October 18, 2010

"Be The King" Contest

Posted: 12:33 PM ET

Filed under: Be The King • Larry King Live

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Web Exclusive: The Surprising Science of Animals' Inner Lives

Posted: 10:35 AM ET
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October 15, 2010

ICYMI: Actor & Activist George Clooney

Posted: 10:01 AM ET
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October 14, 2010

In Case You Missed It: Michael Moore!

Posted: 10:55 AM ET
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ICYMI: Moore on Mining Dangers

Posted: 10:50 AM ET
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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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