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Bullying as an Adverse Childhood Experience

Experiencing bullying behavior has long been associated with poor mental and physical health problems. Recently, researchers have sought to expand our understanding of the role of toxic stress on the developing brain of a child or adolescent. Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, have been linked to major health problems over the course of a lifetime. This ground-breaking research in the 1990s identified 10 original ACEs:

  1. Child emotional abuse
  2. Child physical abuse
  3. Child sexual abuse
  4. Child physical neglect
  5. Child emotional neglect
  6. Witnessing intimate partner violence
  7. Parental mental illness
  8. Parental abandonment
  9. Parental addiction
  10. Parental incarceration

The data from the original and subsequent studies demonstrated that:

  • ACEs are very common: 67 percent of study participants had at least one and 12 percent had four or more
  • ACEs tend to cluster: When one occurs, the likelihood of another occurring exists.
  • There is a dose-response relationship to ACEs. The higher the ACEs, the higher the likelihood of having serious health issues like heart disease, cancer, COPD, liver disease, depression and addiction.

The population that was studied for the original ACE was largely Caucasian and mostly college educated. Subsequent research has identified that there are several adverse experiences that are also toxic but occur outside of the home. These include experiences such as:

  • Living in poverty
  • Living in unsafe neighborhoods
  • Gun violence
  • Historical trauma
  • Bullying

There is a connection between the original ACEs research and bullying research. Child maltreatment researcher David Finkelhor has proposed that the original ACEs be revised and expanded to include many of the serious factors occurring outside the home and in our communities like gun violence, poverty, homelessness and bullying.

According to Finkelhor, "Peer rejection and lack of friends are associated with the development of many disorders" (Finkelhor, Shattuck, Turner, & Hamby, 2012, p. 70).

What parents can do:

  • Be aware of Adverse Childhood Experiences. Learn about ACEs and what parents can do to buffer children from the harmful effects of toxic stress.
  • Be involved in your child's life. Be proactive! Be actively engaging in positive activities and nurturing experiences with your children. Talk with your children. Read to your children. Play with your children.
  • Buffer children from harmful effects of ACEs by learning more about what kids need at their age. Understand what your child needs at each stage of their development. While they will always need you as a parent, your role will change with your child's emerging skills. They will continue to need guidance and support from you. Children do not come with instructions. It is okay to learn more about effective parenting by taking a parenting class.
  • Help children learn problem-solving skills, coping skills and emotional regulation skills. Teach your child how to solve problems using a basic formula like the IDEAL model from ACT-Raising Safe Kids:
    • Identify the feelings and situation for each person involved.
    • Develop several solutions that might solve the problem.
    • Evaluate the pros and cons of each solution.
    • Act and choose one solution to implement.
    • Learn from the experience.
  • Model problem-solving yourself.
  • Learn to manage your own anger and other difficult emotions.
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