correction may be the prime motivating factor that finally leads an angry child to change abusive behaviors and to grow in virtues in the pursuit of a healthy personality.

Building confidence and healthy same sex friendships

The experience of being bullied can lead to depression and loneliness, explosive anger and impulses for revenge, anxiety and mistrust, low confidence, obsessive-compulsive symptoms, social isolation and even paranoid ideation. In addition to trying to resolve anger with the bullies by a process of forgiveness, many of these youngsters benefit from working on building their confidence and their ability to trust;that is, their ability to feel safe with their peers.

Growth in confidence in the victims of bullying can occur in a number of ways particularly by working on same sex friendships and by strengthening the relationship with the same sex parent. Since these children are often have strong fears of being rejected, parents can encourage identifying trustworthy, friendly peers and working on trying to let down walls that have been put up and trying to trust again in same sex friendships.  The resistance in these children to pursuing such friendships can be very strong and parents need to be patient but persevering in helping establish good same sex friendships.  The acceptance in such friendships can help decrease the bullying trauma. Parents can also recommend growth in the virtue of gratitude for the God-given gifts that they bring into peer relationships and in the virtue of forgiveness for the bullies in order to break the emotional control of the past.  Also, in families with faith, a discussion of the benefits of working on a friendship with the Lord can strengthen confidence and hope.

Parents as the first educators

St. Thomas More told the tudors of his children to first educate them in virtues.  However, since parents teach more by their behaviors and emotional responses, it is essential that they work to master their anger and their selfishness by employing a number of virtues described in the anger and selfishness chapters on this website, particularly the regular use of forgiveness, self-control, generosity and respect.  In addition, because of the serious emotional and behavioral conflicts in youth today, parents should teach their children to never bully or join peers who bully and to try to befriend and protect innocent children  who are bullied.  They should insist that their peers be kind and respectful, not belittling and mean. 

Parents should also inquire as to how their children are being treated by peers.  If they discover bullying is occurring, parents should first attempt to teach their children how to respond.  Also, children should be asked if sexual bullying is occurring.  If the bullying is mild, a child could request that he/she be treated with respect and kindness, not meanness. This correction of other children may have to occur a number of times. If the bullying is in the community and is strong, it can be helpful to review a number of reasons for bullying including sadness, insecurity, jealousy or modeling after an angry parent.  Children should also be encouraged to forgive the bully which has numerous benefits as described in the anger chapter. 

If the bullying continues, then a discussion should occur with teachers or with the parent of bullies. Parents should encourage children to distance bullies and to pursue friendships with peers who are respectful.   When the school is unable to protect children from the pain of ongoing harassment or insensitive treatment, other options can be considered including enrollment in another school, in a charter school or in home schooling.  If a child is bullying a sibling, correction should always occur.  Also, if sibling bullying and defiant behaviors in the home are severe, then consideration should be given to placement of the child outside the home with another family member or trustworthy friends, if possible.

School phobia and boys who don't play sports

Boys who do not play sports often experience significant peer rejection and bullying in a culture that places excessive emphasis upon athletic success as a sign of true masculinity.  Such boys can develop a school phobia.  They often have strong feelings of loneliness and sadness, few male friends, weak male confidence and resentment toward males who were insensitive to them. These boys can develop same sex attractions in an unconscious attempt to gain the male acceptance that was missing in their male peer relationships. 

These males benefit from special attention from their parents, especially their fathers. A challenge here is that fathers tend to be confident bonding with their sons primarily through athletic activities. Many fathers often have difficulty knowing how to be close to their sons who do not show an interest in sports. A common error fathers make with sons who lack eye hand coordination is to attempt to force them to play sports. Many boys simply lack the ability to learn the skills needed for baseball, basketball, soccer or football.

Fathers can bond with such sons in a number of ways including hiking, fishing, hunting, playing chess, and walking. They can also identify and discuss topics of interest to their sons. In addition, these boys also benefit from their fathers helping them to grow in an awareness of their special God-given gifts that is essential in building male confidence.

Fathers are often limited in their giving to boys who don't play sports for some of the following reasons:

Parents can help these boys and teenagers by criticizing the prevailing cultural view that sports and the body image are the most important measures of masculinity. They can present the traditional Western civilization opinion that healthy masculinity is the result of having a strong character or personality. We have found that an effective approach to building confidence in such males includes:

Parents can help these children by :

Many of these boys can act in an impulsive, angry or even explosive manner at times as a result of their peer rejection pain of sadness and insecurity. A number of these boys are surprised by the depth of their resentment, including at times anger with God for not giving them eye-hand coordination. Their resentment is often misdirected at siblings and the mother. Growth in forgiveness and in a greater appreciation of their special God-given gifts can diminish this anger. Also,for Catholic youth the sacrament of reconciliation is helpful in resolving such strong resentment.

The role of faith

When appropriate, faith can be beneficial in the healing process with children who have been bullied. Growth in trust can occur in some children by suggesting that they meditate several times daily, "Lord help me to feel safe with friends whom I can trust." Also, participation in parish youth groups lead to a new ability to feel safe with peers. Many youngsters have been hurt so deeply by bullies that they are unable to forgive them. discover that they cannot forgive those who have bullied them. Catholic youngsters can be helped by giving their anger to God, reflecting that revenge belongs to God or taking their deep resentment into the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The process of resolving anger with bullies is challenging and requires a great deal of strength and grace.

Some male also discover within themselves an anger with God for allowing them to be hurt regularly by their peers. They can experience a relief by expressing aloud, "God, why did you let this happen to me?"Also, uniting one's rejection pain with that of Christ who was also ridiculed and abandoned can help individuals find meaning and strength in their suffering.

Current anti-bullying programs need to be improved

New initiatives are needed first and foremost in the home to combat the intense selfishness and excessive anger in youth.  Parents are the first educators of their children. They should take this role more seriously and give their children the education in virtues they need in order master their anger and selfishness and to treat others with more respect and sensitivity.  Educators should also work on mastering anger and selfishness in their lives so that they can also educate children in virtues that can help decrease them decrease excessive anger and disrespectful behaviors.  Forgiveness education programs such as Dr. Robert Enright's are needed in our homes and in our schools.



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