The Neuroscience of Bullying
It turns out teens share an important neurobiological flag for stress with infants and toddlers. Elevated levels of the hormone cortisol present under conditions of both physical and verbal abuse hurts teen brains, too.
A recent study by brain scientist Martin Teicher, a Boston-area neuroscientist, shows that older children subjected to persistent verbal bullying by their peers or adults at school showed the same kinds of abnormalities as kids who were physically harmed. The study, published earlier this year, demonstrated that when all other factors for abuse were not an issue, verbal abuse was significantly linked with higher rates of depression, anxiety, or hostility, and victims of taunting or belittling tended to be more vulnerable to drug abuse.
A second researcher’s work explores how bullied boys between the ages of 11-14 suffer ill effects in memory and other cognitive abilities, which can hurt their achievement at school. Tracy Vaillancourt of the University of Ottawa speculates that
cortisol may, in fact, underlie many of the adverse effects of bullying: It can weaken the functioning of the immune system, and at high levels can damage and even kill neurons in the hippocampus, potentially leading to memory problems that could make academics more difficult. Indeed, Vaillancourt has already found that teens who are bullied perform worse on tests of verbal memory than their peers. One of her next studies involves trying to get at this question directly: She will be putting some of her subjects, now ages 16 and 17, into an MRI machine to look for evidence of damage to the hippocampus.
The hippocampus typical governs long-term memory and in older people is commonly affected first when Alzheimer strikes. The corpus callosum, the part of the brain found affected in Teicher’s work, connects the halves of the brain together.
…just as we know physical abuse by adults creates lasting damage in children, it’s becoming clearer that verbal or emotional abuse by a child’s peers is enough to create lasting, measurable damage in a child…
In the short-term, bullied children show cognitive damage and a tendency toward poor school performance. In the long term, cumulative brain trauma can lead some psychiatrists to diagnose Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in adults, depending on the severity and duration of the childhood bullying. This is a crucial insight–just as we know physical abuse by adults creates lasting damage in children, it’s becoming clearer that verbal or emotional abuse by a child’s peers is enough to create lasting, measurable damage in a child even as she or he grows older.
One such teen, who was diagnosed with PTSD after prolonged homophobic bullying, successfully sued his school district for failing to stop or punish his tormentors.
Neurological research on verbal and other abuse in the landmark case Nabozny v. Podlesny, along with the moral and legal obligation of schools to provide safe environments for all students, should convince parents and schools to act with urgency to stop cruel words from escalating into sticks and stones and lifelong ill-effects on the brain.