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The Bullied Brain: How to Heal Our Teens From Bullying

Dr. Jennifer Fraser joins the podcast to discuss her new book: The Bullied Brain: Heal Your Scars and Restore Your Health. Jennifer explains how all forms of bullying and abuse can physically harm brains.

She takes lived experience with an abuse crisis and puts it into the context of psychology, psychiatry, education, law, and neuroscience. What’s being discovered in neuroscientific labs across the world has the power to change how we understand our brains and lives. In easy, down-to-earth explanations, we discuss how bullying affects our teens’ brains and how to help both the bullied teen and the bully.

Let’s dig in!

Scroll down to read the full episode transcribed.

What You Will Learn: 

  • What verbal abuse does to our children’s brains?
  • What happens to the brain when a child is bullied?
  • Why do kids abuse or bully other kids?
  • Why bullying is more than a moral issue – it’s a medical issue.
  • Why the way society deals with abuse is outdated, and what should we be doing instead?
  • What are some things parents can do when their child is being bullied?
  • Why it’s so easy for kids (and adults) to partake in cyberbullying.  And what this does to our empathy for each other.
  • What happens to a child’s brain when a parent gives them “the silent treatment”?

Where to find Dr. Jennifer Fraser:

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And here is the episode typed out!

Welcome to the Moms of Tweens and Teens Podcast. If some days you doubt yourself and don’t know what you’re doing. If you’ve ugly cried alone in your bedroom because you felt like you were failing. Well, I just want to let you know you are not alone, and you have come to the right place.

Raising tweens and teens in today’s world is not easy. And I’m on a mission to equip you to love well and to raise emotionally healthy, happy tweens and teens that thrive.

I believe that moms are heroes, and we have the power to transform our families and impact future generations. If you are looking for answers, encouragement, and becoming more of the mom and the woman that you want to be, welcome. I am Sheryl Gould. And I am so glad that you’re here.

SHERYL:  Welcome, Jennifer, to the Moms of Tweens and Teens Podcast. I’m so happy that you’re here.

JENNIFER: I’m so thankful to be here.

SHERYL:  We are going to have a great conversation. You recently released the book The Bullied Brain: Heal Your Scars and Restore Your Health

I emailed you that I couldn’t read it fast enough and all the stuff I was reading and how it made so much sense. So we’re going to talk all about abuse, bullying the brain. 

Let’s jump in, though. I want you to tell our listeners a little bit about your background. What got you interested in the brain and house and the science behind it?

JENNIFER: Well, my background is that I have a Ph.D. in comparative literature. And so this book is my fourth book. And we were trained to take different lenses on the world, like Economics and Psychology, history and journalism, or whatever our training is to take these different discourses or ways of thinking. 

And instead of leaving them in their silos, we will pull them out and put them into an arena together. And then we see what happens. How does the conversation change when you put this expertise, ideas, knowledge, and perspective? How does it change when they’re in conversation?

And so with this latest book, The Bullied Brain, as we’ve just talked about briefly, I took neuroscience, or brain science and neurobiology, how our brains are constructed in medicine. 

I put them into the arena of bullying and abuse, which is a very unusual combination. I don’t think anybody’s done it in depth before, certainly not in a book for people like ourselves that aren’t scientists. Scientists talk to each other about this kind of stuff. And they have an enormous amount of knowledge. 

It’s just that it’s not coming out of the laboratory and reaching people like ourselves who are passionate about our children. For example, we want to know about our children’s brains, and we want to know about our brains. So that’s how the book began. 

And there are two different reasons. I became interested in neuroscience because of my son when he was eight. So I have two sons, my second son, at eight years old, was called into the school, and the teacher said he’s off the charts when we’re talking about books, and his knowledge is unbelievable. 

But when he writes the test about the book and can read it perfectly, he reads it out loud, and his reading is perfect. But when he writes the test, he’s just making answers up as if he’s never read the book. So we were like, well, that’s completely bizarre. 

