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Addressing the interplay between bullying and Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE)

By Favour Henshaw

Bullying is a prevalent issue in society with profound psychological effects on individuals of all backgrounds and communities, both victims and perpetrators. This occurs in various settings, such as schools, workplaces, and online platforms.

Recent research has illuminated the connection between childhood adversity, as measured by the Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) framework, and the perpetration and experience of bullying. Similarly, the adverse childhood experience is crucial in comprehending the significant impact of early-life adversities on long-term well-being.

In 2020, I embarked on a school tour to 10 different junior secondary schools in Abuja, addressing the issue of bullying and adverse childhood experiences (ACE). This endeavor allowed me to conduct research on bullying and its correlation to adverse childhood experience (ACE) while measuring the prevalence of this issue.

Interestingly, 2 out of every 5 students have been or are bullied by their classmates or senior schoolmates, with boarding schools exhibiting the highest level of bullying as victims are confined with their perpetrators. The motivations behind bullying behavior are multifaceted and may include a desire for power, retaliation, control, psychological distress, or trauma.

Executive Director, United Women Voices International Foundation (UWVIF), Favour Henshaw addressing students of Junior Government Secondary School. Gwarinpa, Abuja on issues around bullying and Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE).

This article will explicitly delve into the nexus between bullying and childhood adversity from both psychological and legal perspectives. Understanding the psychological dynamics of bullying and adverse childhood experiences (ACE) is crucial, as bullying is a complex social issue with far-reaching consequences for individuals and communities. It entails repetitive, aggressive behavior intended to cause harm, distress, or intimidation to another person, often characterized by a power imbalance between the bully and the victim.

Bullies frequently exhibit a combination of externalizing behaviors such as aggression and defiance and internalizing behaviors like low self-esteem and depression. Many bullies themselves have undergone adverse childhood experiences, leading to a cycle of trauma and aggression.

Simultaneously, adverse childhood experience (ACE) encompasses a wide range of traumatic events, including abuse, neglect, community violence, and household dysfunction. From my school tour research, children who face these issues are often involved in bullying dynamics, either as perpetrators or victims. In my research, students were categorized into various groups for thorough analysis. Group A and C students came from dysfunctional homes, experienced neglect, and were emotionally sensitive, displaying their vulnerability.

This vulnerability made them prime targets for bullies, as most victims of bullying may have a history of adverse childhood experience (ACE) that predisposes them to being targets due to perceived vulnerability or difficulty asserting themselves. Group B consisted of children who faced neglect and abuse, some experiencing domestic violence, parental abandonment, or maltreatment, but exhibited aggressive and violent tendencies. Group D comprised children who received love and proper care but struggled with temper issues and aggression. Finally, Group E consisted of neutral, indecisive children who also fell victim to bullies. Victims often experience depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, as exemplified in the case of the late Mohbad, who suffered from bullying and depression.

Bullies themselves grapple with guilt, shame, and continued aggression, especially when confronted or when their actions lead to further adverse outcomes, as seen in the Abuja British School case.

Unfortunately, many survivors of bullying endure social isolation, academic challenges, and mental health issues, with some dreading the prospect of attending school daily. The intersection of childhood adversity and bullying poses intricate challenges that necessitate a comprehensive legal response.

In numerous jurisdictions, there are legal frameworks in place to address bullying in schools, including anti-bullying legislation, school policies, and civil or criminal statutes. For instance, “The Republic of the Philippines Anti-Bullying Act 2013.” Republic Act No. 10627, or the Anti-Bullying Act 2013, is a relatively recent law aimed at addressing hostile environments at schools that disrupt the educational process, which in turn is detrimental to the holistic development of a child in school.

Section 2 of this Act defines bullying “as any severe or repeated use by one or more children (students) of written, verbal, or electronic expressions, physical acts or gestures, or any combination thereof, directed towards another child (student) that causes or places the latter in reasonable fear of physical or emotional harm or damage to property, creating a hostile environment at school or in the community for the other child (student), infringing on the rights of the other child (student at school), or materially and substantially disrupting the growth process (educational process or the orderly operation of a school), such as but not limited to …”

Legal mechanisms play a pivotal role in safeguarding and supporting victims of bullying, including those who have encountered adverse childhood experiences (ACE). This may involve civil remedies such as restraining orders, school interventions, or criminal prosecutions in severe cases.

Addressing the interplay between bullying and adverse childhood experience (ACE) necessitates a multidimensional approach encompassing prevention, intervention, and support.

Our recommendation for effective intervention includes a trauma-informed approach that acknowledges the underlying psychological wounds of both bullies and victims. Mental health professionals play a critical role in ensuring that trauma-informed therapy heals the effects of both bullying and adverse childhood experiences (ACE).

From a legal perspective, interventions should focus on early detection, prevention, and rehabilitation through comprehensive anti-bullying programs. Restorative justice practices may be utilized to address the harm caused by bullying, ultimately promoting accountability and healing for all parties involved. For instance, Section 5 of the Anti-Bullying Act 2013 states: (c) conduct immediate counseling or refer to appropriate services for the perpetrators, victims, and their respective families.

As an NGO dedicated to advocacy, awareness, and empowerment, the United Women Voice International Foundation is committed to raising awareness about the complexities of bullying and the consequences of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) to foster empathy, understanding, positive social norms, and a culture of respect, inclusion, and conflict resolution in schools and communities, thereby reducing the prevalence of bullying in schools and society.

We hope that the interdisciplinary collaboration between legal professionals, mental health experts, educators, and policymakers will significantly address various challenges such as jurisdictional issues, privacy concerns, and consistent enforcement of anti-bullying laws once enacted in Nigeria.

Written by Favour Henshaw is the Executive Director at United Women Voices International Foundation (UWVIF). UWVIF focuses on advocacy and awareness captain on Bullying, Abuse and Adverse Childhood Experiences. She can be reached via info.unitedwomenvoices@gmail.com

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