When I was about eight years old, I became the victim of childhood bullying. Two girls I had been friends with suddenly stopped talking to me. This was soon followed by other girls in their friend circle. Eventually, the rest of the class no longer spoke to me or wanted to be around me in any capacity. It was over twenty years ago now, but I still wonder, what did I do?
Was it because after some game that I couldn’t win I, in a moment of childish anger, grumbled how much I hated those two girls loudly enough for them to hear? Was it because sometimes I tended to absentmindedly roll my eyes at nothing in particular, and they took offense to that? Was it because they always thought I was annoying, with my crybaby tendencies, and decided they’d had enough of me?
Either way, what I did doesn’t matter.
That is something I have had to repeat to myself over the years because I get so caught up in what I possibly did to deserve being subject to bullying. I bought into this idea that they acted unkindly towards me because I was socially awkward or ugly. From my perspective, everyone sided with those girls because they were better-looking, or just better than me in general. I’ve often wondered if the bullying would have stopped if I stopped being difficult or weird.
For a long time, I also didn’t even register what had happened to me was childhood bullying. I came to look at the situation as those who alienated me simply exercising their right to choose who they wished to be friends with. I thought because I was awkward, didn’t have the same interests, and my personality clashed with theirs, that expecting decency was a burden to them.
There came a point I thought of my childhood bullying as simply a response to my own bad behavior. I was not within what I perceived to be the popular social circle at my school, and I didn’t receive the same romantic attention from my peers as those girls did. So I thought being ostracized, mocked, and receiving verbal abuse from my classmates was justified because it was only my jealousy that caused me to view them poorly.
As a result of all this, I don’t look at my childhood fondly. Rather, when I think of being a child again, I think of being powerless and subject to the whims of others. When I have reflected back on those times in the past, I would ruminate on all the ways I could have defended myself because of a harmful myth that surrounded childhood bullying: bullying would stop when the victim stood up for themselves. But victims of bullying are not equipped to defend themselves because our society does not teach children the necessary skills to do so. Even most adults don’t know how to properly defend themselves or others.
Correspondingly, I think the adults involved at the time didn’t even recognize the situation as childhood bullying. I remember when my third-grade teacher gathered the other girls and me outside of our classroom. She tried to talk out the issues between us in an attempt at conflict mediation. However, the problem with her approach is I was then treated as having the same level of culpability as those girls, despite them being a collective and me being by myself. What’s more, the teacher seemed to view the issue as simply a disagreement between friends rather than what it was: a group of friends against one kid, which was an inherent power imbalance, making it bullying.
Consequently, because no one named my experience childhood bullying, I didn’t realize it was until adulthood. I had a preconceived notion of bullying, thinking it was limited to physical assault. However, according to the CDC, different types of bullying can include relational or social bullying, such as deliberate ostracization of the victim.
I also didn’t recognize my experiences as being traumatic until conversations around mental health on social media got me reflecting on my own struggles, and what they may be linked to. Childhood bullying is considered an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE), a potentially traumatic incident that can have negative, lasting consequences on a person.
One such effect is children can experience feelings of shame or anxiety or have difficulty concentrating. I recall when the bullying reached its peak in severity, my grades dropped significantly. In addition, I generally lost all motivation for engaging in school activities. Kids who are bullied may also experience depression, anxiety, and sleep difficulties that can persist into adulthood. I resorted to self-harm as a teenager in response to stress, I struggle with insomnia as an adult, and I have been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. In the worst-case scenarios, such problems can lead to suicide.
So what can be done to recover from the trauma of bullying? For me, acknowledging that yes, I was bullied, and yes, it does still affect me was a start. Treating trauma from bullying as a serious mental health issue also allows victims to take the steps to seek treatment through a doctor or counseling. Just because the experience happened as a child, between other children, does not mean it should be regarded as trivial or something to be dismissed. Because of the bullying, my childhood was often painful and traumatic. I’m not wrong for feeling bad for how I was treated as a kid as an adult.
However, at least I’ve come to understand— I didn’t deserve it. All this blame I put on myself throughout the years has caused me to develop severely low self-esteem and alleviate the burden of responsibility from those who hurt me. In adulthood, I’m deciding I don’t deserve to continue suffering for what happened to me as a child. What’s more, no child ever deserves to be treated in a way that is harmful or traumatizing. And I hope as the conversations around bullying improve over time, bullying against children will be never be normalized again.
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