As a child and adolescent psychiatrist, I have heard horror stories on bullying ranging from class full of students engaging in hurtful words to severe physical maltreatment in locker rooms. More than that, I was a “middle-schooler” once and remember exactly how bullying felt. Let’s just say I wouldn’t always fit in. I didn’t know then what I know now- no one “fits in” all the time.
My patients’ struggles and my own, tell me that we need to bring this up over and over. You can never talk enough about the dangers of bullying. In this article, I would like to bring to attention some cold, hard facts on bullying and its effects on the growing brain.
Bullying During Childhood may Lead to Psychiatric Problems as Adults
Verbal or physical bullying increases your child’s risks significantly to have mental illness years from now. Research has demonstrated that exposure to trauma in childhood is associated with increased vulnerability to psychiatric disorders- depression, suicidal ideation, loneliness and even psychosis. Moreover, this seriously increased risk of having mental health issues in adulthood is as severe as if the child would have been verbally abused by parents.
Bullying Hampers Education
This may seem obvious but bullying has been shown to negatively affect grades. But beyond that, it leads to absenteeism. Isn’t it a disgrace that the victim of bullying and not the perpetrator (bully) or perpetuator (on-lookers) issuffering while everyone else goes on with life untouched, even ecstatic in the pain they inflicted.
- Bullying May Lead to Violence: When pushed to the corner, the worst in humankind is forced to show itself. Children and adolescents who are bullied are more likely to carry weapons to school, and to engage in fights. They are likely to intentionally hurt animals and other people, and use weapons that could seriously harm others. The Columbine massacre was an unfortunate worst-case culmination of bullying. It is time we learn from the dangers of passivity in the face of bullying.
Bullying May Lead to Substance Use
Children and adolescents who are bullied are significantly more likely to abuse drugs. In my experience, I repeatedly see patients who are now heavily addicted to substances. It is unclear if they do so to address their mental anguish or to fit in with others even if that means developing addictive behavior.
Bullying is Frighteningly Common
Peer verbal abuse was reported by 17.9% of the entire community sample in a large study. Hence, exposure to substantial levels of bullying is a relatively common occurrence. Unfortunately, despite of how common this issue it, it is not unusual for me to hear things like “he needs to be stronger” or “she needs to learn how to deal with it” from parents or worse still, teachers. There is an imminent need for a culture change.
Middle school is the Most Dangerous
The peak period of exposure to peer bullying, with almost 10% of students getting newly exposed, is middle school. The good news is that bullying tends to decline from 15 to 18 years probably since teenagers are able to accept their individuality and take pride in it in ways that younger children are unable to.
Bullying Changes the Structure of our Brains
What’s perhaps most unnerving, is that exposure to bullying may lead to actual physical changes in the brain, most commonly in the Corpus Callosum– the band of nerves that connects the two halves of our brains. This has been shown in multiple replicated studies. The corpus callosum transfers important movement, sensory, and memory information between the brain hemispheres. Imagine how any impact on such an important part of our brain may affect a growing individual!
A Little Help from Friends Goes a Long Way
When peers (e.g. classmates) intervene against bullying, 57 % of bullying episodes cease within 10 seconds! Therefore, encouraging such peer intervention is an important approach to reducing bullying. However, although bystanders are shown to be present in 88 % of bullying episodes, they only intervene and defend victims in 19 % of cases despite the effectiveness of peer intervention. Fear clearly spreads like fire! Why can’t it be cool to protect rather than to petrify?
There is Hope
Schools, families and communities can play a very important role in curtailing this dangerous and rampant behavior. Along with peer intervention, effective and immediate communication between parents and teachers, as well as consequences such as removal of privileges is effective ways to curtail bullying. It’s about time that we intervene with the bullies and show them that not only is it not OK to bully, it gets you in trouble at school, with friends and at home.
We will talk about the different forms bullying can take and what steps one can take as parents/caregivers to identify and deal with bullying, in another post