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Do you remember how end-of-the-world, no-one-understands-me it used to feel when somebody embarrassed you in front of the class or when your parents told you they were separating? It’s not a matter of having a thick skin or being able to take it. Physiologically, the adolescent brain is unable to fully comprehend that this is merely a point in time and that things really do get better.
First, let’s take a look at development. The teen brain is not fully developed until the late teens or early 20s. Also, girls are usually a couple of years ahead of boys in terms of neural development, so we need to pay particular attention to the bullying males. Males also usually lag in terms of learning to verbalize feelings and will act out more than females.
Brain scan technology has shown the teen brain has two important differences when compared to the adult brain. The frontal lobe of the brain, responsible for rational thinking and morality, is underactive. And the amygdala, which signals fear and discriminates emotions, is overactive.
So the next time you feel angry when someone cuts you off on the freeway, double that feeling. And pretend the voice that then says, “Okay. I guess it’s a bad idea to run him off the road. I don’t want to kill somebody and go to jail,” …well, that voice is practically nonexistent. And then you may understand what it’s like to be inside the adolescent brain.
Now, there are things we can do to help adolescents despite their developing brains. Let’s look at what prevents the embarrassed teen from engaging in Columbine-like homicide, bullying, or suicide. Since the part of the brain that responds to reason and negative consequences isn’t fully online yet, we have to appeal mostly to the emotional part of the brain. It needs the human basics: stability, affection, attention, and love.
Adolescents need to feel good enough in our lives (adults: this applies to you, too). When we don’t, the consequences are real. They show up in the form of bullying (and yes, the root of most bullying is the bullies not feeling good enough), suicide, drug use, eating disorders, gang activity, and teen pregnancy.
In doing family and group therapy at some very tough LA public schools, I can tell you the bullies I treated were usually paying it forward. They were presented to me by parents and teachers who rightly said, “Fix this. This kid is the problem.” And when I got to the true root of the problem, it was anger at the dad who left or confusion about being sexually abused.
Yes, we need to collectively stand up as Ellen did to take a stand against teenage bullying. But what else can the rest of us do to stop the cycle of bullying and violence in our country?
Parents, remember that yes punishment works. But clinically speaking, it needs to be far outweighed by positive reinforcement or it can make things worse. Also remember: punishment is like cutting a weed off at the surface. It may make your garden look better for a week, but it’ll grow back unless you extract the root. Yelling won’t extract it. Making your kids a priority and spending time with them will. And yes, I know it’s hard when little Johnny comes home and is beating kids up every week. What are you supposed to do? Give him lollipops? With or without professional help, find out what is underneath all of that anger and heal it with your time, attention, and love (there’s a national therapist directory on psychologytoday.com – find one specializing in adolescents and families).
What kids (and adults) need more is to know they are loved and accepted for who they are. When 18-year-old Tyler Clementi killed himself after students revealed he was gay on the internet, those students weren’t the only ones to blame. We all are. Every person who has someone feel unaccepted is. We communicate acceptance or non-acceptance by what we say, what we fail to say, what we do, and what we fail to do.
The popular girl who excludes the awkward new girl from her birthday party is not guilty of murder. But the lack of acceptance is cumulative. And eventually, these little hurts can even lead to suicide. Of course, a parent or friend’s love can be an antidote to heal some of the rejection that is inevitable in life. This kind of support gives kids the resiliency to let the mean comment roll off his back and prevent depression and suicide.
Let’s teach our kids how to love and accept others by what we say to them. And more importantly, let’s model it for them. While we’re at it, this kind of kindness and compassion is effective at healing all of society’s ills from eating disorders to gang activity. But we have to start taking it seriously and living it today.
The Boys’ Town National Hotline is for kids (boys and girls), parents, and families who need help and resources: 1-800-448-3000.
The Trevor Project Hotline is a confidential hotline for gay and questioning youth: 1-800-4U-TREVOR.
The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is: 1-800-273-8255.
Mike Dow is a psychotherapist, author and addiction recovery expert, as well as co-host of TLC’s Freaky Eaters. Learn more about him by visiting www.drmikedow.com.
Filed under: Bullying
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