Complex PTSD: The Long Lasting Effects of Bullying and Psychological Abuse

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Guest author Laura Corbeth talks about how relentless, covert bullying by her brother and the failure of her parents to protect her led to the development of Complex PTSD.

Children who are emotionally abused and neglected face similar and sometimes worse mental health problems as children who are physically or sexually abused, yet psychological abuse is rarely addressed in prevention programs or in treating victims, according to a new study published by the American Psychological Association.

—American Psychological Association, 2014

As a child, can you imagine trying to go sleep next to a bomb? And then being threatened to not tell or you would be killed? That’s what happened to me. It was a beautiful Christmas present I was given when I was a young child. A perfume bottle that looked like a bottle of hair mousse. My brother who was 3 years older than me, shook it violently and then placed it very gently and carefully at the bottom of my bed. He told me not to move or it would blow up. I didn’t sleep well that night.

I was bullied. Relentlessly. By my brother. No cuts. No bruises. No scratches.

One imagines a bully as a person that punches. Someone who would physically hurt you. But my bully was a psychological abuser. The invisible wounds went deep. My brother was sly, constraining me to spit in my face, lick me or perform tickle torture. He took pleasure in dominating me and playing on my fears – relishing his control over me, his younger sister. His lies and manipulations terrified me. Witnessing my brother torture animals, left no doubt in my mind that my tormentor would follow through on his threat that he would kill me if I told.

And, where were my parents? Rather than investigating my deteriorating situation, they believed my brother’s continuous lies as he denied his abuse of me. When they did catch glimpses of my brother’s cruelty, they put it down to sibling rivalry. But it was not sibling rivalry. It was ruthless, relentless, psychological and physical abuse. And, by not dealing with it, my parents were complicit. Unheard, unprotected, I was completely on my own.


“….it was not sibling rivalry. It was ruthless, relentless, psychological and physical abuse. And, by not dealing with it, my parents were complicit. Unheard, unprotected, I was completely on my own. These were the awful memories that I chose to forget and bury.”

These were the awful memories that I chose to forget and bury.

When an aunt died a few years ago, I started to administer her estate. It was the first time since my childhood that I was dealing with my brother who I was told had changed. But, as we started to communicate, I was shocked to find out that my brother had not changed. He was bullying me again. But in adult form with lies, manipulations and deceit. I was also shocked at how my body was reacting. I had post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.

I was triggered. I started to feel panic. I was feeling intense anxiety and my whole body was tense. I had heart-palpitations and was shaky. Something was very wrong.

Psychological Abuse

In 2014, the American Psychological Association revisited a study that was published in the Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy publication. The APA paper was titled: Unseen Wounds: The Contribution of Psychological Maltreatment to Child and Adolescent Mental Health and Risk Outcomes1.

What the study confirmed was that children who experienced psychological maltreatment were dealing with the same, or perhaps even worse, mental health problems than those children that had experienced physical and sexual abuse.

The study also found that children who experienced psychological abuse experienced post-traumatic stress disorder just as often as children experiencing other forms of maltreatment and abuse. The paper concluded that there was a need for greater attention on psychological maltreatment.

So, what might a child experience with this type of abuse? Eating disorders, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, withdrawal from society, rebellious conduct and sleep problems to name a few. Psychological abuse has taken a backseat to physical and sexual abuse. Psychological abuse deserves some much-needed attention. Sexual and physical abuse have been receiving a lot of attention in recent years, which is extremely important. Now, it’s time to talk about psychological abuse.

Why is psychological abuse so harmful? One might ask this very important question.

Psychological abusers have an intentional pattern of behaviour where one person will exert control over another person using very planned and specific means.

People might think that yelling, screaming, name-calling criticisms, put-downs would be what psychological abuse is. Although this is true in some cases, this type of abuse is not that obvious and visible.


Psychological abuse can be “very insidious and very covert. Sneaky.”

It is very insidious and very covert. Sneaky. Psychological abuse comes from someone who has a pattern of intimidating others; lack of empathy; lack of remorse and guilt; incessant lying; gaslighting; threats to their safety. There can be isolation and financial abuse for adults. They are a bully of the worst kind.

The most concerning behaviour is that people who perpetrate this type of toxic behaviour have a unique ability to be charming to others. They have two sides to their character and can speak in half-truths. If they are caught in a lie, they will simply re-invent a new truth. They usually will blame a victim. What is also concerning is they will believe their own lies.

Family Dynamics of Abuse

When I asked my mother to be honest about my childhood bullying and psychological abuse, she stopped speaking to me. She chose to protect my brother decades later. It devastated me. It was then, that I had to accept that my brother wasn’t the only abuser in my family. I started seeing a very qualified psychologist and started to understand the “big picture”.

After all my research and therapy, I want to help others; let them know that they are not alone. Someone may be suffering in silence but, it can be worked out. You can work out your trauma with evidence-based therapy. Talk therapy, journaling, mindfulness and prayer were instrumental in my healing. Reach out and don’t be afraid to tell someone what you are feeling. You have a right to your pain. Your pain matters.

Your inner child will love you for it.


Laura is the author of “My Courage to Tell: Facing a Childhood Bully and Reclaiming My Inner Child” in which she recounts her story of traumatization from her brother’s relentless, covert bullying and her parents’ failure to protect her. For more information about Laura or to purchase her book, visit her website at: or on Twitter @laura_corbeth.