Bullying is a serious problem that impacts the developing mind. October is National Bullying Awareness Month and it’s something we must discuss. Many adults assume it’s something that all kids deal with; it’s not. In the past twenty years, more research has indicated the long-term implications that bullying has on one’s physical and mental health. In fact it can rewire the brain. With a world of social media at your child’s fingertips, bullying has made it into the home leading to more chronic mental health problems and impacting the ability for your child to function optimally.
Bullying Changes the Brain
Access to the web also means access to bullies. We hear about cyberbullying all the time in the media and yet, often parents do very little to educate their kids at home, often they don’t know how. Schools talk about it briefly in health class or at the beginning of the year, but the follow-through is minimal. By the time they get home and are faced with reality of being tormented online and at school, many feel like there is no safe place to hide.
We know cortisol, a stress hormone, is activated when one faces criticism from another or themselves. This contributes to anxiety, depression and weight gain. Researcher Tracy Vaillancourt, a psychologist at the University of Ottawa, has been following teenagers, including those that have been regularly humiliated and ostracized by their peers, to investigate whether there were structural differences when compared with others. Her findings include that cortisol levels in bullied individuals stay stuck and compromise ones brain chemistry.
Her team evaluated their cognitive functioning every six months and scanned their brains using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to assess damage to the brain, specifically the hippocampus, which is involved in memory formation. Vaillancourt’s findings are astounding:
Cortisol Level Abnormalities
In 2008, Vaillancourt’s discovered higher levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in boys who had been bullied, and significantly lower levels of cortisol, in bullied girls. When an individual is experiencing “fight or flight” responses, blood glucose is deterred from the hippocampus to the muscles. The hippocampus is especially sensitive to chronic stress, and when there is an excess amount of this cortisol in the brain, the abilities to create new memories and access existing ones are compromised has not been determined why bullied girls have abnormally low levels of cortisol, but it has been speculated that the body has learned to make less cortisol because of the chronic stress experienced by the girls.
Anomalies in the Corpus Callosum
Vaillancourt discovered abnormalities in the nerve fiber bands which indicates that communication between the two hemispheres may be impaired. Scientists have shown that bullied individuals often have cognitive deficits, score lower on verbal memory tests, and have less ability to focus on and complete tasks successfully. The irregularities in the corpus callosum could account for this cognitive impairment.
Victims of bullying frequently have problems with memory, concentration, and attention. Corpus callosum abnormalities may contribute to these cognitive difficulties. Neuroscientist, Martin Teicher, also found similar findings on the bullied brain conducted a study of 63 young adults who were victims of verbal bullying. Teicher found deviations in the corpus callosum, a broad band of nerve fibers which connect the left and right hemispheres of the brain, allowing communication between the two halves of the cerebellum.
With the subject participants, neurons in the corpus callosum were found to have smaller amounts of the myelin sheathing that helps enhance brain cell communication. These abnormalities may hamper an individual’s ability to process events occurring around them and respond accordingly. We can adjust the neurochemistry of a child and an adult but we can’t change the environment. Environment can clearly make a tremendous impact on one’s brain development and brain chemistry. You may have to get the school and a professional involved if your child is being bullied online or at school.
Cyberbullying doesn’t require face-to-face contact and has the same impact as face-to-face bullying. A cyberbully can be anyone–anything with access to the internet or a phone can cyberbully someone else. Cyberbullies can follow and get a hold of their victims 24 hours a day. There is no safe place or time. It can feel to your child that there’s no escape from the torment or humiliation. You may be aware of traditional bullying signs, such as school refusal, withdrawn affect, more fearful of being alone. Cyberbullying is so common these day even in kids as young as 8 and 9 years old. Do you know what to look for?
Is Your Child Being Bullied Online?
Sometimes the signs of cyberbullying as subtle; sometimes they manifest into fighting with those that love them or changing their behavior. What can feel like normal adolescent behavior may be a sign of a more serious problem or threat. So how do recognize cyberbullying in your child? These signs are red flags to check your child’s online history and interactions.
- You child has become angry, sad, or distressed after a phone call or using the internet
- He or she appears anxious after checking a text, email or instant message
- She avoids honest conversations and has become secretive about her online behavior
- He withdraws from interactions with friends, family and activities that make him happy
- He or she starts caring less about school and grades begin to plummet
- She refuses to go to school or meet up with friends
- He or she shows signs of changes in sleep patterns, appetitive, mood or behavior
- Anxious and depressed behavior becomes common
What Can You Do?
- Know the sites your kids visit and their online activities. Ask questions about what they’re doing and who they’re talking to. Have them give you all their passwords for just in case. “Follow” or “friend” you child on social media sites.
- Talk to the school about bringing in an expert to educate parents and students. Help them develop a zero tolerance policy
- Explain to your child that once it’s out there, information online will always be out there. Have them think about what information or pictures they want friends or even strangers to be able to see. Explain to them how to change their privacy and think about what people who aren’t friends could do with their information. See our therapist, Emily Roberts MA, LPC’s book Express Yourself to help them deal with digital drama.
- Help your child understand cyberbullying, what it is and how to deal with it. Let you child understand that bullying is never acceptable.
- Have your child save screenshots or copies of texts and messages of the cyberbullying to take to authorities and then block those that are torturing them. You might have to get the police involved.
- Let them know that if someone starts cyberbullying, to not react. Cyberbullies are often looking for a reaction and signs that their bullying is working; cyberbullies are relentless.
- Block/hide the cyberbully’s email address, phone number and social media. Report activities to the social media websites, ISP, the cell phone company, and to any other websites. You can also change your child’s email and phone number.
Remember bullying changes the brain. Let’s keep our kids safe from bullies by being present and prepared for cyberbullying and friendship challenges.
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Emily Roberts MA, LPC is the clinical therapist for the Neurogistics Children’s Program. She has worked with Neurogistics for over a decade. Emily is also an award-winning author of Express Yourself: A Teen Girls Guide to Speaking Up and Becoming Who You Are, Psychotherapist, TV & Media Contributor, educational speaker and parenting consultant. Express Yourself is available at bookstores nationwide and on Amazon. To learn more about Emily click here.
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