Impact of repeated abuse can be as severe for bystanders as victims

December 15, 2004

Children and adult bystanders who witness repeated abuse inflicted on others may experience both a psychological and physiological stress level that, over time, can equal that of the victim, according to a Penn State researcher.

Watching others being assaulted, bullied or sexually harassed is not a neutral event for bystanders, says Dr. Richard J. Hazler, associate professor of counselor education.

"Of course, the victim, who stands in the most immediate psychological and physical danger, suffers a greater level of distress than any bystander. However, our findings show that bystanders also experience moderate to severe psychological and physiological repercussions," Hazler notes. "After a time, based on the severity of the ordeal, the impact on victims and bystanders is no longer significantly different."

Hazler and Dr. Gregory R. Janson, assistant professor of child and family studies at Ohio University, are co-authors of the paper, "Trauma Reactions of Bystanders and Victims to Repetitive Abuse Experiences," in the journal Violence and Victims.

Seventy-seven college students who took part in the study -- responding both as victims and bystanders -- described such forms of repetitive abuse as bullying, racism, homophobia, corporal punishment by parents, teachers or other authority figures, and sexual harassment.

Three factors make up abuse, according to the researchers. First, somebody has to get hurt physically or psychologically. For children and adolescents, teasing by peers, for instance, can start out as harmless banter but degenerate into name-calling, ridicule and finally outright bullying. Second, there has to be a power differential: big child vs. small child, parent vs. child, teacher vs. student, gang vs. individual. This allows one party to dominate the other and causes the weaker party's self-esteem to deteriorate.

Third, the abuse must be repetitive; the more the abuse is repeated, the greater the hurt. Apart from the physical damage, psychological stress levels rise because the abused, with good reason, anticipate the abuse happening again, the researchers explain. For victims and bystanders alike, repetitive abuse such as physical or verbal bullying cannot be rationalized as a normal phenomenon that goes along with growing up ("kids will be kids"). In fact, analyzes of school shootings as at Columbine High School in 1999 consistently link such outbreaks of violence with prior bullying experienced by the perpetrators. The data compiled by Hazler and Janson also corroborate previous research that the wounds from repetitive psychological abuse may be as damaging and enduring as those of physical abuse.

Hazler says, "Study participants were asked to complete two separate interviews one week apart. One week the interview concerned an experience each had as victims of repetitive abuse. The alternate week the interview dealt with the exposure of each as bystanders to another person's repetitive abuse. We referred to the abuse experience as the 'anchoring event or events.' "

In the first interview, the 77 participants reported the subjective impact of repetitive abuse as a victim at the time it occurred. In the second interview, they reported the subjective impact of repetitive abuse as a bystander at the time it occurred. During both interviews, participants recalled the "anchoring event" over the past seven days and responding on a one-to-five scale to 22 statements such as "any reminder brought back feelings about it," "I felt irritable and angry," "I tried not to talk about it," and "I had trouble falling asleep."

"The first research question asked whether past and present levels of psychological distress resulting from previous abuse experiences were different depending on whether their experience was as bystander or victim of repetitive abuse," Hazler notes. "The second research question examined how the victim and bystander experience of past repetitive abuse was related to physiological reactions during the recollection of those events."

The researchers tested physiological reactions to memory of abuse in two ways, the first being perspiration levels on places of the body where perspiration is more likely to take place in moments of stress. The second was heart rate in beats per minute as measured by electrodes attached to one finger and the wrists. The researchers calculated different scores for each participant for each interview depending on whether remembrances of abuse experience were those of victim or bystander.

"Both perspiration levels and heart rate showed a progressively elevated pattern across interview periods as study participants started talking about specific incidents of abuse," Hazler says. "Overall increases in physiological reactivity for victim and bystander experiences pointed to elevated emotional arousal when participants recalled past episodes of repetitive abuse."

Surveys of participants also revealed that the intensity of psychological and physical trauma reported during recollections of abuse, both as victim and bystander, compared to psychological distress levels experienced by police, firefighters, EMT/paramedics and California highway workers during the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco.

"Memories of extreme abuse can, moreover, trigger stress levels approaching that of schizophrenic individuals suffering a psychotic breakdown," adds the Penn State researcher.

"Over the past decade and a half, common forms of repetitive abuse like bullying and harassment have been given much greater attention as we increasingly recognize their sociological and psychological implications. Most of that research has been self-reports or observational reports of the immediate implications," says Hazler.

"This study was a first step in the next generation of research that is seeking clarity regarding both the short and long-term psychological and physiological damage done by what are often seen as low-level forms of repetitive abuse," he notes. "The better understanding we have of these connections, the more effective we can be at reducing or preventing the negative effects of repetitive abuse on individuals, which in turn influence the safety and quality of other people's experiences in schools, families, work and society."

Penn State

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