So we took him to an educational psychologist, who did all this testing. And she found that he was a genius off the charts for auditory learning. But when it came to visual retention, so remembering text or images, he had less than 1% ability to do it. 

I’ve been a teacher for years. I taught for 20 years. I know that that will not work well in the school system today. So we put him into a specialized school, Aerosmith school, which was amazing. 

And they work on cognitive strengthening. So instead of going in and saying, Oh, well, we’re gonna give you accommodations because you’ve got this learning disability, they’re like, “Well, we’re going to do the best we can with the exercises that we have to train your brain to strengthen the part the visual retention part, we’re going to try and strengthen that so that it’s no longer an issue.”

So we went back to the educational psychologist after four years, and she said, “I’ve never seen anything like this. She said he doesn’t have a learning disability anymore.” And he’s now 22. And he reads. I’ve never seen anybody read so much in my life. He reads text, and he has a photographic memory for it. 

So it goes to show, and I learned at that moment, watching my son, that we have neuroplasticity. Until the last day, we’re on the planet. We can change our brains. We can make them stronger through what we practice in our environments. And we can make them weaker through the environments and the things we practice

It’s just like our physical selves. We can sit on the couch and watch Netflix. Who doesn’t love doing that? Or we can go and exercise and get out there and get stronger, fitter, and more flexible. It’s what we practice and the environments we put ourselves in. The same goes for the brain, which is so empowering, but then cuts to bullying and abuse. 

So my first son, the older brother of the little one, was, I guess he was 16 years old, and he was away on a trip. And another mom, whose kid was on the trip, contacted me directly. And she said I’m getting these texts from my son. And he’s saying he can’t take it anymore. He can’t bear it. 

I won’t repeat the proper language here because it’s so offensive. But, they’re getting called effing retards, effing pussies, effing pathetic effing embarrassments. And it wasn’t the students. It was the teachers. And my son was a particular target of that. 

So I’m a researcher. That’s my training. So when the school tried to do that, this was during basketball. And this, the headmaster tried to say to me, it’s just old-school coaching. And so I went and looked at what the research said. And the research says that type of treatment not only does devastating things to a child’s psychology, their developing brain, and their developing body, but it can last for a lifetime. 

And it does incredibly serious neurological damage to the actual architecture of the brain. You do not have to touch another person with aggression and threat and assault, and violence to damage their brain. You can do it with your words. You can do it with emotional neglect. You can do it with withholding. 

So we all need to learn this. We all need to realize how kids’ brains are vulnerable. And so I just said, that’s my mission: to get the science out there into the hands of all of us who need it.

SHERYL:  That was so fascinating. Because when I was reading your book, I was like, this makes so much sense with the moms that I work with; their kids have been bullied, especially during the pandemic. It just seems like it’s off the charts. 

I don’t know if I’m just so much more aware of it because I’m working with more moms going through this with their kids, but their kids have shut down. They’re struggling now with their grades, depression, and anxiety, They don’t want to go to school. 

And you talk all about how it impacts the brain. I want you to talk about that a little bit, like what happens? There’s the gray matter that the gray matter right in the brain is affected. So tell us to tell us what happens?

JENNIFER: Well, I mean, first of all, the brain is just ridiculously complex. It’s the most complex thing on planet Earth. And at the same time, it’s deeply entwined and comparable to other natural creatures on the planet. In a sense, we’re like animals and other types of natural creatures worldwide. 

At the same time, our brains have this kind of sophistication or complexity. So keeping those two things in mind. If we take a look at, let’s look at a child, for example, that is starting to suffer from anxiety. And a child is starting to suffer from depression, and perhaps a child that’s been bullied. 

And bullying is so rampant in child populations right now, I think, for a variety of reasons, which we can talk about. But so, let’s look at those brains. We would see that, like a bullied brain, it might manifest, and they’re all unique. 

Every single one of us has a unique brain. It’s as unique as our finger, our fingerprints. So you never really want to generalize and say, Oh, this is what a brain would look like if it was being bullied. You just can’t say that all of us have different histories. Our brains are constructed in different ways. 

