Bullying seems to be on everyone’s mind (and blog) right now and as I read many poignant articles on the emotional and developmental impacts of bullying on young people, I wonder, what happens to the brain when teens are bullied?
First, some brain basics:
The ‘Anterior Cingulate Gyrus’ is the part of the brain that helps with two important bully-related functions. First, it moderates our fear response. For example, if a child gets threatened or pushed on the playground, this part of the brain goes into hyper drive—either calming them down or signaling their fight or flight adrenaline responders. Second, it plays a key role in our capacity for empathy. This is crucial in bullying situations to try to either understand where your bully is coming from or to learn social boundaries and guidelines. We know the areas of the brain that initiate empathy are different in teens today. According to a University of Michigan study of about 13,000 college students by Sarah Konrath at the Institute for Social Research, young people today, compared to students in the 1970’s are 40% lower in empathy!
The Amygdala also responds to environmental emotional stimuli and helps us deal with stress.
Effects of Bullying on the Brain:
1) When these areas of the brain are over-active because of continued bullying or fear of being threatened in social situations they do not develop or function properly. When there is an overactive stress response system in the amygdala, due to continued bullying, teens can become more impulsive, aggressive and permanently anxious.
2) Researcher Martin Teicher also found that children who had suffered psychological abuse had smaller corpus callosums. They were on average 40% smaller. This leads to manic shifts in moods, trouble with social intelligence and makes it more difficult for teens to process what is happening around them and respond correctly.
3) There has also been studies that have shown that there is a decrease in blood flow to the cerebellar vermis in the brain stem which can cause impairment. Less blood flow in this area means depression, irritability and impaired attention in the teen.
4) Permanent stress, which is what many victims describe when they have a bully at school, also causes increased release of ‘norepinephrine.’ Under stress, this can lead to permanent anxiety or the inability to think clearly.
5) According to Masters in Psychology Guide.com, the conventional “sticks and stones” wisdom about what kind of bullying really causes lasting damage is backwards: It is actually emotional harm that lasts much longer than physical harm.
What does this mean for us? First, it gives us even more motivation to implement and build antibullying strategies (coming soon in upcoming posts). It also lets us know that there is a reason why bullying can alter a child’s moods or emotional states after an incident happens. As adults, we not only need to work to prevent bullying, but also take care to give teens the time and space to let their emotions, self-esteem and brain, properly recover.
This is part of our Science of Family series. If you would like to read more articles on the scientific research and studies behind relationships, families and teens, please visit our Science of Families page for tips and updated research.
Science of Parenting, Margot Sunderland