How Bullying Can Lead to PTSD in Kids

unhappy girl sitting in corner

For years, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was thought to be something only war veterans experienced. But research shows any traumatic event can cause PTSD including dating abuse and bullying.

In fact, bullying has a lasting impact on victims. They often experience anxiety, fear, nightmares, sleeplessness, depression and a host of other symptoms. And because victims often feel vulnerable, powerless, and unable to defend themselves, bullying also can lead to stress-related conditions like PTSD. 

What's more, recent research has shown that there is a direct link between bullying and PTSD. PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder that occurs after a trauma like bullying.

PTSD involves reliving the trauma often through nightmares, flashbacks, or intrusive thoughts. Individuals experiencing PTSD may avoid the triggering events, people, or places in an attempt to escape the intrusive and unwanted memories. These trauma memories often bring about emotional and/or physical reactions.

Although any kind of stress can lead to PTSD, it typically involves a direct personal experience where the victim felt threatened, was injured or saw someone else die, being threatened or injured.

Research also shows that girls are more affected by PTSD than boys. Moreover, the stress experienced by bullying does not necessarily cease when the bullying stops. As a result, PTSD can show up in a person’s life long after the bullying has ended.

PTSD in Children

While PTSD symptoms are similar in adults and children, there are a few things that are different. These differences are worth noting especially if you feel your child may have PTSD. Here is a breakdown by age group of what children with PTSD might experience.

School-Aged Children (Ages 5–12)

Children often do not have flashbacks or problems remembering parts of the trauma or bullying the way adults with PTSD often do. But, they might put the events of the bullying in the wrong order. Kids also might believe that there were signs that the bullying was going to happen. As a result, they believe that if they pay attention they can avoid future issues of bullying. This belief can cause hypervigilance.

Sometimes kids will show signs of PTSD in their play. For instance, they might keep repeating a part of the trauma over and over while playing. While they may be playing this way to try to overcome or make sense of what they experienced, they will not be successful in alleviating their distress. Unfortunately, this type of play will rarely diminish their worries. Kids also may fit parts of the trauma into their daily lives. For example, a child might carry a baseball bat to school for protection especially if a bully threatened him with a baseball bat.

Teens (Ages 12–18)

Because teens are approaching adulthood, some PTSD symptoms in teens begin to look like those of adults. For instance, they may have upsetting thoughts or memories, recurring nightmares, flashbacks, and strong feelings of distress when reminded of the event. The one difference is that teens are more likely than younger children or adults to show impulsive and aggressive behaviors. What’s more, even though kids may be plagued by thoughts of painful experiences, this does not mean they are easily observable. In fact, kids often suffer in silence.

In addition to PTSD, children, and teens often experience other effects of bullying including fear, worry, sadness, anger, loneliness, low self-worth, inability to trust others, depression, and sometimes even thoughts of suicide.

If your teen is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

Early intervention in a bullying situation is the best way to reduce the likelihood of long-term consequences. Be sure you know the signs of bullying, as some kids never mention the experience to their parents.

How You Can Help

For many children, PTSD symptoms go away on their own after a few months. Yet some children show symptoms for years if they do not get treatment. One of the best ways to help your child overcome bullying and deal with symptoms of PTSD is to pay attention to how your child is doing. Watch for signs of issues such as sleep problems, anger, and avoidance of certain people or places. Also, watch for changes in school performance and problems with friends.

If symptoms do not seem to be improving, recognize that you may need to get outside help for your child. Ask your pediatrician to refer you to a mental health provider who has treated PTSD in children.

Meet with the counselor and ask how PTSD is treated. Ask how the therapist treats PTSD. Feel free to meet with several counselors until you find someone who makes you and your child feel at ease.


6 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Idsoe T, Dyregrov A, Idsoe EC. Bullying and PTSD symptoms. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2012;(40)6:901-11.  doi:10.1007/s10802-012-9620-0

  2. Garza K, Jovanovic T. Impact of Gender on Child and Adolescent PTSD. Curr Psychiatry Rep. 2017;(19)11:87.  doi:10.1007/s11920-017-0830-6

  3. Mah R. Getting Beyond Bullying and Exclusion, PreK-5 Empowering Children in Inclusive Classrooms. Skyhorse Publishing. 2013.

  4. KidsHealth from Nemours. Posttraumatic stress disorder.

  5. US Department of Health and Human Services. Warning signs for bullying.

  6. American Psychiatric Association. What Is posttraumatic stress disorder?.

Additional Reading

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.