October 13, 2010

LKL Web Exclusive: What We Can Do About Bullying

Posted: 08:18 PM ET

By Dr Mike Dow

After moving from Hawaii to all-white, Midwestern suburbia, I remember the feeling of humiliation when they called me “chink” and laughter when somebody said I was a foreign exchange student.  When I think of those memories now, I want to tell that awkward twelve-year-old that it’s not the end of the world (although it felt like it) and that someday, your mixed ethnicity will be something you’ll own (and not be ashamed of).

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.

If you can truly put yourself in that place, you may understand where kids who are suicidal, homicidal, or bully others are coming from.  And since we’re in the midst of a bullying and teen suicide epidemic in our country, it’s something we need to fully understand and do something about.

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.
The untrained eye can’t see the sadness and insecurity, because it’s buried far beneath the surface under all that meanness and anger.  What we tend to say is: “What’s wrong with you, kid?!  Don’t you appreciate anything I’ve done?!”  And yet our very reaction is like throwing water on a grease fire.  Instinctually, we think it will help.  But it ends up making it a lot worse.

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 – 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

Filed under: Bullying

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Dodie   October 13th, 2010 10:33 pm ET

@ Dr Mike Dow

Beautifully stated incorporating many important factors. I have also seen "big sister" and "big brother" work in many situations. You are correct, the adult brain is different than the adolescent brain. (PET) scans really show the difference. You are absolutely correct, the bullies are often overcompensating for their insecurity, anger, etc....similar to a narcissistic injury. The one area, you do not address which has a profound impact on our basic values of this country is with almost continued wars since WWII. It may not be a direct link, but if you tease out the accepted violence, you might see the causality. If you do not think this has an impact on our children and all Americans, think again!

Charles   October 13th, 2010 11:15 pm ET

I don't think so. Maybe your point would be correct if young folks were engaged in what's going on in the world. Small chance. For one thing, to be fully engaged requires education. Small chance.

Maddie   October 14th, 2010 1:22 am ET

totally agree with @DoctorMikeDow he's a really fresh voice out there. Really liked him on TLC's "Freaky Eaters," can't wait for more episodes.

Amethy   October 14th, 2010 11:19 am ET

Look around what have happened these past weeks about suicide by bullying, I really agree with you about we need to learn to love and accept others who are different, and so do the kids, but it is not very easy to do so. Adults don't always accept the values, cultures, behaviors and etc. that are different than theirs, and it is even harder for the kids since their brain development is different. To prevent further bullying issues, we need to learn how to love and accept difference even we don't agree with. This job is not just for the educator, but everyone. We need to teach by sample.

Jerjol   October 14th, 2010 2:36 pm ET

Why wont people acknowledge that American culture is based on bullying.

When we want something we bully our adversary until he gives up and we get what we want.

In the last 50 years we have bullied Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but the people of those countries fought back and sucessfully beat their bullies.

The cost of bullying in Vietnam was the lives of more than 57,000 young American, and as bullies do we ran away when the heat was turned up.

Our next target for bullying was Somalia, one of the poorest and most insignificant countries in the world, and after the Somalis shot down a couple of BLACK HAWK choppers down we ran away just as bullies always do.

After running with our tails between our legs we calmed down for awhile, the Bully # 1 Bush Senior orchestrated the Gulf war, our losses were in the tgousands, and when Sadam Hussien decided to run away a come trait of bullies, we turned tail and let him go to start bullyinh once again.
After our Bully military finally summed up the courage to get the bully Sadam Hussien, George junior, orchestrated another bullying tactic and after we gave up 5,000 young American lives we finally suceeded in hanging the bully and this was done by taxing the American public 800 billion dollars, (WE HAVE STILL NOT RECOVERED FROM THAT FIASCO)
Having bullied our way in Iraq, we needed another easy target where we could bully another third world country we decided that Afghanistan would be an easy target to bully, and 9 years later as the body count of young Americans continues to spirol out of countrol we are now considering to run away from that bullying venture, and are noe focusing our attention on bullying two more third world countries, North Korea and Iran, but the belief to day is that they will not stand for our bullyting and will fight back, and as bullies usually do when they've had enough we will run away from that bullying and try and find an easier target in a couple of years down the road.

