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The Bullying Lesson Every Educator Needs to Learn

The tragic reason behind the failure of anti-bullying campaigns at schools.

Everyone has a story about bullying. Most of us have been both the bully and the victim of bullying. As a therapist for teens, I've seen the devastating effects year in and year out. I've also witnessed my fair share of well-intentioned, but misguided educators toss around best practices for dealing with this widespread issue.

Approximately 32 percent of students report being bullied at school. Bullied students are more likely to take a weapon to school, get involved in physical fights, and suffer from anxiety and depression, health problems, and mental health problems.

What's an overworked and underfunded school administration to do?

I suggest we begin with the facts. To label bullying a problem of bad parenting, a hostile school environment, or "kids will be kids" is to dismiss the crucial piece of the bully puzzle -- its effects on brain development. Maybe if more educators understood the biochemical brain changes behind bullying, we'd eliminate hurtful and ineffective responses of "I tell him every day how to behave in class and on the playground, but he just doesn't get it!"


How to Make a Bully (from Scratch) is a compelling video which highlights the origins of bullying, and provides research-based findings about its effects on brain development. Below is a summary of the video.

The Five Stages of Bullying.

Stage 1. Difficult Temperament: 0-3 Years Old

Some children experience prenatal distress which can contribute to a difficult temperament. Behaviors include incessant crying, fussiness and the inability to self-sooth. The lack of reciprocity when a parent tries to comfort her wailing infant adversely affects the mother-child bond. This can lead to attachment issues.

Some of these children will turn into out-of-control, defiant toddlers. Parents feel powerless and may resort to chronic harsh discipline which victimizes their own child.

By age three, we see two types of victims emerge:

1. The aggressive, defiant, hot-tempered personality, AKA the bully.
2. The passive, anxious, acquiescent personality, AKA the victim.

Stage 2. Difficulty Playing with Friends: 3-5 Years Old

By preschool and kindergarten students and frustrated teachers sometimes exclude these children due to their lack of social skills and the inability to self-regulate their emotions. Aggression and outbursts are common. These children are emotionally reactive when things don't go their way. The anxious child is seen as a crybaby, weak and boring, while the aggressive child is feared. He hits, grabs, and takes what he wants, while the passive child allows others to hit and grab him without saying a word.

Their chronically stressed brains create mental distortions in how they see themselves and others. The aggressive child believes others have hostile intentions, while the passive child believes he should be mistreated.

Parents see the aggressive child as mean and bad, and the passive child as unmotivated and lazy.

These labels blind us to the realities of the changes which occur in their brains and hard-wiring, bringing these children one step closer to the roles of bully and victim.

Stage 3. Difficulty with Relationships: 1st and 2nd Grade

We're wired to connect, and these kids keep trying to belong via the same unhealthy interactions. During this stage the brain undergoes significant changes and compensates by "disconnecting" or withdrawing into social isolation. The brain interprets the social pain of rejection in the same manner as physical pain which occurs in the body.

Stage 4. Social Exclusion & "I don't care" Language: 8-12 Year-Olds

Since the mainstream population excludes these youth, they find one another. The bully threatens the victim with, "You're mine. I own you." The victim provokes and acquiesces because a negative connection is better than no connection at all.

No manner of punishment or discipline is effective because the brain shuts down the "caring" center. Frustrated parents and educators threaten with, "I'm going to call home," or "You're going to lose computer time," etc. These kids respond with "I don't care."

But "I don't care" really means: I don't feel cared for by anyone, anywhere.

Stage 5. The Brain's Empathy System if Offline: Teenage Years

Still desperate to belong to someone, somewhere, this stage is about finding like-minded individuals. Boys hang out with the tough crowd, or gangs, while females become 'mean girls.' They perfect their actions through cyberbullying, aggression, and day-to-day threats. Because their brains are now biochemically programmed to hurt others, they become immune to rejection and eventually no longer feel the need to belong or to care. It's as if empathy is offline. Compounding the situation is that their internal pharmacy provides opioids which act like morphine to deaden the pain of rejection, while fueling their addiction to cause pain to others.

The victim, on the other hand, lacks the internal pharmacy and relief experienced by the bully, and he withdraws. He suffers quietly until he explodes. The pain becomes so intense he may hurt himself or others, as we have seen play out in school shootings.

How to Heal

Bullying a bully with zero-tolerance doesn't work. We're systematically applying the same treatment of exclusion that created the bully in the first place, and then expecting it to help. Rewiring these systems can only come through the slow process of building bonds and relationships.

Effective discipline occurs in two parts:

1. The slow stages of relationship building.
2. The quick, effective coping strategies for the heat of the moment when conflict occurs.

To effectively target bullying, educators must know the facts. It takes years to make a bully, and all bullies start out as victims. Because bullying is a relationship issue, we need to reach out to these youth though compassionate means and teach them how to connect with themselves and with others. Maintaining an open dialogue about the origins of bullying, including strategies to rebuild positive connections may be our only hope to end unnecessary victimization and school violence.

***

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Linda Esposito, LCSW is a psychotherapist helping adults and teens overcome stress and anxiety.

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