Written by : Jennifer Fraser, Ph.D. 

The Impact of Adult Bullying on Children’s Developing Brains

We prefer to talk about child-to-child bullying. Even though it’s a horrendous and serious crisis, it’s still a comfortable topic. However, we become quickly uncomfortable when anyone raises the issue of adult bullying. Advances in brain science have provided us with new understanding that can give us the courage to talk about adults who bully children.

Not long ago, we did not believe a concussion was a problem. In fact, we saw it as a badge of honor for an athlete to go back into competition and show his team and coach what he was made of. We now know that concussions are actually serious brain injuries and must be recovered and repaired before an athlete returns to play.

Likewise, we now know that all forms of bullying and abuse can do serious harm to the brain. This includes: neglecting, ignoring, refusing feedback, walking out on someone, ghosting, excluding, shaming, blaming, using put downs, humiliating, berating, threatening, yelling, swearing, assaulting and all forms of cyber, sexual, and physical abuse.

Extensive, replicated, consensus-building research documents on brain scans how these kinds of bullying behaviors harm the brain. We cannot see the injuries with the naked eye, just like we cannot see the blackening of lungs when individuals smoke. We need a brain scan to make visible the harm to the brain and we need an x-ray to make visible the harm to the lungs. Now that non-invasive technology has revealed to us just how deadly all bullying behaviors are to our brains, we need to change how we conduct ourselves.

Adults — especially those in positions of trust and power over children, such as parents, teachers, and coaches — need to lead the charge. Children’s brains are developing and vulnerable. They are extremely sensitive due to their developmental stages especially from 0 to 5 and from 13 to 25 years. A teen or twenty-something may look like an adult, but their brains are not yet mature and they have heightened sensitivity to their environment and peer relationships.

In a positive, psychologically and physically safe, caring environment, adolescent brains will flourish. In a toxic, psychologically or physically dangerous, bullying environment, their brains will struggle and may suffer damage.

It can be difficult for adults to recognize that they are bullying children and youth. It is challenging because we’ve been raised in a society that normalizes adult bullying while telling children not to do it. When adults bully, we do rarely hold them accountable. In fact, we are more likely to change our terms when adults bully. We say what they are doing is “motivating, giving tough love, rejecting political correctness, being passionate, refusing to be a wuss, toughening kids up for a tough world, breaking down the victim to build them back up better,” and so on. As a society, on a deep level, we still believe the myth that bullying and abuse are a necessary evil to attain greatness, power, and prestige. Perhaps this is why political leaders in society do not feel compelled to coverup blatant bullying behaviors in public or documented on social media.

The myth that bullying is necessary to attain greatness is a myth in the sense that there is no research to back it up. None. In contrast, there is extensive research spanning decades that provides evidence for the long lasting, serious harm to the brain by all forms of bullying and abuse.

A quick way for adults to identify if they are bullying children is to compare how they treat kids to how they treat adults in positions of power over them. Do the parents speak and act the same way with their bosses as they do with their children? Does the coach act and speak to the Athletic Director the same way he does to his child athletes? Does the teacher act and speak the same way to the principal as she does to her students? If not, why not? Do children not deserve the same kind of respect and care? Surely they deserve more because they are sensitive and vulnerable and in a massive power imbalance with the adults in their lives.

Science has informed us that all forms of bullying and abuse harm brains. Now it’s up to us to take this empowering, inspiring knowledge and change our conduct. We can work together to role-model empathy, thoughtfulness, and compassion so that our child populations learn a new way of being in the world, a far healthier, happier, and more high-performing way, grounded in brain science and advanced through the adults concerned by the normalized bullying in society

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