Childhood Trauma & Workplace Abuse, A Dangerous Combination

There is nothing ‘artistic’ or metaphoric about post-traumatic fear.

~Lenore Terr, M.D.

Constant barrages of abusive bullying in the workplace and schools can trigger long-suppressed traumatic memories. Such behaviors can lead to a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or to what Dr. Judith Herman of Harvard refers to as Complex PTSD also known as Disorders of Extreme Stress, a diagnosis that has yet to be listed on the DSM-IV.

Employees or students that find themselves in abusive bullying situations do not always have a clear understanding of PTSD and are often painted as a “nut” or “crazy” by their employer, colleagues or peers. Lack of knowledge regarding abusive bullying can break them, which is the ultimate goal of their adversary. Most people associate PTSD with combat and experience at least one traumatic situation in their lives, putting them in the 50 to 90 percent range. However, for some the trauma is so severe it can cause more problems if the victim does not receive professional help.

Long-suppressed memories almost instantaneously can trigger PTSD. They can start with vague flashes and progress to detailed scenes. If not addressed immediately the situation can worsen. In cases of constant abusive bullying, the employee/student feels threatened to protect himself or herself. This response is referred to as “fight or flight response” or “acute stress response”. Simply put, a physiological reaction occurred which puts the target or victim in a state of terror. The messages received are to “deal with the threat” or “run away to safety”. Employees or students who choose to”deal with it” must realize that this will up the scale and the bully and his mob more than likely will come after you. Some abusive actions from the bullies include hacking into work computers, false accusations, fabricated documentation, suspensions, and rumors. The prolonged abuse by your employer can lead to more nightmares, flashbacks, school interrogations, court depositions, psychological and psychiatric sessions. Childhood trauma and abusive bullying in the workplace affects employers, employees, schools, parents, future parents, and students and society. To understand the impact, we must understand that the brain records all experiences. Traumatic experiences alter the brain itself. Trauma affects not only student learning and behavior it affects workplace productivity, society, socioeconomics and our overall health.

What people need to understand is that the traumatized and the abusively bullied have little or no control over their situation in either a school or workplace environment. Their cases are complicated. Their environments are complex. One of the favorite tactics of a bully is to isolate the victim so that they cannot tell their story. Other tactics include intimidation, public humiliation, and even legal coercion. For those who experience chronic abuse, the hurdles are difficult. Positive emotions are replaced by guilt, shame, hopelessness, unworthiness, anger and suicidal thoughts. They begin to see themselves differently, losing confidence and becoming paranoid. They start to believe the lies and see themselves as abnormal or odd. Rejection creates loneliness, deep depression and sometimes results in suicide.

Recent statics suggest that 10 million children will witness domestic violence. In a study done July of 2012, by the National Center for Mental Health Promotions and Youth Violence Prevention, Childhood Trauma and Its Effects on Healthy Development, 60 percent of adults reported that they experienced abuse or other family circumstances during childhood, and 26 percent reported witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event. The study also revealed, “Young children exposed to five or more significant adverse experiences in the first three years of childhood face a 76 percent likelihood of one or more delays in their language, emotional or brain development.” Simply put, the undeveloped brain is fragile. I reiterate, fear and trauma change the brain.

Tim Field, one of UK’s leading specialists on workplace bullying and author of the book, Bully In Sight, stated, “In the last decade of the twentieth century, workplace bullying is, in my view, the second greatest social evil after child abuse, with which there are many parallels.”

The Workplace Bullying Institute asserted in 2014, “The number of workers who are affected by bullying-summing over those with direct bullying and witnessing experiences -is 65.6 million, the combined population of 15 states.”

Becky Parker of WDAZ in Grand Forks, Oct. 22, 2015, reported, “Forty-five percent say they’ve been bullied at some point during their career, and another 25% say they’ve witnessed workplace bullying.”

While the situations have begun to change, many who report abusive-bullying or trauma (e.g. rape, domestic violence, child abuse) to the authorities find their claims often met with skepticism. The victim interprets this as a lack of concern on the part of the authorities. In our politically-correct world, no one wants to believe that anyone is at fault. Parents who report the playground bully are often told that there are “two sides to every story.” When questioned, the abused often retreat, feeling that the solution is to ignore the problem.

According to the Bureau of Justice School Bullying Statistics Cyber Bullying – School Crime and Safety: Thirty percent of U.S. students in grades six through ten are involved in moderate or frequent bullying Some are bullies, some are victims, some are both. Statistically, school bullying and cyberbullying are increasingly viewed as an important contributor to youth violence, including homicide and suicide. However, other factors will also come into play including mental illness. There is never one single reason for any of these events. However, case studies of the shooting at Columbine High School and other U.S. schools suggest that bullying was a factor in many of the incidents. One of the most staggering statics shows 28 percent of youths carrying guns have witnessed violence at home. Other School Bullying Statistics reveal:

  • 1 out of 4 kids is bullied
  • Another child will abuse one out of every four children.
  • 77% of students are bullied mentally, verbally, & physically
  • Cyber bullying statistics are rapidly approaching similar numbers
  • Each day 160,000 students miss school for fear of being bullied.
  • 43% fear harassment in the bathroom at school
  • 100,000 students carry a gun to school
  • A poll of teens ages 12-17 showed that they think violence increased at their schools.
  • The same school bullying statistics and cyber bullying statistics poll also showed that 282,000 students are physically attacked in secondary schools each month
  • More youth violence occurs on school grounds as opposed to on the way to school.
  • Playground school bullying statistics reveal every seven minutes a child is bullied.
  • In only four percent of these cases, an adult intervenes.
  • The level of peer intervention is 11 %.
  • In a staggering 85% of cases, there is no intervention.

