Bullying Hurts: How Bullying Takes Our Brain’s Ability to Adapt and Turns it Against Us.

Everyday in my practice, I hear the story of a child being bullied and how badly it affects them. Each story is different, but the results are much the same. Parents, counselors, and teachers across the country are reporting significant increases in incidents of bullying. Recent research has indicated that as many as 35% of children report incidents of bullying by the 6th grade. Many of these children who report incidents of bullying report significant symptoms of depression, anxiety, inattention, and suicidal ideation. Unfortunately, many children will never report bullying or the accompanying symptoms and often will suffer silently. Just ask the parents of Phoebe Prince or Cynthia Logan whose daughter’s committed suicide after being bullied at school and who claimed that they did not know how badly their daughter’s were suffering until it was too late.

Only now are clinicians beginning to understand the true danger of bullying and how severely it affects children and their brains. Using SPECT brain imaging, Todd Clements, M.D., Medical Director at the Clements Clinic in Plano, Texas, and I have discovered that the brains scans of bullied patients resemble the brain scans of patients with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Patients with PTSD report identical symptoms such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, inattention, flashbacks, etc. What this means is that the human brain is interpreting the trauma of bullying in the same ways a soldier’s brain interprets the experiences of battle or how a car accident victim’s brain interprets the accident (see images of normal and bullied / PTSD brain images). Humans have the ability to adapt to their environment which gives them, the best chance to survive. Unfortunately, a bullied child’s brain interprets the bullying as a threat and adapts to deal with the trauma.

Normal Adolescent Brain                 14 Year-Old With History of Severe Bullying
 *SPECT Images Courtesy of The Mind Matters Clinic of Texas


Since many children who are bullied never say anything to their parents, it is vitally important for parents to be on the lookout for signs of trouble. If you see any changes in your child’s personality or see changes in their behavior, it is important to talk with your children and let them know that you are there for them and are not alone. The emotional pain of bullying is quite severe and it is recommended that if you suspect that your child is being bullied at school, then the help of a professional is highly recommended. No child has to go through bullying alone. Together, we can ensure that no child has to go to school alone and afraid again.  How many of you reading this blog remember being bullied when you were younger? Of you who just said yes, how many of you are still affected by it? Over half of the people who I ask this question during my presentations say yes. So many times a parent will come in and say that they removed their child from the school but yet the symptoms still persist. The findings of the SPECT scans suggest that since the brain of a child has adapted (changed) to the bullying threat, then we must address the changes in the brain as a significant part of treatment. To help address these issues, principles of cognitive behavioral and dialectical behavior therapy are used to help address some of these changes; as well as the use of supplements and psychological medications to help address more severe changes in the brain. Group therapy; such as my group “Bullying Hurts”, is a great way to help other bullied children connect with each other and learn valuable coping skills to deal with the bullying.

This post was originally appeared as an article in the September 2010 issue of Dallas Christian Family