Given our track record of atempting to bully our way through any thing or anyone we wish to dominate, "IS IT ANY WONDER THAT THE YOUTH OF OUR COUNTRY SEE BULLYING AS THE BEST WAYTO GET WHAT THEY WANT???

And in the end when confronted by someone that is willing to fight back for what is theirs "HE BULLIES WILL RUN AWAY ONCE AGAIN"

What can we expect when our military leaders and high elected individuals are showing the way that bullying is the only way to achieve our most wanted goals.

IKHAN   October 14th, 2010 5:05 pm ET

I refuse to believe that this nation's penchant for violence, reflected in our leaning towards military solutions always, movies, games( getting gorier by the day) has nothing to do , at some level of consciousness, with this phenomenon.

Dodie   October 14th, 2010 11:12 pm ET


The violence that a country embraces certainly has everything to do with infecting everyone at every age. We have not only accepted but admired violence from John Wayne (shoot em up) TV, to violent movies coupled with almost continuous wars. Our country was based on violence from the genocide of the Native Americans. America's entire culture is based in violence; hence, the NRA's strength. Societal views are definitely reflected among its citizens of all ages down to gang members and bullying. Our children learn at a very early age that aggression gives you what you want (respect and fear) sad but true. The children can be completely illiterate and still be violent. If anything, the lack of education would create increased violence as they have not learned other coping alternatives. Bullying is an act of violence whether they learned it from their father or family member, culture, mores or desiring popularity.

Thank you IKHAN and Jerjol. You are both welcomed sights. I guess CNN thought that my blog last night was too strong to post so I have toned it down a bit! lol

pbsd2010   October 15th, 2010 12:56 am ET

Violence begets violence. You have a violent country, you will have violent children..

Akshi   October 15th, 2010 1:47 am ET

Totally agree.whether its parents/friends/ adults,we should be there for the children,nuture them all the way.we ourselves have to do a great deal of introspection,empathise with the situation faced by the children completely & then take enough care to address is a selfless thing & it's our responsibility to bring about a change.

Jerjol   October 15th, 2010 9:46 am ET

I always wonder why we have not decided to bully China??

WE accuse them of being 100 more times worse than Afghanistan, or Iran, or North Korea on human rights, but again I ask, why have we not decided to Bully China.

After doing a lot of research on the subject I have concluded that the reason we wont bully China is, that if we did, "WE WOULD BE SOUNDLY TRASHED, and once again our Bully Military and Government would have to run like hell in order to save their SKIN.



Charles   October 15th, 2010 11:04 am ET

Do you think you will even compliment anyone who has a different view than you? You are one of the primary people responsible for the disappearance of many bloggers. You always add a comment aimed directly for the club you try to keep in place. You make a terrible mistake by having and fostering an attitude that those who disagree with you are not intelligent and not welcome to your "club."

Dodie   October 15th, 2010 4:48 pm ET

@ Charles

Charles, Charles, Charles ........I just love your tenacity and you do have me laughing. Where do you see on either of these blogs that I am, as you stated: " fostering an attitude that those who disagree with you are not intelligent?" I do not recollect calling you anything....certainly not stupid! Amazing how the mind works, isn't it? Your statement: "You are one of the primary people responsible for the disappearance of many bloggers." is so far out in left field, no one will be able to catch it! lol I did not realize how much power I have... lol I would assume the philosophy that pertains to these blogs is "freedom of speech" and maybe people are not interested in exercising it at the moment. One cannot be held responsible for chasing everyone off the blog. lol You really have me laughing now. Keep up the good work Charles. I do enjoy your spirit! The blog would be a little boring without you on it :~)

Jerjol   October 15th, 2010 5:26 pm ET

@ Charles, your comment on education.

Do you have a Phd, an MBA, or a Litigation Law Degree??

