Chronic Bullying Changes A Child’s Brain Chemistry!

The stress resulting from chronic bullying, teasing, harassment and social cruelty can change a child’s behavior and even damage their brain!

A certain degree of stress is unavoidable in daily life, and can even be beneficial in helping a child develop resiliency and good coping mechanisms.

However, extreme or prolonged stress (like the kind that comes from being bullied) has profoundly  negative effects.

Bullying causes both ‘external’ stress (being assaulted, embarrassed, shunned by peers) and ‘internal’ stress (anxiety, fatigue, etc.).  Each incident is a micro-trauma; each micro-trauma causes the release of powerful hormones into the blood stream.  Respiration, heart rate and blood pressure spike and stay elevated until the body’s ‘calming’ mechanisms can restore balance some time later.

(The sympathetic nervous system switches on the fight of flight response – the parasympathetic nervous system regulates the relaxation response.)

Depending on a child’s age, developmental level and experience, they may respond to extreme stress by:

  • having aggressive or defensive outbursts
  • throwing tantrums
  • crying without reason
  • getting clingy
  • developing headaches, stomach aches or other physical symptoms
  • escaping into sleep / being unable to sleep
  • becoming depressed
  • avoiding social situations / withdrawal
  • twisting/chewing hair, nail biting, thumb sucking
  • eating too much or too little
  • self-mutilation
Scientific researchers have linked excessive stress to weakened immune systems, skin conditions, memory problems, digestive issues and even shrinkage of the hippocampus (Gunner & Barr 1988, Lombroso & Sapolsky 1998).
Stress can either be acute (sudden onset) or chronic (long term).  One of the insidious characteristics of bullying is that victims experience both ends of the spectrum.  They are subjected to the ‘instant panic’ each time they are targeted, and they also develop anxiety about the next incident even when no danger is present.
Stress is experienced in 4 stages:
  1. Alarm – shock and startle reaction
  2. Evaluation- trying to understand what’s happening, getting meaning
  3. Searching for Coping Strategies – ways to adapt, deal
  4. Action – putting the plan into motion
A kid who’s been repeatedly bullied develops toxic attitudes and emotions such as: self-pity, guilt, shame, anxiety, fear, anger, helplessness, negativity, alienation and depression.
An adult can help a child deal with the stress of being bullied with the following formula:
  • Help them anticipate the next possible event so they aren’t caught off guard
  • Provide a supportive environment
  • Help them recognize, name and appropriately express their feelings
  • Teach them techniques to calm and comfort themselves
  • Create an action plan, rehearse it, and implement it

Teaching a child how to manage their emotions and providing simple strategies to deal with bullies will improve their health as well as their quality of life.

Avoid the following mistakes:

  • Ignoring / Minimizing the problem (“its just a phase”, “you’re being too sensitive”)
  • Offering Bad Advice/ Reciting Cliches (“just ignore them”, “have a snappy comeback”)
  • Expecting Someone Else Will Fix the Situation (“its the responsibility of the schools, or the police”)
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3 Comments on “Chronic Bullying Changes A Child’s Brain Chemistry!”

  1. wken Says:

    We’re finally starting to pay attention to the fact that adults can suffer from PTSD.

    The idea that kids, whose brains are still developing and are wildly more active, develop similar conditions from trauma is hardly a radical notion. I’m glad that we’re starting to pay attention to it.

    I’m also glad that “just ignore them” is finally being called the lie that it’s always been. Anyone who’s ever tried to ignore a bully knows that it’s a fallacy, that the bully simply escalates until s/he is noticed.

  2. Chumley Says:

    Of course, all this begs the question of why kids
    who are chronically bullied, are susceptible to chronic
    bullying in the first place. There’s something wrong with them that causes people to pick on them, and NOT others! If they are mental defectives to begin with, then sure you’re going to see mental symptoms later on, right?

    • Adam Says:

      Thanks for participating in the discussion.
      But I’ve seriously got to take issue with your position that there’s something “wrong” or “defective” with kids who are being bullied. I totally disagree.
      Different does NOT equal bad or wrong or defective. If a kid has never learned the coping skills to handle social cruelty, it does not mean they deserve to be abused. Just because one child can get away with tormenting another doesn’t make it right.

      Even animals are capable of empathy and compassion. Please look into your heart.

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