Bullying, trauma and social and emotional learning, are they connected?
11/7/2022 by Jill M. Smith, APRN, C.N.P., and Meghan Deyo, APRN, C.N.P., M.S.
The short answer is yes, bullying and trauma are interconnected for many children, adolescents and even adults. With more understanding about how social and emotional mental health can improve empathy and relationships with others, the focus may change and improve how we interact with others, reducing bullying behaviors.
Bullying and trauma — the connection
We know that bullying has a lasting impact on everyone involved, especially children and adolescents. Many people are impacted by bullying — the person being bullied, bystanders who witness the bullying and the person who bullies others.
Bullying is considered an Adverse Childhood Experience. These experiences are potentially traumatic events that can have negative and lasting effects on a person's development. Adverse childhood experiences may impact interactions with others and school performance. Research has shown that children reporting adverse childhood experiences may be more likely to exhibit bullying behavior to others.
The connection between bullying and traumatic stress
Every person is different. Events that traumatize one person may not affect another. Children or teens who have been exposed to trauma and violence may be more likely to bully others and be bullied, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.
Some children who experience trauma and bullying may have strong feelings of distress, while other children may appear desensitized. As an example, a study on bullying and post-traumatic stress found that some children may repress their thoughts or feelings about what took place. This can lead to numbness or loss of interest in activities. This study also found that children may experience intrusive thoughts, such as sudden flashbacks of their bullying experience. It is important that caregivers understand how to respond to bullying and are sensitive to possible traumatic stress.
Watch for warning signs of bullying
- Decline in meeting their basic needs like difficulty sleeping, changes in eating habits or skipping meals.
- Frequent physical complaints without obvious illness.
- Decline in academic performance.
- Unexplained injuries or destroyed personal belongings.
- Sudden loss of friendships, social avoidance or self-destruction.
- Frequent visits to the school office for detention or to meet with the principal.
- Difficulty accepting responsibility for their actions.
Community and school violence, including bullying are listed alongside other types of traumas. We may not think of bullying as a childhood trauma or that it could cause a trauma response, however bullying can and does create stress like other childhood traumas.
Other types of trauma may occur when traumatic events overwhelm a child's or teenager's ability to cope:
- Neglect and psychological, physical or sexual abuse.
- Domestic violence or intimate partner violence.
- Natural disasters.
- Terrorism, war and refugee experiences.
- Community and school violence, including bullying.
- Serious accidents, life-threatening illness or sudden or violent loss of a loved one.
- Military family-related stressors, such as parental deployment, loss or injury.
While each child may react differently to trauma it is important for parents, caretakers and teachers be able to recognize signs of traumatic stress.
- Preschool children may have nightmares or fear of separation.
- Elementary school children may feel shame, anxiety or have trouble concentrating.
- Middle and high schoolers may show signs of depression or engage in self-harm behaviors.
Child trauma survivors are more likely to have academic problems and increased involvement with the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has information and resources available on recognizing and treating child traumatic stress.
What helps after trauma from bullying?
Parents, teachers and other trusted adults can help children or teens who experience traumatic stress from bullying. According to The National Child Traumatic Stress Network's Effective Treatments for Youth Trauma, some approaches that help children and teenagers who have experienced trauma or bullying, are:
- Ensuring the child or teen is safe and seek ways to prevent future bullying experiences.
- Talking through what happened and why, to help clear up misconceptions about their role in the traumatic event.
- Teaching stress management and relaxation techniques, to help them cope.
Some children and teenagers also may need professional help to treat stress related from bullying or other traumatic experiences. Healthcare clinicians can make referrals for treatment.
The good news — social and emotional learning can change the game
Social and Emotional Learning has been shown to improve academic achievement, impact students throughout their life, benefit the economy and advance educational equity. It can improve skills, attitudes and behaviors that are key in preventing bullying and building resilience in children. It builds competence in five key social-emotional competencies — self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision making. Social and emotional learning concepts are appropriate for preschoolers through adulthood.
Check out this inspiring video explaining Social and Emotional Learning: SEL 101: What are the core competencies and key settings? — YouTube.
The value of social and emotional Learning
As parents and caregivers of our youth, we can help foster social and emotional learning by leading by example. This can be challenging due to many factors (i.e., social media, resources, etc.). Social and emotional learning allows children to develop and maintain positive relationships, including the skills to handle difficult social situations.
Children who learn how to adapt in times of high stress are much more likely to handle these challenging situations appropriately.
Ways to promote social and emotional learning
- Visit your local library and read books about social and emotional learning. Role playing from stories helps children understand these concepts. Encourage dialogue regarding the motivation and actions of those involved. You can start this early on, even in your preschooler. This website is a useful resource for books on social and emotional learning.
- Create cooperative learning games that your child can play with siblings or friends.
- Check in with your child's feelings and talk about them.
- Talk to your child's school about their curriculum for social and emotional learning. Many schools teach 'digital citizenship skills,' to address cyberbullying and its negative impacts.
Parents, caregivers, teachers and schools all play a significant role in preventing and addressing bullying and its harmful effects. Gaining skills in social and emotional health can provide a framework for kids to grow and develop into healthy, well-rounded adults. Awareness of self and others builds empathy which can directly reduce bullying behavior and the associated trauma.
Jill M. Smith, APRN, C.N.P., is a certified pediatric nurse practitioner in Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson's Division of Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. She has a passion for adolescents, childhood mental health and encourages everyone to remember that our children are watching, they are modeling our behavior, our beliefs and our words.
Meghan K. Deyo, APRN, C.N.P., M.S., is a certified pediatric nurse practitioner in Primary Care in Rochester and Kasson's Division of Community Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine. She has a special interest in management of children's mental health conditions. As parents and caregivers for children, it is important to remember the way we talk to our children becomes their inner voice.