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Bullying trauma: Origins and responses

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

The Harm from Bullying

The persistent flow of intense anger from one student toward another can: 

  • damage the ability to feel safe or to trust

  • increase anxiety

  • harm self-esteem

  • make a child vulnerable to depression and

  • can result in intense feelings of anger and fantasies of revenge against the one who bullies which can be misdirected, primarily at family members.


Other conflicts we cite in the child chapter of our APA textbook, Forgiveness Therapy, include: an increased the risk of self-harm in late adolescence (Lereya, 2013); increased the risk for suicide ideation and suicidal/self-injurious behavior in preadolescence (Winsper, et al., 2012); a precursor or marker on the trajectory towards the development of Borderline Personality Disorder symptoms in childhood (Wolke, et al. 2012); an increased risk of psychotic symptoms in early adolescence, which nearly doubles among children who were victims of bullying at age 8 or 10 years (Schreier, et al., 2009) and social isolation, loneliness, psychosomatic symptoms and fears of going to school. 

A forty-year 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 social anxiety and intense mistrust in peer relationships, 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.

Factors Contributing to Bullying Behaviors

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 selfishness/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. 

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 major personality conflicts.


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 then 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, can have an inflated sense of themselves that leads them to try to dominate and control 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 and therefore should be respected. 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. 

Additional causes of bullying in our clinical experience include:

  • excessive anger from numerous sources including

  • misdirected anger that is meant for a family member, most often the father, or a sibling or peer

  • jealousy (the mother of hatred according to St. Thomas Aquinas)

  • sadness and loneliness

  • low self-esteem and the use of anger to attempt to build self-esteem

  •  poor body image

  • pleasure in giving vent to anger

  • strong desire to control and dominate others

  • siding with bullies to impress peers

  • modeling anger of a parent, sibling or peer

  • obsessional competitiveness

  • prejudice

Specific Reasons for Being Bullied:

The common reasons for being bullying are the clothing worn by a child and his/her body image.  Other common reasons include:

  • weakness in athletic abilities due to a lack of eye-hand coordination

  • a child's intelligence

  • strong creative and artistic gifts

  • a strong moral code

  • confidence with a refusal to go along with the crowd

  • a healthy personality

  • smallness in stature, obesity, excessive thinness

The strong anger that develops in many children who are bullied is often 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 children at school regularly criticized his appearance. 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, resulting in peers calling him "Bucky the beaver." To his credit, even when he was outnumbered, he was emotionally strong and responded in an assertive way to his tormentors. However, he developed symptoms of anxiety from a loss of trust from the relentless bullying .

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 father's encouragement. His father related that he had been subjected to similar treatment as a boy.

As he worked on forgiving his peers, Miguel came to view their behavior toward him as being driven by their own struggles with insecurity and a need to prove themselves.

Miguel's parents also went to the school and insisted that steps be taken to protect him from the bullying anger that was harming him psychologically.

Parental Protection

Given the extent of emotional conflict in youth arising from numerous sources, including the divorce, narcissism and pornography epidemics, as well as violent video-gaming, it is important that parents ask their children regularly how they are being treated in school because most children who are bullied do not tell them.  Reasons for this are that they are ashamed, and they don't believe their parents can help them and they don't believe the school will do anything about it.

The importance of monitoring what occurs with peers was highlighted by an American study of 10,000 adolescents in which 49% of the youth met the criteria for one psychiatric disorder (Merikangas, K.R., et al, 2010).  It is important to understand that excessive anger is highly prevalent in all psychiatric disorders and that this anger can unconsciously be misdirected at others.

When parents identify that a child is being bullied at school, the parent should report this both the teacher and the school principal.  If the bullying is being done by one identified student, the parents should request that the teacher be instructed by the principal to keep the bully away from the victim.  Parents might also need to request that the bully have a mental health evaluation which we have participated in with students from Catholic schools.

Parents should not permit a child who has been bullied to participate in a counseling session at school with the bully because the victim does not have the problem - the bully does! 

Also, we recommend that parents request that the school request that a bully be required to go through a mental health evaluation to attempt to identify the cause of his/her angry behaviors. We have evaluated students involved in bullying behaviors from Catholic schools and have worked with them effectively in the area of forgiveness therapy as an empirically proven method for decreasing anger. 

Parents can also request that principals initiate forgiveness education programs for teachers and students in schools.

Forgiveness education programs are now in use schools in many countries under the direction of my colleague and coauthor, Dr. Robert Enright, University of Wisconsin.. These programs have empirically proven that teaching forgiveness in the classroom decreases the level of anger in students which is essential in decreasing bullying.

Forgiveness Education and Forgiveness Therapy

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, in the Educators section of this website, can be beneficial to assisting teachers in helping students learn to master their anger.

Dr. Robert Enright, U.W.-Madison, is the leading forgiveness researcher and educator.  He has developed a complete set of professionally-produced guides for forgiveness education, from pre-kindergarten through grade 12.  These have been used in over 30 countries worldwide and their effectiveness for reducing anger in children as young as age 6 have been researched and found to be effective. 

Forgiveness therapy has been demonstrated to be effective in females victimized by those who bully by diminishing anger and hostile retribution, reducing aggression and delinquency, and improving academic performance (Par, et al., 2013).

Building Trust

The experience of being bullied can severely damage the ability to trust and often results in social isolation.  Efforts to

work identifying trustworthy individuals and working on friendships with them is an important part of a treatment plan. Since these individuals often have powerful fears of being rejected, parents can encourage identifying trustworthy, friendly peers and working on trying to let down walls and trusting peers. Some high school youth attempt to seek such friendships by attending youth groups at their church.  College students try to peers they can feel safe with in a Catholic center at school.

The acceptance experienced in friendships can help decrease the the severe 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.  Dr. Enright's research and our clinical experience show that forgiveness not only decreases anger but also anxiety from past hurts.   Also, in families with faith, a discussion of the benefits of working on a friendship with the Lord as a friend can strengthen confidence and hope.

Parents as Protectors and the First Educators

St. Thomas More told the tudors of his children to first educate them in virtues.  In addition, parents should teach their children to try to befriend and protect innocent peer who are bullied. 

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. 

Bullying of 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 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.

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:

  • improving the quality father-son time together in non athletic activities

  • identifying with positive character traits of the father and other male family members

  • working on good male friendships

  • exercising to improve body image

  • discussing the role of the male as being a protective spouse and father, not an athlete

  • not being obsessed with one's body

  • forgiving those who damaged male confidence..


Parents can help these children by:

  • encouraging trust and self-giving in same sex friendships

  • recognizing that one is a child of God with a specific mission (see The Purpose-Driven Life)

  • being thankful for one's God-given body and gifts.

  • meditating upon asking the Lord to help one feel confident and safe in trustworthy male friendships

  • meditating upon the Lord as a good friend

  • asking the Lord to protect male confidence and to see oneself as God sees him

  • thinking one is powerless over all the anger with those who rejected him and turning it over to God.

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. Some 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 decreasing 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.

We have also seen faith benefit the bullies by their meditating upon being powerless over their anger and wanting to turn it over to God, especially with someone who has treated them in an unjust manner in the family.

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 and should give their children the education in virtues to help them master their anger and selfishness and treat others with respect and sensitivity.  

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