According to Dr. Gregory Fritz, the good news is that 80 to 90% of these students can be treated or saved. This means that intervention is essential. However, for many, the damage is already done. The victims are out of school and in the workplace.

If you’ve had a perfect childhood, or if you’ve never encountered abusive workplace/school bullies it is hard to understand why someone else responds differently to some situations. Traumatized and abusively bullied people do not wear signs and are often hard to spot for a plethora of reasons. This is why I suggest all schools and workplaces go through formal training conducted by respected facilitators in the fields of trauma (e.g. sexual abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, child exploitation,). Additionally, when dealing with school or workplace bullying issues hire someone outside of the company or school to conduct the investigation or deal with the bully or abuser. This does not mean hiring someone with just initials behind their name. This means hiring someone that has walked in the shoes of the victim or target and is an outsider. I say this because bullies are often well-connected individuals within the system. Bringing in an outside expert helps assure the evaluation will be unbiased and completed fairly and thoroughly.

First and foremost, when dealing with schools remember, students come first, and adults bear the ultimate responsibility for making the school safe, civil and productive. When talking about the workplace, employees must feel safe and respected. All people in the schools and the workplace must follow employment policies, school rules, and employment law. If a school or business has a zero tolerance policy, it must apply to everyone. The star athlete is not exempt. Neither is the winning coach. Nor is the head of the company. It would be wise for schools and businesses provide employees with “soft skills” training to help them deal with personality traits, social graces, communication, language, personal habits, interpersonal skills, management, and leadership. There are some good programs. I have worked with Dale Carnegie, the Working It Out Program, L Ron Hubbard’s program. There are many out there.

Make sure all students, parents and or caregivers understand school rules and procedures. Schedule training days to review and discuss policy handbooks, contract agreements, and student rules. I suggest you review these with parents and caregivers as well. A Clear understanding is essential. Equity is essential when dealing with policies, rules, and laws.

School and workplace environments must be safe and challenging for individuals and business to thrive. Good leadership accomplishes this through positive actions and attitudes. They lead their teams by example. They communicate goals and expectations clearly and concisely. They leave nothing to chance. If that means that cell phones should be turned off during work and school hours, let the students and employees know this. If a dress code is in place, make sure students and employees clearly understand the dress code. If there are exceptions to a rule, clearly communicate any and all exceptions. Write them down. Let students and employees know that negative actions have consequences. Clearly communicate this to your students and employees. Again, I suggest this be put in writing.

When dealing with student and employee issues, it is essential to remember we all come from different backgrounds with different experiences. Our beliefs about ourselves influence the way we perceive the world and react to a situation. Help employees and students realize that some of their personal beliefs are helpful, and others can be harmful. Their actions may be keeping them from attaining certain goals, whether that be behavioral, academic, financial or climbing the company ladder. Make the student, parent, caregiver or employee feel comfortable. Let them know you understand that we all make mistakes, and you appreciate honesty. Help the students and employees write their goals. To ensure success start with mini goals.

When dealing with complaints, listen without judgment. Sometimes you will have to remove yourself from the problem. The systems for handling complaints within a school system often make it difficult for the school administration to police themselves. Not only is this unfair, but it also puts the complainant in a defensive posture. Make sure the student and or employee know their rights and the procedures to follow. Do not assume. We all know what assumptions do. So do not leave anything to chance. Implement written documentation and provide copies. With some people, you will have to review everything orally. Remember we are not all equal when it comes to comprehension, intellect, and experiences.

After you have heard from the complainant, the next step is to identify the problem clearly. To be sure you understand, repeat what you think you have heard. If your analysis does not satisfy the employee, student, parent or caregiver, allow them to restate the concern or complaint. To be clear, follow up with something like, “so what I understand you to say is… Is that correct?” After you have a clear understanding of the problem, consider your choices and consequences. If a verbal correction is best then clearly state your plan of action. Write it down provide each party with copies. If a formal assessment is needed, follow the same procedure with more specifics. Whatever you do, do not try to avoid the issue. The cover-up will eventually get you. Moreover, this can be costly for all involved.

We all must comprehend that bullies are manipulative, and they will try to do everything within their power to ruin their target’s life. Childhood trauma influences the brain and requires professional help. If it is not addressed, it will creep its ugly head into the workplace.

In closing, intervention is the key. It is the only way that we can create a society where children are thriving, and workers are healthy and productive rather than a culture infected by bullies and trauma.

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