Persistent Bullying Can Damage Adolescent Brains

Bullying adversely affects millions of young children and adolescents. All too often, the effects last years and sometimes, even decades. The problem is so widespread, it has been recognized as a global health challenge by the World Health Organization and The United Nations.

Bullying is defined as repeated and intentional verbal, physical, and anti-social behavior that intimidates, harms or marginalizes someone perceived as smaller, weaker, or less powerful. Among younger children, common forms of bullying include abusive language and physical harm. But this overt behavior tends to grow subtler with age. Adolescent bullies tend to routinely exclude, insult, and mock their targets. 

Among the more than 3.2 million American students who experience bullying every year, 10 to 15 percent will experience chronic bullying. Experiencing persistent peer victimization is associated with lower academic achievement, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, self-harm, and even suicidal thoughts.

So what does the adolescent brain look like after persistent bullying?

Recent adolescent brain research has focused on bullying’s impact on the brain and our stress response system. A paper published in Molecular Psychiatry showed that trauma and stress stemming from chronic bullying seems to affect the structure of the brain. 

Neuroimaging (MRI) data was collected from 682 European youths over eight years tracking adolescents to find out how bullying was associated with structural brain changes. 

Research found that participants who experienced chronic bullying had significant decreases in brain volume of two regions involved in movement and learning. Study participants also experienced higher levels of generalized anxiety. 

In these studies, “toxic” stress and the stress hormone cortisol appeared to alter brain development by impairing cognitive development. The body’s stress response – the release of cortisol — is activated when danger such as bullying is detected. Following an initial release of adrenaline, if danger (bullying) continues to be perceived, the adrenal glands continue to release cortisol into the bloodstream. The researchers are unsure of the exact mechanisms that link cortisol levels and cognitive functioning, but hypothesize that too much cortisol may have toxic effects on parts of the brain that are important for learning to occur. Depending on the child, the child’s age, and the level of stress from bullying, some of this brain change was long lasting (multiple months and even years), and some was shorter in duration.

Researchers conclude that chronic stress — such as experiencing persistent bullying — could absolutely have a negative effect on memory, cognition, sleep, appetite and other functions when continually on alert and not allowed to repair – especially in adolescents, whose brains are still growing and developing.

If your child is experiencing persistent bullying, it is important to get help with the lingering fears, depression and possible long-term brain function changes. INDY Neurofeedback can use brain mapping to determine which areas of the brain may be affected. Then, using neurofeedback, we can provide non-medical intervention to help your child become calmer, more focused, and better able to concentrate.

Have a question about bullying and the brain? Call or email us at INDY Neurofeedback.