Childhood bullying: The scars remain forever
By Greg Bach
Research regarding youngsters who have been bullied – and the effects these traumatic experiences have on their developing brains – is chilling.
It’s also must-have information for anyone coaching student-athletes these days.
And for parents who have a son or daughter stepping onto a field, court or rink.
“Neuroscientists are looking at evidence on MRI scans and they can see right now that a child who is emotionally abused has the same brain changes and scars as children who are sexually and physically abused,” says Dr. Jennifer Fraser, who has a PhD in Comparative Literature and is author of the widely acclaimed Teaching Bullies Zero Tolerance on the Court or in the Classroom. “Why are we protecting children’s bodies and not their brains? The brain is getting changed and scarred by the emotional abuse that abusive coaches dish out to children on the sports field. The brain is a part of the body. Therefore, when you scream and yell at a child and bully them you’re scarring a part of their body. That is physical abuse. It hurts the body; we can see it.”
This revealing neuroscientific research, that confirms over 40 years of work done by psychologists and psychiatrists, casts an even scarier light on the true damage done by bullying.
Besides the torment and humiliation that accompanies being bullied, it’s now clear that it can leave a permanent imprint on a teen’s brain during those crucial adolescent years when the brain is still developing.
“No parent would allow their child to be physically or sexually abused and know about it; they wouldn’t stand and watch that happening,” Fraser says. “So why do we stand and watch our children be emotionally abused under the auspices of sport coaching when we now know that it does as much damage? Bullying by a child is the same thing as bullying by an adult, except that the terrifying thing is the adult has the power – and they can destroy a life.”
Fraser’s book features a fascinating and troubling account of her own experiences dealing with coaches who bullied more than a dozen youngsters, including her son. At the time the abuse occurred, she was teaching in an independent school in western Canada. Part I of our interview with her can be viewed HERE.
Researchers point out that being bullied can lead to reduced connectivity in the brain and even sabotage the growth of new neurons.
So, regardless if the bullying is delivered by a child at school, or a coach at practice after school, it’s a form of childhood trauma that has major and life-changing implications.
“The medical community – the neuroscientists, the psychologists, the psychiatrists – they tell a story of a youth population that is in absolute mental decline and it’s costing the system billions of dollars,” Fraser says. “Half of these people who have been bullied go off and become workplace bullies, because they normalize the abuse. They grew up with it and they normalize it.”
While the issue of bullying among children has received enormous attention, Fraser points out that isn’t the case when it comes to adults, in positions of power as coaches and teachers, bullying youngsters.
“I’ve found that since I started to write about this and talk about this, it’s like people want to shut the door in your face; they don’t want to hear about it,” she says. “Nobody wants to talk about the fact that it’s quite possible that a coach is the bully, not the child. Or the teacher is the bully, not the child. We like to talk about bullying as long as it’s contained in a child-based discussion. The second that you suggest that adults are the bullies people get upset – it’s taboo – and I guess it scares people on a certain level.”
CHANGING THE CLIMATE
Teenagers are highly susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety, depression, eating disorders and self-harm have become commonplace among today’s youth population. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death in teen populations. So if young athletes are playing for coaches who are abusive and lack compassion, the risk for incurring emotional damage runs high.
And its impact is brutal.
“I can’t believe that coaches, who have arguably the most important role in kids’ lives yet they have very little oversight and they have very little education about child psychology, neuroscience and child development,” says Fraser, who was recently honored with the Anti-Bullying in Athletics Award by the Edu-Powered Media Group. “They should be getting the greatest education out there because they’re the most important people.”
So what’s the remedy?
“We have a very mentally ill adolescent population right now,” Fraser says. “And we have to ask some tough questions of ourselves as the adults: What are we doing wrong? Because we are doing something wrong. We shouldn’t have such mentally ill children. All of us can change. But the more this issue is taboo the more it’s going to get worse.”
NOTE: The National Alliance for Youth Sports offers Bullying Prevention Training, a free online program for coaches, parents and anyone interested in learning more about preventing bullying in youth sports.