The Scars We Can’t See: Neuroscience Proves That Adolescents Are Most At-Risk For Long-Term Consequences of Bullying & Abuse

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Even those of us who don’t remember typewriter ribbon and mobile phone deals that included free night and weekend minutes can probably summon up a mental picture of the ineffable James Dean, astride his motorcycle like he owns the world in Rebel Without a Cause, or maybe even hum a few bars of Don’t You Forget About Me from The Breakfast Club. The focus in both these iconic productions rests squarely on the fearless, oftentimes reckless and always passionate energy of their adolescent heroes.

Teenagers and their tumultuous coming-of-age stories are represented throughout history in all art forms all over the world, and for good reason — adolescence is universally recognized as a time during human development of great promise…as well as great consequence.

Few people understand that dichotomy as well as Dr. Jennifer Fraser, PhD, an expert in applied neuroscience who is changing the way bullying is perceived, understood, and treated. Neuroscience is proving the dramatic, and deeply troubling, psychopathological effects that bullying has on the developing brain, and Fraser is leveraging this growing body of research to speak directly to the adults who she feels are most able to do something positive to stop the bullying epidemic and help young brains heal.

“My work focuses on adults, on training adults who are in frequent contact with or who work with adolescents — educators, coaches, medical staff, parents, law enforcement,” she said recently in an interview with STOPit’s CRO, Neil Hooper. “They all need to know that their words and behavior have a tremendous emotional impact on these radically developing brains — even more than with younger children,” she said.

All In The Head: The Real Damage Of Humiliating, Abusive Words On The Adolescent Brain

The teenage years are a time of intensive growth in brain development — paralleling that of the toddler years– and data suggests that the experience of chronic victimization during adolescence induces psychopathological deviations from normal brain development. In other words, a physical change to the brain — literally forming scar tissue, causing shrinkages and other deformities that could change the way these future adults will learn, think and behave. “The fact is that chronic bullying, or worse emotional abuse done by adult, leaves an indelible imprint because it affects hormones, reduces connectivity in the brain, and sabotages new neurons’ growth,” said Fraser.

Neurological studies have found that persistent bullying in high school is not only emotionally traumatizing, it also causes real and lasting damage to the developing young brain. In fact, MRIs show that the brain’s pain response to exclusion and taunting is remarkably similar to its reaction when the body is physically hit or burned.

recent European study that was published in Molecular Psychiatry on teenage brain development and mental health followed 682 young people between the ages of 14 and 19, and tallied 36 in total who reported experiencing chronic bullying during these years. When the researchers compared the excessively bullied participants to those who had experienced less intense bullying, certain sections of the brains of the bullied participants appeared to have actually shrunk in size – a change similar to adults who have experienced severe early life physical stress, such as child abuse.

“I try to explain to them (adults) how we’ve created this bullying culture with our children; in sports, in the performing arts; in academic competition, by modeling our own, shaming, aggressive behavior, and then we turn around in school assemblies and TV spots and tell them not to do it. That’s obviously not working. Too often, these changes – these scars – are programming their brains to perpetuate the abuse and trauma they experienced on others.”

In one of many examples Fraser cites to prove her point, the world renowned educator points to the case of Rutgers University basketball coach, Mike Rice, fired for relentlessly bullying kids on his team; hurling insults, questioning their loyalty, sexual identity and abilities. One student in particular repeatedly felt the lash of the coach’s taunts, laced with homophobic slurs and rants, but it took repeated reports by Assistant Coach, Eric Murdock and finally his handing over of a video of Rice’s abuse to ESPN in order to protect the student-athletes.

“This bullying culture is so deeply embedded in our society, even the most obvious examples are too often shrugged off as part of growing up, perverse rites of passage necessary to “toughen up” children for successful adulthood and motivate them to push past pain to “be their best”. This awful behavior is normalised and dismissed — but it’s not normal behavior,” she said emphatically. “None of this makes any child stronger, smarter, more artistic, or more athletic. It just harms his or her brain, and it might be permanent,” Fraser said.

Leveraging Neuroscience and Social-Emotional Learning to Change Culture

But as with every challenge, there are solutions — if we are willing to find them and determined enough to use them.

In her previous book, Teaching Bullies and her forthcoming book “The Bullied Brain: What Neuroscience Can Teach Us About Brain Scars and How To Heal Them”, Fraser presents a realistic approach to reversing the epidemic of bullying. In this book and in her work as an educator and consultant, Fraser emphasises the importance of SEL, or social-emotional learning, as well as the need to flip-the-script when it comes to reporting bullying and harassment.

“Social-emotional learning — including content and activities that emphasize cooperation, strengths-based motivation and empathy — is one of our greatest, underutilized tools in remaking our culture,” she said. “If we adults make SEL ubiquitous in all disciplines, activities and at all ages — we’ll be pushing a new norm and make bullying a marginalized behavior.”

One component of social-emotional learning is practicing courage — including the courage to speak up for someone in trouble. Fraser believes that every organization should provide an anonymous reporting tool to everyone in that organization, and that there is as much value in a manager or staff member’s ability to report bullying and harassment as there is in empowering a victim to reach out for help.

“In the example of Mike Rice at Rutgers,” Fraser said, “there were several adults – professionals who were mid-level managers or staff who were witnesses and wanted to speak out, but they felt powerless or afraid to go public with their concerns. Tools like the STOPit Solutions reporting app could have made all the difference in this case by empowering both the victims and the adult bystanders to speak up and demand early intervention and resolution.”

Fraser and like-minded colleagues at STOPit are forming strategic partnerships across the globe to bring together the research, tools and leadership critical to understanding the problems and to implementing solutions. Fraser is helping STOPit build a robust library of SEL content, grounded in positive psychology and neuroscience, that organizations can choose to share with their communities — content that directly addresses their own, distinct needs and concerns. STOPit is helping Fraser and others share stories showing how those who report bullying and harassment are heroes — not snitches — and demonstrate how upstanders save lives and protect what’s best in an organization’s culture.

In Fraser’s newly completed online course End Bullying and Abuse Academy, she foregrounds the STOPit reporting app as one of her eight “Rs.” Her eight courses analyze how organizations fail to use SEL and reporting as an early-warning system to keep administrators aware of whether their culture is healthy or showing signs of toxicity. Fraser’s courses teach that at the heart of a healthy system is SEL knowledge, neuroscientific insights and an effective reporting system.

“We have the brain power to make a paradigm shift from the passive acceptance of bullying and abuse to actively practicing empathy and compassion,” said Fraser. “Your corporation, business, schools or sports organization will be more successful once you make that shift. That’s not opinion. It’s grounded in extensive neuroscientific research.”

Call STOPit now to learn more about how communities and school districts are using the innovative app to build resiliency, safety, and deliver mental health first aid to individuals and organizations around the world.

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