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Scientists Document How Bullying and Abuse Harm the Brain

Learn an evidence-based strategy to repair the harm done.

Key points

  • Scientists have documentation of the neurological scars that bullying and abuse can leave on the brain.
  • Brains that have been hurt by bullying and abuse are adept at repair when you commit to evidence-based practices.
  • Understanding the ways bullying and abuse harm the brain is a powerful motivator to launch a repair and recovery plan.

While bullying and abusive behaviors are sometimes normalized in our society, few people know about the impact this destructive conduct has on brains. We tend to ignore what we cannot see. All forms of bullying and abuse can leave scars, but because they are invisible, they often go untended.

On any given day, you can watch adults in positions of immense power and prestige bully, abuse, and harass others publicly without being held accountable. The behavior might be commented on, even deplored, but the adult does not receive any real consequences. From a brain health perspective, this is shocking because bullying and abuse harm not only the victim’s brain but also the perpetrator's.

All forms of bullying and abuse can damage the brain, and the damage can be seen on brain scans.

For the last thirty years, scientists have been using non-invasive technology to examine what happens to brains when they are bullied and abused. Moreover, they examine what happens to brains that abuse and bully others. On brain scans, scientists can see neurological scars, dismantled brain architecture, erosion of neural networks, death of brain cells, and shriveled parts of the brain that should be plush. Not just physical and sexual bullying and abuse, but everything from verbal abuse to emotional neglect can scar and stunt the brain in serious ways.

While the research is extensive and replicated, it has not changed policies, education, or the minds of the general populace. Even our laws are slow to factor in the serious and lasting harm done to brains by bullying and abusive behaviors. While bullying is a well-known epidemic among children, while mental illness hits epidemic proportions in youth populations, we continue to focus on physical health and mostly ignore brain health. We strive to keep our bodies safe in healthy environments but do not give our brains the same care.

One statistic sums up our society’s disregard for brain health and safety: from 2000 to 2018, youth suicide—10 to 24-year-olds—increased by 57 percent.

While we have coined a new word for the deadly impact bullying in childhood has on youth mental health, namely “bullycide,” few correlate declining brain health with suicidal ideation. Few dare to discuss how bullying is a learned behavior. Few break the taboo on adults who teach and role-model bullying behaviors. Few speak about abuse in the home, sports, church, arts, and schools, and certainly not in the same conversation as high rates of youth suicide. We like to think that bullying is a childhood issue, and we struggle to hold adults accountable who bully and abuse.

If an adult punched a child in the mouth and broke his front teeth, the child would likely be rushed to an expert for medical and dental care. But if an adult humiliated a teen or repeatedly shamed her in front of peers, research shows the teen is unlikely to report the emotional abuse, know that it’s damaging her brain, or get evidence-based expert interventions to help her heal the harm done.

The adult who punched the child is likely to be fired, whereas the adult who uses emotional abuse is likely to slip under the radar and, if reported on, just as likely to get away with the abuse. These are indicators of the ways in which we foreground physical health and safety while not offering the brain the same kind of care. Our society and system currently fail to protect us from harm to the brain or even essential knowledge about our brain.

It’s incumbent on us to learn how to keep our brains resilient, healthy, and safe from all forms of bullying and abuse.

Once we are aware that all forms of bullying and abuse can harm the brain, we can make healthy changes. The brain is adept at repair. Scientists have extensively researched practices we can do to prevent harm to the brain and heal it if it has occurred. An excellent place to start is empathic listening.

To remind you, empathy is when you see the world through someone else’s eyes. You walk in their shoes. You imagine how he or she might think, feel, or experience life. In research into empathy, scientists have learned that we, on a brain level, can feel one another’s pain.

Those who bully and abuse have little to no empathy. They are referred to as “callous, un-empathic” in the literature.

Empathy is one of the most sought-after qualities in the work world and certainly in leadership. It gives you a competitive advantage. Our brains are born wired for empathy, but some people’s innate empathy networks get damaged in the brain. The good news is with neuroplasticity, our brain’s ability to change and adapt, you can strengthen your empathy.

A practice you can do daily to strengthen the neural networks for empathy is to truly listen to others. Hear every word and repeat it back to the speaker. Don’t do anything but listen and then, as closely as possible, repeat back to them what they said. When you make your brain focus on someone else, you discover how to listen and observe with more awareness, sensitivity, and empathy.

When you repeatedly fire up this neural network, the brain wires it in. As neuroscientists love to say: what fires together, wires together.


Reiss, H. (2018). The Empathy Effect. Boulder, CO: Sounds True, 2018.

Teicher, M. (2017). "Impact of Childhood Maltreatment on Brain Development." International Society for Neurofeedback and Research.

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