Bullying trauma: School and family responses

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).

There is an anger problem in many schools.  Some students exhibit harmful, excessive anger directed both at fellow students and teachers and such anger-expression is widely reported to interfere with the ability to teach and to learn.  Certain students are often singled out and become scapegoats of this misdirected, undeserved anger. 

Current anti-bullying programs in Catholic schools are often ineffective.  They rarely address the most important issues for those students showing bullying behaviors. These issues include: a) uncovering the origins of his/her anger, b) insisting on a mental evaluation of those who bully, and c) making a commitment to resolving the anger as a condition for staying in the school.

Harm from Bullying

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


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.

On 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 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.

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 regularlyhow they are being treated in schools because most children who are bullied do not tell their parents.

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 research that demonstrates that excessive anger is highly prevalent in all psychiatric disorders with irritability being a criterion from making the diagnosis of both anxiety and depressive disorders.

A decrease in bullying is also dependent upon parents working to resolve any marital conflicts and raising their children in the virtues that decrease excessive anger, selfishness and sexual immorality.  Youth particularly benefit from the wisdom of St. John Paul II that the opposite of love is to use a person as a sexual object which is want occurs with pornograhy use.  Monitoring of internet devices should be a given to protect youth.

When parents identify that a child is being bullied at school, the parent should report this both the teacher and the school principal. 

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 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. 

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, St. Thomas Aquinas)

           - sadness and loneliness

           - low self-esteem

           - poor body image

           - pleasure in giving vent to anger

• strong desire to control others

• siding with bullies to impress peers

• modeling anger of a parent, sibling or peer

• obsessional competitiveness

• prejudice.

Specific reasons for being bullying

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


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 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.

School Response to Parental and Child Complaints

In our consultation with Catholic schools, the most effective approach we have seen to address this serious problem of children at risk for serious psychological harm is to recommend to parents, principals or pastors, who should have a major role in protection of children in their schools that a child who consistently overreacts in anger and those who bully other children should be suspended from school and be required to have a mental health evaluation.

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. 

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 that can lead to the growth of  a healthy personality.

The parents should be reassured by the principal and pastor that the bully will not be permitted back into the classroom and place innocent children at risk until a treatment plan is initiated for the excessive anger in the bully.  Not infrequently, this bully’s anger is an unconscious cry for help, which should not be ignored but addressed.

Over the past forty years with our nationally recognized expertise in the treatment of uncovering and treating excessive anger, we have seen a marked reduction in the anger of the bully through family therapy, forgiveness therapy and, at times, the use of medication. 

Principles and pastors often will not allow those who bully to return to the classroom until this process begins and the child commits to work on his/her excessive anger. 

If a child with such entrenched problems refuses to change, then it is vital that other children be protected and this might mean, in some cases and after careful discernment, expelling the offending child from the Catholic school.

Mistakes by Principals and Teachers

We have treated both teachers and students who have been verbally abused and/or threatened by students or who have been physically harmed by students’ thrown objects.  There is a double trauma when Catholic school administrators fail to take any effective action against the abuser(s). The administrators’ failure in this regard places teachers and students at-risk for physical and psychological harm.

One of the hallmarks of Catholic Education is to equip the poor and to teach different people to live together in peace.


Reasons for the Failure to Correct


In our clinical experience with youth and adults the major reasons for failing to correct and protect others from the excessive anger in those who bully are:

•  a lack of confidence and courage

•  an excessive need for acceptance

•  the failure to uncover and resolve one’s own anger

•  fear of angry people from one’s childhood, particularly one’s relationship with one’s father,

•  a compulsive need to control the school, the students and parents

•  anger with parents who identify weaknesses in a principal because of a failure to adequately address the anger problem

•  mistrust of outside consultants such as mental health professionals

•  mistrust of males that is misdirected at the pastor who should be, but is often not, consulted

•  lack of proper accountability of principals to the diocese,

•  fear of an angry reaction from the parents who are informed that their child should undergo a mental health evaluation

•  fear of losing students and financial losses from pursuing programs that counter bullying

•  lack of trusting God with the future of the school and one’s career,

Forgiveness Education and Forgiveness Therapy

I am aware of a number of Catholic educators who encourage their students to think about forgiving at the beginning of the school day to try to resolve anger they may be unconsciously or consciously bringing into the school from hurts or injustice from the family or peer relationships.  These educators have told me that they believe the use of forgiveness has numerous benefits for them and helps prevent them from overreacting during the school day.

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.

My co-author of our APA textbook, Forgiveness Therapy, 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.  The results include studies in Milwaukee’s central city, Belfast’s interface areas, and Seoul, Korea.  These studies now are published in peer-reviewed journals.

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).

Response to Mistakes

The Church has been going through a very painful time of purification because of the failure of Bishops, priests and Catholic educators to protect youth from the risk of sexual abuse, primarily of a homosexual nature (Fitzgibbons, R., et al. 2011).  The post crisis response has been positive overall with the glaring exception of failing to identify the important risk factors of severe narcissism and male insecurity in potential abusers of youth, particularly males

Priests who have been accused of placing youth at risk have been required to take leave from their ministry and undergo an evaluation according to the norms established by the Dallas Charter.

In justice, principals and school administrators who demonstrate negligence in protecting youth from the serious psychological harm of bullying should also be required to step aside from their work and be evaluated in a similar fashion.

The Church cannot fail to act in justice when youth in Catholic schools, as well as educators, are are placed at-risk of serious harm.

Help for the Victim

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 protectors and 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. 

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. 

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 parent or sibling, correction should always occur.  Also, if bullying and defiant behaviors in the home are severe, consideration should be given to warn the child that unless these behaviors change he/she may need to live with another family member or with friends. Such bullying is often the result of intense selfishness with a strong sense of entitlement.

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.

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, especiallly with someone who has treated them in an unjust manner in the family.

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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