How Therapy Helps Heal the Scars of Childhood Bullying

A teenager stands with arms crossed, looking confident, in front of a group of youth in blurred focusThe world is full of people who survived the experience of being bullied while growing up. The wounds bullying can inflict on one’s self-esteem can ooze throughout life. Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names can, in fact, hurt you. The good news is people can heal from bullying. Psychotherapy can help promote that healing.

Children and teens may be bullied for any number of reasons—weight, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, clothes, social difficulties, interests, and behaviors related to mental health conditions among them. The terms bullies use to label their victims, such as “fat,” “stupid,” “ugly,” etc., may be absorbed into the victim’s self-identity at a tender, vulnerable time in their development. If fully digested, the bully’s taunts may become the victim’s inner voice. The negative judgments may become distorted core beliefs.

Distorted beliefs can limit the choices survivors of bullying make in their social and professional lives. Children who start out as outwardly expressive may turn inward to protect themselves from further ridicule. They may gravitate toward compassionate adults for social interaction rather than peers. Many survivors continue to reenact their role of disempowered victims in the workplace and social spheres. It may be difficult to see themselves as adults rather than the defenseless children they once were.

Others may lack empathy for lovers and friends (“Nobody ever cared for my feelings, so why should I care about theirs?”). Or they may become loners and/or disdainful of humanity in general. Some project their conditioned self-hatred onto people with whom they engage. When victims of bullying hear others whisper or giggle, they may become paranoid they are the brunt of malicious jokes. They may keep to themselves in the workplace and be regarded as cold or unfriendly by coworkers.

Children tend to benefit from parents who offer comfort and invalidate the bully’s actions. Kids who seek comfort from their parents but are ridiculed instead (“Don’t be a crybaby,” “Grow up,” etc.) may have deeper scars. Children who are bullied or abused at home have a greater risk of being bullied at school as well. They may conclude that if a majority of people in their life regard them negatively, they have it coming. Their wounds can be profound. A large number of male survivors do not report bullying to parents or school staff because they feel shame and emasculation from the abuse. Keeping the abuse a secret and receiving no comfort, support, or invalidation of the bully from others may leave them with hurt feelings, damaged egos, and severe emotional scars.

Many survivors of bullying have an abundance of empathy for others. They report that hearing about or observing others being bullied is triggering for them. Even as they are quick to comfort and support others, however, they may be strangers to the concept of self-empathy. The shame and self-hatred that resulted from being bullied may have arrested their development of this important life skill. Labeling themselves as “garbage” because they were treated as such can lead them to falsely believe there is something inherently lacking in their personhood. Consequently, they can feel like outcasts.

Cognitive therapy and strengths-focused counseling are essential components in therapy treatment for survivors of bullying. The goals include:

1. Adult Perspective to Replace the Traumatized Child Perspective

In treatment, the individual is encouraged to understand that their adult perspective on the bullying should be vastly different and more logical than their child perspective. The child’s perspective of the survivor (which deems the bully’s opinion as expert and still dominates the adult survivor’s beliefs) must be put to rest—just as other childhood beliefs such as Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny have been.

Consider an individual who was teased about their weight and called unflattering names by their bullies. The child self could be convinced that people of a size that is larger or smaller than average deserve to be shunned by others. The grown-up self can see the ignorance and cruelty in such a claim. The survivor’s new perspective must be reality-based: the bullies did not have the right, life experience, empathy, or education to be valid evaluators of anything except whether ice cream is cold.

If the survivor was bullied by their parents, a new perspective would be that the parents’ judgments were verbally abusive and false. The individual must accept the painful fact their parents were profoundly limited in their ability to parent properly and were most likely perpetuating a pattern of abuse that their own parents had imposed upon them.

2. Empowerment

Personal power is an important therapeutic concept for a survivor of bullying: Each individual has personal power (feelings of well-being, self-worth) which can be kept or given to others. Bullies are thieves of others’ personal power. Therapy helps the survivor understand that they have given up enough of their personal power to those long-ago cruel kids in the schoolyard, many of whom had only recently learned to tie their shoes. The survivor will be mindful that others who cruelly judge people deserve no endorsement (agreeing with their opinion).

3. Self-Empathy and Self-Validation

Because the survivor internalized the bully’s words or hatred, they may have lost the ability to see their self-worth. With the therapist’s help, the survivor learns to love and validate themselves.

Bullies are thieves of others’ personal power. Therapy helps the survivor understand that they have given up enough of their personal power to those long-ago cruel kids in the schoolyard, many of whom had only recently learned to tie their shoes.

