Bullied Minds, Bad Choices

by Bill Brenner on November 30, 2010

I’m quite taken with this Boston Globe article about the long-term impact of bullying. There’s some truth to the conclusions, but also a lot of bullshit.

Mood music:

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Of the new research, the Globe article says the following:

A new wave of research into bullying’s effects … is now suggesting … that in fact, bullying can leave an indelible imprint on a teen’s brain at a time when it is still growing and developing. Being ostracized by one’s peers, it seems, can throw adolescent hormones even further out of whack, lead to reduced connectivity in the brain, and even sabotage the growth of new neurons.

These neurological scars, it turns out, closely resemble those borne by children who are physically and sexually abused in early childhood. Neuroscientists now know that the human brain continues to grow and change long after the first few years of life. By revealing the internal physiological damage that bullying can do, researchers are recasting it not as merely an unfortunate rite of passage but as a serious form of childhood trauma. This change in perspective could have all sorts of ripple effects for parents, kids, and schools; it offers a new way to think about the pain suffered by ostracized kids, and could spur new antibullying policies.

My compliments to Emily Anthes for a well-written, thoughtful article. The opinions I’m about to express are not a dig against her or the article itself. There’s a lot of value in what she reported and wrote. My issue is more about the mindset that seems to be taking hold where being a bullied kid somehow becomes an excuse for doing something terrible later in life.

My view can’t be taken as the final word. I’m no expert in the field. I only have my own experiences and how they’ve applied to my actions.

I was bullied a lot as a kid. But I did my share of bullying as well. Kids do stupid things. I was a stupid kid, and I had run-ins with other equally-stupid kids. Truth be told, the bullying I experienced led to plenty of depression and addictive behavior. I’m sure it had an impact on the troubles I would have as an adult.

But I think I’ve been equally scarred — with the same results — by the cruelty I let loose on others. A lot of guilt over how I treated others led me to the kind of self-destructive behavior some people don’t recover from.

The article makes comparisons between the verbal and physical abuse kids suffer at the hands of their parents and what they suffer at the hands of their peers.

Another snippet from the Globe article:

Martin Teicher, a neuroscientist at McLean Hospital in Belmont, has been examining just these kinds of scenarios. He began by studying the effects of being verbally abused by a parent. In his study of more than 1,000 young adults, Teicher found that verbal abuse could be as damaging to psychological functioning as the physical kind — that words were as hurtful as the famous sticks and stones. The finding sparked a new idea: “We decided to look at peer victimization,” he said.

So Teicher and his colleagues went back to their young adult subjects, focusing on those they had assumed were healthy in this respect — who’d had no history of abuse from their parents. The subjects, however, varied in how much verbal harassment — such as teasing, ridicule, criticism, screaming, and swearing — they had received from their peers. What the scientists found was that kids who had been bullied reported more symptoms of depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric disorders than the kids who hadn’t. In fact, emotional abuse from peers turned out to be as damaging to mental health as emotional abuse from parents. “It’s a substantial early stressor,” Teicher said.

Here’s the thing: Though I experienced trauma at home and school, I’ve ALWAYS had the choice of whether to lash out or take the high road. I did a lot of lashing out. But I didn’t grow up and decide my lot in life was a reason to kill someone or rob a bank.

I think of this bullying article and can’t help but recall the recent story of the mother who killed her baby because the child was disturbing her game of Farmville. That story hit me where I live because it’s a story of addiction. My impression is that this woman has an online gaming addiction, which can be just as insidious a disease as alcoholism, drug dependency and, in my case, binge eating.

That’s where my sympathy ends. In fact, I can’t say I have any sympathy. My friend Lori MacVittie sounded off on this case in language I wholeheartedly agree with. On her Facebook page she said:

“There’s an excuse for everything, even killing a 3-month old child over a stupid game. I’m addicted, I’m depressed, I was deprived as a child, wha, wha, wha. Grow up. It’s called choice. Everyone has them. She made the wrong one.”

