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School Bullying Can Leave Lifelong Scars

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When students are bullied as children, the emotional damage doesn't just go away—it leaves an impact that can last decades. An estimated 5.4 million students ages 12 to 18 reported being bullied—about one in five students—and 1.7 million experienced cyberbullying in 2013, according to a 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Education. For lesbian, gay, and bisexual students, the bullying rate is even higher, nearly 34 percent offline and 28 percent online, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2016.

bullying prevention.jpgWhile there have been many studies about the psychological effects of bullying on children—there has been less research about what happens after they reach adulthood. Ellen Walser deLara, a family therapist and associate professor of social work at Syracuse University, interviewed more than 800 U.S. adults ages 18 to 65 about their experiences with bullying for her recent book Bullying Scars: The Impact on Adult Life and Relationships (Oxford University Press). The conversations revealed that childhood harassment can negatively affect self-esteem and body image, mental and physical health, trust and future relationships, and decision-making abilities. Yet, some victims of bullying reported that their struggles helped them build stronger character.

Earlier this year, the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine touted an approach to bullying prevention that advocates for changing the social-emotional climate of school culture, with more student-led prevention efforts and the elimination of harsh punishment for bullies. And Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, recently proposed a $500 million "Better Than Bullying" initiative to help states create plans to stop bulliesRepublican nominee Donald Trump has not yet laid out his own concrete proposal to combat school bullying.

DeLara shared some insights with me by email about the effects of bullying, how schools and educators should respond to bullies, and her advice for helping victims of bullying heal as they grow up.

As a family therapist who has worked for more than 35 years with children and adults to address maltreatment, school violence, and bullying, what is your sense of the past and present bullying landscape? How have you seen these issues change in and outside of schools over recent decades?

It is difficult to come up with an exact answer to this question because keeping statistics on bullying is a relatively new phenomenon. Most people can remember bullying that took place in school "way back when" but no one was recording these incidents. What clearly has changed is the fact that children now are at risk of being bullied on a 24/7 basis. Our current technology has brought about cyberbullying that occurs on a multitude of different platforms that young people access. Oftentimes, this happens outside the awareness of any adults in their lives.

According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, an estimated one in four students experience bullying. What leads students to bully one another in the first place?

There are several reasons. One is that children act out what they have learned in their various environments: at school, at home, in their communities. They follow others who demonstrate power in this same manner. Another reason, but one less known, is that young people bully others to force conformity in their environment. Children, like adults, are uncomfortable with unpredictability and unpredictable behavior. Consequently, they will push and exhort, sometimes by extreme means, children whose behavior or appearance is outside the norm and therefore worrisome. Basically anyone who is different becomes a target for bullying.

 In an Education Week Commentary published in September, author Alfie Kohn argues against the use of "zero tolerance" policies for bullies, saying that punishment not only fails to address the problem, but can make bullies more aggressive. Many readers countered that this kind of response fails to support bullying victims or teach students consequences for harmful behavior. What, in your opinion, are the most effective strategies for dealing with bullying in K-12 schools? What role should teachers, parents, and students play in prevention?

For effective bullying prevention, all stakeholders have to be actively involved: students, teachers, parents, school personnel, bus drivers. Bullying takes place in the context of a system. Unless the entire system is involved, focus will be placed very narrowly on "the bully." This is very short-sighted because there is most often a bully-victim-bully cycle that adults do not see. Bullies have most often been victimized first. Consequently, a whole-school, system-wide approach in terms of support and prevention is the only kind of program that actually demonstrates a decrease in bullying.

In your recent book, you discuss the lasting harm that victims of bullying deal with beyond childhood—including its negative impacts on self-esteem, decision-making, relationships, and physical and mental health. What are the most important takeaways from your findings? For K-12 students who are victims of bullying, what advice do you have for ways to heal and combat these lasting negative effects as they grow?

Of the important messages I received from the over 800 people who participated in my study, one stands out: The effects of bullying never truly go away. Some people are resilient enough to go on to productive employment, but many still contend with difficult emotions and unsatisfactory relationships. At the same time, another critical takeaway from the research is that some people, as adults, actually experience positive effects. They see themselves as having overcome terrible situations, in some cases trauma, and have survived as stronger individuals.

For victims still experiencing negative consequences, it is important to recognize that they are not alone and that there is help available. For those who still struggle with the aftermath of childhood bullying, there are some effective interventions—family therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy. People may carry scars, but they can overcome the past.

Photo credit: Steve Santori

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