4. A New Relational Style

Many bullying survivors develop an interpersonal style that is submissive and passive. Others develop a hypervigilant and aggressive style to defend themselves from further attacks. The goal is to evolve to an assertive relational style which seeks reciprocity and respect from people in the survivor’s social orbit.

5. A Balanced View of People

Due to bullying, the survivor may have concluded at a young age that all people are cruel and cannot be trusted. In therapy, they may come to understand that this is black-and-white thinking. The survivor widens their perception by acknowledging that while there are people who hurt others, there are also people who extend kindness and trustworthiness. The survivor develops an ability to distinguish between these two types of people.

6. Recognition That Bullying Is About the Bully, Not the Victim

Many children do not have the wisdom or cognitive ability to understand the above statement. They tend to regard peers as valid critics. In reality, many bullies have been bullied themselves, either at school or within their own home. Bullying others allows them to reenact their experience from a position of power. Bullies detect a vulnerability in their victims and target that vulnerability. The victim is essentially the bully’s scapegoat.

7. Positive Core Belief and Improved Self-Esteem

In therapy, the survivor learns to let go of the distorted negative core belief (“I am ugly,” “I am stupid,” “I am a loser”) that the bully planted. The survivor comes to understand that defining themselves by others’ words and treatment is a losing plan that can fluctuate depending on the company we keep. The survivor develops a vigilance for correcting the automatic negative self-talk that they have carried since childhood. The result is an enduring positive and reality-based core belief and self-esteem derived from the survivor’s values, behaviors, and accomplishments.

There is a lot of work to be done in closing the wounds left by bullying, as the above goals indicate. Because “old habits die hard,” the survivor must be patient as they proceed through the healing process. Baby steps toward self-love may begin to occur from the start of therapy. In time, the self-confidence a survivor develops in therapy may provide new positive ways to navigate life. It may also afford the survivor new opportunities that were once falsely believed to be out of reach.

References:

  1. Lyness, D. (2013). Helping kids deal with bullies. Retrieved from http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/bullies.html#
  2. Support the kids involved. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.stopbullying.gov/respond/support-kids-involved

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Kristy Fox-Berman, LCSW, therapist in Branchburg, New Jersey

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Conner

    Conner

    October 14th, 2016 at 6:11 AM

    I was bullied in elementary school, not so much in high school but I finally did not really feel free from it until I graduated and went to college somewhere different, different place altogether. It was there that I was able to free myself from the shame that the bullying caused me all those years ago and left me open to become more of who I really was.

  • Kirby

    Kirby

    October 14th, 2016 at 11:29 AM

    Sometimes there can be wounds that are so deep that no matter how hard you try to get past them, it can be super difficult. I applaud you Conner for that working for you but I am not sure that I have the strength for that to work for me.

  • natalie O

    natalie O

    October 15th, 2016 at 6:24 AM

    Going through being bullied can somewhat make you immune to the pain of other people. You would think that when you have gone through this yourself that it could make you more sympathetic but actually I think that for many people it makes them almost indifferent to the pain that another person is feeling because you are thinking that you went through this and got through it and that they should be able to do the same.

    It is sort of strange to think that way because if you have been bullied you would naturally think that this would give you a much better perspective but it in some ways hardens you and makes you less open to feeling for others.

  • Burke

    Burke

    October 17th, 2016 at 10:15 AM

    This is the chance that I have been looking for, to go back through all of these terrible experiences but this time from the outside looking in, looking at it as an adult and not a child, and resettling those emotions into a place that makes it much easier for me to handle and to remember. Hopefully therapy will help me stop feeling so haunted by that past.

  • erica

    erica

    October 18th, 2016 at 2:14 PM

    For me it has always been a nice change of pace to have someone to talk to who could be objective and not have any preconceived notions of others involved and what our roles possibly were. You want someone who can very easily see both sides of the issue and who is not going o be quick to condemn either way.

  • Shelby

    Shelby

    October 19th, 2016 at 10:37 AM

    I cannot even fathom being a parent who would tell my child to suck it up if they are being bullied. I know that we would want him to take up for himself but look, this is not always going to be a possibility. They are not always going to be strong enough or even feel confident enough to do that so there will be times that as parents we have to step up and be there for them when they need us.
    A therapist is also going to be good in that respect because the more you know that you have someone who cares about you and who has your back then the better equipped that you are to handle bullies and their reprehensible behavior.

