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Educating Children to Understand and Avoid Bullycide

A proactive educational approach to youth mental health.

Key points

  • It’s well-established in research that targets of bullying and abuse suffer mental illness.
  • An antidote to the poison of bullying and abuse is early education that teaches children and youth how to manage their brain’s stress response.
  • Early sex education has been effective in protecting children and youth; early brain education can also be effective.
  • Educating children and youth about their brain’s coping mechanisms empowers them to better manage their sympathetic stress response.

Bullying and abuse in all forms have become normalized and are rampant in today’s society. Children who are taught to manage their damaging force are more likely to survive. Bullying behaviours role-modeled and taught by adults have seeped into far too many homes. Hence, schools have a critical role to play in educating children about bullying and abuse in all forms, whether done by adults or peers.

In 1997, Vincent Felitti and Robert Anda shared their extensive research into the impact adult abuse at home had on children, which included significantly increased suicide levels. Other adults or peers may reinforce adult abuse in the home in schools, sports, clubs, and arts. Since British authors Tim Field and Neil Marr coined the term bullycide in 2000, intentionally killing oneself due to being bullied has become more prevalent among children and youth.

From 2000 to 2018, youth suicide increased by 57 percent.

Suicide is the leading cause or second leading cause of death in youth populations in developed nations. While we appear to have normalized the fact that young people respond to bullying, abuse, and other toxic stressors with suicide, we have not developed an educational intervention to mitigate this tragedy. Like with sex education, adults need to overcome their discomfort with this challenging issue and know that extensive research documents that evidence-based knowledge assists children and youth in making healthier, safer, and less desperate choices.

The body’s sexual drive can be better managed with knowledge. Likewise, the brain’s self-protective responses can be better managed with knowledge. Teaching children about what is occurring in a suicidal brain can be part of a more extensive and rich program about what scientists are daily learning about our mental health and its correlation with our brain health.

Teaching children and youth about what happens in their brains when being bullied or abused can empower them to refuse suicide as an escape.

Instead, they could choose healthier self-protective measures to cope with toxic environments. Children also need to know that when they bully others, it is harmful to their brains and the victim’s brain. Imagine the improvement in self-regulation if children were regularly educated about the sympathetic nervous system and the brain’s response to stress with fight, flight, or freeze. We need to teach children from a young age that fight—violence turned outwards against others or turned inwards against the self—is a brain’s normal response to abnormal situations.

From a young age, we need to teach children that flight—escaping from an environment where one feels threatened—is a normal brain reaction designed to protect the self in an unhealthy environment. And they need to learn that freeze occurs when the brain—striving to survive—becomes still and silent as a way to manage a dangerous environment. Even at a young age, children can be shown that these behaviours are exactly what animals do to ensure their survival.

In our modern world, rife with abnormal, unhealthy, and dangerous environments, children need to understand that this stress puts a lot of demand on their developing brains.

Children and youth can examine how suicidal ideation may occur when these natural brain responses become overloaded, confused, and begin to malfunction. This kind of examination places suicide into a medical rather than moral arena and encourages awareness and conscious management of a struggling brain. This education into how brains work and specifically how they cope with chronic stress assists children and youth in developing a nuanced, evidence-based vocabulary to express what they are experiencing.

In suicide, one kills oneself. In bullycide, the victim kills the bully, no longer recognizing the bully as separate from one's self. This brain distortion provides a powerful platform for discussing key concepts such as dissociation, Stockholm Syndrome, identifying with the aggressor, and borderline personality disorder. Some may think these concepts are too complex, but they can be explained by effective educators and tailored to age groups. Considering that children are committing suicide at younger ages, this kind of education is critically important even prior to adolescence.

If children can effectively learn complex biological concepts around sex and procreation, they can also learn relatively complex concepts about brain health and mental illness. At present, children appear to suffer from learned helplessness. They succumb to aggression channeled outward or inward. They flee from stressful, bullying, and abusive environments through suicide. They freeze, lacking the vocabulary to articulate their fear. It’s time to replace their perception of inescapability with knowledge.

Children and youth need to know that the mind governs the brain, and the mind can be well-trained to manage stress in far healthier ways.

We need to teach children and youth that the brain is coping with an adverse situation by doing everything in its power to protect the self. Identifying with the aggressor—whether an abusive adult or a bullying peer—is a strategy for survival. The key is learning to manage this brain mechanism. Recognizing that the brain and body have launched into a sympathetic nervous system response to the toxic stress of bullying and abuse empowers the victim to activate the parasympathetic response when safe. Children need to know how to manage these two systems and respect each one for its role in maintaining safety and health.

A significant contributing factor to suicide occurs when children and youth become confused on a brain level.

As Michael Merzenich’s research shows, the brain degrades all systems when it "cannot answer the question." If a child can no longer discern between the aggressor and the self, the bully and the self, then it becomes muddled. The brain becomes full of noise and chatter when it is unable to make sense of its reality. When a victim's traumatized self identifies with the perpetrator, the brain creates the conditions for bullycide. We cannot fully keep children and youth safe from harm, but we can balance toxic stressors with extensive, repeated education on how to best manage their mental health and brain health.

If you or someone you love is contemplating suicide, seek help immediately. For help 24/7, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK, or reach out to the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741. To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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