The Brain Science Behind Bullying
TLC GUEST BLOGGER: Barb Dorrington, MEd
We all have heard about the impact of bullying and connections to low self-esteem, anger, depression, hostility, and drug and alcohol use. In simple terms, research is mounting that words cause more than emotional harm. They cause damage to our brains. Bullying, like many traumatizing situations, creates a stressful environment leading to an overproduction of cortisol. Too much cortisol damages brain structures, especially learning and memory. The stress of being bullied leads to reactions from anger and a desire to retaliate to withdrawal, with some young people eventually taking their own lives.
According to Vaillancourt, an Ottawa, Canada researcher, a chronic overproduction of cortisol can eventually damage brain receptor sites and lead to an underproduction of cortisol. Low cortisol levels are associated with aggression, and high cortisol levels are associated with feelings of shame.
Martin Teicher, an American neuroscientist, has studied young adults with no history of abuse from parents but a history of being bullied by peers. He discovered that the resulting increased symptoms of depression and anxiety were as damaging to the brain as if they had been emotionally abused by parents.
The brains of bullies are affected, too. In Vaillancourt’s own words, bullies can “talk the talk” but they do not “feel the feel.” They are intoxicated by their own power and dominance, feeding on anonymity and a lack of direct feedback for one’s actions. They do their work through shaming, insulting and threatening, and they use text messages, emails and social media posts. As a result, they can taunt their victims day and night using computers and cell phones.
Bullying will always exist but not because it is a right of passage. Dan Goleman, who wrote “The Brain and Emotional Intelligence,” points out that a youngster’s impulse-control circuitry has not ripened and can outstrip the development of the brain’s executive functioning centers where common sense, patience and maturity reside. Consequently, middle and high school years are sensitive periods for the brain development but also for bullying. Scientific instruments are showing just how dramatically negative childhood experiences alter the physical structure of the brain.
What can help? Most studies suggest a multi-pronged approach and include a partnership of training for parents, teachers and students together. Potential “bullying breeding grounds,” such as unsupervised areas in schools and the neighborhood, require an increase in adult alertness. There is a need for a clear set of rules around bullying and cyberbullying and regular rehearsal or modeling of expected behaviors of children. Bystanders need to become part of an awareness and involvement campaign, breaking the silence.
Hobfoll and others (2007) looked at the empirical research in the field of large-scale trauma and revealed five essential common elements of intervention in mass violence situations: the need to feel safe; calm; connected; useful; and hopeful. Bullying is traumatizing and occurs both by design and by circumstance. It is an intentional action, and can result in death.
Education through such programs as TLC’s online Bullying and Cyberbullying Course assist with user-friendly strategies that support these five essential ingredients of intervention. Watch for TLC’s newest edition of Brave Bart, “Brave Bart and the Bully,” out by the end of this year. Positive action starts with one person who can make the difference in our schools and playgrounds. When someone intervenes, bullying stops.