And there it is. We all go through traumatic experiences, and in the end we all have a choice.

At any point along the way I could have used my troubles as an excuse to go into a life of crime and maybe kill a few people along the way. I certainly had my moments where, if you interrupted my binge or gave me shit about my OCD quirks, I would fill with rage.

I’ve thought about punching people many times. But I never did.

Because I had a choice. I chose not to step over the line.

Now, to say we all have choices and we all have the power to do right or wrong is to oversimplify things. When a person suffers from an addiction or a mental struggle, they are not always in their right mind. When that happens, you’re capable of all kinds of evil, no matter how hard you try to hold back.

I strongly believe there are suicide cases where the person is so far gone into the world of depression and despair that they no longer have the capacity to make sane decisions.

My childhood friend, Mark Hedgecock, became a thrice-convicted pedophilebecause of his baggage. The baggage was only part of it. He had a choice and made the wrong one three times.

He acknowledged as much over the phone a few months ago. He knows he’s a monster and that he probably shouldn’t be on the street. Bottom line: He did what he did and has to pay for it for the rest of his life. It’s sad, though. It’s a waste. But he was trolling for teenage girls on Facebook over the summer, showing he can’t help but repeat his mistakes.

He had a choice. He made the wrong one.

This FarmVille-addicted mom had a choice. She made the wrong one. Now she’s gotta pay.

That doesn’t mean we have to like it. She killed her kid in a moment of insanity. It’s a tragedy. period.

Unfortunately, getting bullied by your peers can knock loose the wiring in the brain that makes you hold back from bad choices later in life.

This stuff is hopelessly complicated.

The study on peer bullying is just another thread in the larger, gruesome tapestry of human nature.

I’m still waiting for the day when we’re able to take what we learn from these studies and concoct the perfect bad choice prevention program. It won’t be in my lifetime.

I’m just glad that when I faced those moments of choice and made the bad calls, nobody got killed. Good friends and family pulled me through.

May it be the same for you.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

alan shimel November 30, 2010 at 9:44 am

Bill, while being bullied or bullying is not an excuse for bad choices, the fact that it can have such a profound effect on people is something that needs to be acknowledged. Too many people take the “boys will be boys or kids will be kids” approach. We need to have awareness training for this type of destructive behavior for everyone.

Ignatius' friend November 30, 2010 at 11:30 am

Bill, this was another excellent and thought provoking post! As a fellow sufferer of addiction, and one who has been both bullied and verbally/emotionally abused by a parent, your comments ring so very true. And yet, though we have choices, our addictions and “damaged wiring” at times does make it all but impossible to make a healthy or wise choice, even if the choice is simply not to do the detructive thing we want to do at the moment. Yet, like you, I’m no advocate for victim-hood. Our choices have consequences, whether we intended them or not. Ultimately, only God can accurately judge motives and moral culpability anyway. In addition to this, we all have that battle with Original sin and the resulting warped desires it creates, called “concupiscence”. We must have God’s grace in order to win the battles with these desires, and yet winning the battle always implies a struggle. I think it’s best when we use the lessons learned from this kind of research for the purpose of compassionate understanding and empathy with fellow sufferers, but never as an excuse for “well I did it because I suffer from x,y,z, etc. and therefore it’s not my fault. Adam and Eve sinned against God and they didn’t even have parents to blame yet. Keep up the good work brother!

DAve Marcus November 1, 2012 at 12:05 pm

I really comes down to what one is taught to do with the bullying or abuse they receive. If someone is bullied in a vacuum, with no one to get advice or guidance from it will almost certainly turn out badly. If the bullied person has or gets support, mentoring and even training it can be turned into character building.

I was bullied a bit when I was younger and even in High School a little but I chose to do something about it and sought out mentors and training. My mother and even grandparents encouraged me to learn and grow from it. They wanted me to take some kind of positive action.

All depends on what you do with what you are given. and your support system.

Bill Brenner November 1, 2012 at 12:07 pm

Agree!

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