  • Merritt

    Merritt

    September 21st, 2017 at 9:55 PM

    I was not supposed to be placed in competitive gym abut against the doctors advice the school did so anyway.I graduated New Milford HS in 1978 but was in some ways already dead in 1972.What gives the schools the right to commit a form of child murder and never answer for it?38 years of therapy and scripts still leave me undatable freindless unemployed with chronic migraine blurring my vision almost since school began in 1964.I was lousy in first grade gym,I was tested and something was wrong with my perceptions.When I moved to New Milford Ct from Danbury Ct I enrolled in a school of sadists.I have not felt I belonged that I fit into society as an equal since fifth grade gym basketball games where forced upon me and I experienced mass hatred against me for the rest of my schooldays.All the dominoes of my life fell in the wrong direction.Counselors didn’t even exist back then in the 1970s.I was so evidently ill but the deliberately blind pretended not to see.My senior year I outright begged the gym teacher to not humiliate me with forced basketball.I never saw such disgust and contempt for me as in his face.School is evil for the different and there is no justice for us allowed by those in charge.

  • Phil A.

    Phil A.

    October 31st, 2017 at 11:36 AM

    The biggest and most dangerous bully in my life was my dysfunctional and psychotic (father) He gave me a lifetime of abuse and cleverly brainwashed me into thinking it was normal behavior and that I had it coming. I was convinced that I was homely, stupid, half blind (I needed eye glasses) and worthless, as well as condemned to hell. These are all words that I heard from him from the time I was a toddler and until he died. In high school I made the mistake of going to him for help because I was being bullied and I lived in fear, hating school and my life. He dismissed me and told me I deserve everything I get. Bullied in shool and abused at home; no where to feel safe. I contemplated suicide. Life was so ugly and hopeless and bleak. How I survived all this and was saved by the Military (Viet Nam) becoming the man I was meant to be is quite a story. I fought my damaged self and gained the self esteem and confidence that should be instilled into a boy by a good father. My sick broken (father) did quite the opposite. He didn’t give..he was a ‘taker”. He was clever and he hid his brokenness from those he favored but unleashed it on me, especially when he found me alone out of sight of family. What started out as dizzying, bewildering head slaps as a toddler became fisted blows to the temple of my head during an insane tirade of meaningless words and accusations. There would be a sudden flash of light in my brain and then blackness. I do not remember how any of those incidents ended nor do I remember him walking away….? I believe he knocked me out several times. There is so much to my story. I married (he tried to interfere with the wedding) and moved away. I saw him seldom after that and my kids only knew him from very few, brief and well guarded visits. I HAD to protect them from the enemy. I have suffered the fall out of all abused and bullied children. I have received the help I need and am healed to the point that I have forgiven all. I never had words with the bullies or my (father). They are obsolete and have no place in the life I have been Blessed with. Besides Forgiveness is for the forgiver. I have found Peace and my family is a harmonious and happy one. My kids and grandkids love me and they say so. I may have lost the battles when I was small, naïve and helpless but I won the war. Most of those ugly broken people are gone including my (father) I may say a prayer for them but there are no tears….there never will be.

  • Laura

    Laura

    December 28th, 2017 at 1:22 AM

    There are a lot of good points in this, but thinking of bullies as ‘children who only just learned to tie their shoelaces’ is not helpful and just feels like a form of denial, which will not hold out long as a coping mechanism. Surely there must be a more realistic or reasoned way to understand what happened?

  • Leroy

    Leroy

    January 4th, 2018 at 5:39 AM

    I was bullied n beat up in school too, it’s been tough to move through and today if I’m at a school event or family homecoming or church outing and I see a child being picked on, being made fun of or taken advantage of. I will step in and stop it whether or not parents are present. If the parents look at me with what are you doing, I just tell them what was happening and that they need to be more aware of what their child is doing. It’s weird when I see it happening it triggers a tremendous rage and I have to be careful that I don’t lash out with out of control emotions especially at indifferent parents. I feel same emotions though not as strong when I see adults being taken advantage of, depending on the situation I will step forward and confront them. Kinda weird even writing this comment makes some emotion rise and am not sure what to call it. Talking or writing about it helps to kind of get out.

  • Millie

    Millie

    April 25th, 2018 at 1:50 PM

    A former school bully tried to contact me on social media after 25 years had passed, for no apparent reason. He would not say why he was contacting me. I think he was attempting to harass me again. That drove home the fact that many bullies don’t “change” and may still be obsessed with their victims. I believe this (now) adult bully needs counseling and help but I want nothing to do with him, of course. I can only keep trying to protect myself and my children from him, if he ever tries to resurface again some day. I am saddened in some ways that this man has never stopped thinking about me. I hope that one day, he can let it go.

  • MB

    MB

    February 6th, 2019 at 7:16 AM

    This is great advice! As a survivor of bullying and abuse, I am still trying to work on healing from the damage. I don’t think the pain will ever go away.

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