Pray bless us with your scholarly attributes.


Jerjol   October 15th, 2010 6:29 pm ET

@ Charles, could you favor our bloggers with your life's greatest achievements.

Like how many books you have written and had published.

Like what Universities did you teach at.

You were a professor in what discipline

The highest rank you achieved while in military service of our country

Your humanitarian efforts to make our world a better place.

Please favor us with your high esteem presence on this blog.

Dodie   October 15th, 2010 9:17 pm ET

@ Jerjol October 15th, 2010 5:26 pm ET

LOL Love your wit and banter

Vicky   October 17th, 2010 12:45 am ET

Bullying starts at home and it's because parents allow siblings to bully one another.

Alex   October 17th, 2010 7:57 am ET

Everyone who's called a bully, is not a bully. I've been called a bully for not tolerating drugs or smoking in my house. I've been called a bully for saying the truth about inappropriate homosexual solicitation. A thing that is good and moral it's naturally welcomed without a hard sell, or con game. Here's the fact! Homosexuality is a criminal trait that should not be solicited or encouraged. It's an offensive abomination of friendship and a corrupter of children. It makes our Nation look weak and pathetic. Freedom to do wrong is an abomination of freedom. A lie of a lifestyle is an abomination of love.
I don't care if nice, rich, or good people do it. Nice rich and good people also lie. Lying is a criminal trait. Evidence? All pederast are homosexuals. Statistically homosexuality is always associated with illegal and/or immoral acts. Homosexuality can not be identified by race, gender, skin color, or religion. That makes it a thing of the mind and free will that no paid off, high priced, flattering of junk science, can refute. You will always find it in prisons or in criminal activity. Since we are not wild animals who simply act on erges, sex is in fact a learned behavior wherein rape has to be instructed as a "NO NO", and the wrong orientation to sexual practices. IE: Consensual sex with a minor is still rape, and the wrong way to secretly teach them to be gay or straight. If your not being raped your activity is according to your will, and your desire. Believing it's sin or not, does not matter. You're still responsible for your actions. Push a criminal trait on people and you're going to be offensive to them. You're going to be rejected, and bullied. Because offensive behavior incites violence. You can't make wrong right and shove it down our throats, no matter how intense you're billion dollar campaign for acceptance. You can buy superficial acceptance because people like getting paid. But everyone quietly knows that assocoating a criminal trait such as homosexuality, with equality, is a con game. As long as it pays well, politicians will go along with it. When the money runs out, so will that poop smelling crack pipe. Bullying. When I was bullied in school, I tossed the kid down the stairs. It ended. They called me a Jesus freak and thought I would'nt fight back. They were wrong. All who believe in GOD are not sheep. Student's who carry themselves with dignity and strength are Lambs who become Lions. Bullies don't stand a chance.

Cyrina L. Shook   October 17th, 2010 9:52 pm ET

Dear Larry, I was bullied all my life through school and I am not gay. I was bullied because I had red hair and freckles and wore thick glasses because of stigmatism. It effected my whole out look on life and caused me to develop deep emotional issues even as an adult . Iam now 56 years old and still suffer great pain from the horrible things that piers in school done to me. It is something that marks a person for the rest of their life. I went through 3 years of therapy as an adult to keep from killing myself because I thought for so long that I was a freak and would never be accepted. You begin to think it is your fault when all along it is in fact just mean kids that need to be punished for their cruelty. Thank you I feel better now. Cyrina Shook

Penny   October 17th, 2010 10:28 pm ET

The focus seems to be on bullying of gays and lesbians, but they are not the only ones who are being bullied and often they ARE the bullies. Bullies come in all shapes, colors and forms. Instead of focusing on the poor gays, how about the act itself. Many people have a very difficult time accepting people who are different from themselves. As long as we have respect for differences, there would be no need to bully those who are different. We need to teach acceptance of and respect for diversity.
If you have survived your life thus far, without having been bullied, you are a rarity, but don't speak too soon... How many of us can actually say they truly have good relations with their neighbors, their family members, their colleagues...

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