They’re so unique, but at the same time, for me in this to answer this, let’s generalize. So let’s, if you have a child’s brain who’s being bullied at school, or abused by teachers, as my son’s situation was, they might have an enlarged amygdala. So the amygdala is part of the brain that’s it’s like an air traffic controller. It’s like the threat detection system. 

It’s designed to keep you safe and constantly measures what’s happening around you, what the other people are doing, and who the powerful people are. Is there a dog? Is there lightning? It’s always looking. So you can well imagine if a child goes to school and school is a creative, happy, supportive, nurturing, dynamic, fun place where they see their friends, and they love their teachers will, the amygdala is like you don’t have to worry about school. 

A school is a great place. I can stand down. Maybe I can give other parts of the brain more resources and energy for problem-solving and concentration, doing great at grades, and feeling confident in social-emotional relationships. All that aspect of the brain is getting all the energy. 

But if I’m afraid when I go to school, if my brain is predicting and anticipating, which it does, because survival is the number one thing for the brain, so if it is worried that there’s going to be an unpredictable attack, cruelty, humiliation, getting excluded favoritism, neglect, an angry teacher who is humiliating me any of these kinds of things, then the brain, of course, it’s going to be in a state of extreme anxiety. 

And the amygdala is going to be on high alert. And when it’s on high alert, their grades fall because it doesn’t do problem-solving, creativity, memory retention, and concentration. So those parts of the brain aren’t getting the energy they need. So it’s all going into the threat detection system, if that makes sense.

SHERYL:  Makes sense. It shuts down. You’re frozen like an animal, and there’s danger. And all you want to do is survive whatever it is. So you’re not open to expanding anything else because you’re trying to survive. 

JENNIFER: That is the perfect comment because let’s build on that for one second. So when a child is going to school, and let’s say they’re coming from a situation with caretakers, or parents even or siblings, where there’s a lot of bullying behaviors so that at home, they’ve already built up a great deal of pent up reaction, their stress response system is on high alert. 

So one option is they go to school, try to disappear, freeze, and freeze at home. They don’t want the sibling or the very, very critical parent to think they’re teaching them how to be tough in a tough world. And that’s how they were raised. Who knows. But the kid goes into shutdown. 

So when they get to school or at home, they’re in a frozen state, right? They’re paralyzed with anxiety about this. There are other options, though. They might go into flight. The kid who goes into flight might skip school, connect with other kids in the neighborhood, and go off and do something else. They don’t want to go to school. They don’t want to be there. So they’re in this escapist mode. 

Maybe they go back into their room. And all they do is play video games because they’re in escape, they’re in flight. And again, that’s a very triggered anxiety, a very triggered stress response system in the body. And when it gets repeated, it’s very unhealthy. 

Now, imagine the kid, so we’ve got a frozen natural animal response to save your life. If you’re a rabbit, we’ve got a flight, a really good choice. If you’re a zebra or a gazelle, you’re gonna run as fast as possible. You’re gonna get away from the danger. 

And then there’s a fight. Certain kids and adults start to abuse or bully when their stress response system becomes hyperdrive. They get super aggressive because they’re frightened, they are stressed, and they are threatened. And that is the way they respond. 

Just like in the natural world, we’ve got a lot of predators out there that are – just thinking of a dog. Even think of a cat. If you were standing over a cat and terrifying it, even though it’s that much smaller than you, its fur would puff out, its claws would come out, it’ll start hissing, and it will threaten you. 

That’s what a bully is doing. A bully has identified with the aggressor. They can’t stand the feeling of vulnerability. They want to tap into the power, and they want to release it. But we don’t teach kids that – we don’t teach them that that’s what’s going on in the brain and how to help a kid. 

Not that I’m saying, and it probably just made a bunch of parents furious. I don’t mean to say a child being targeted is supposed to help the child that’s bullying them. That’s ridiculous. But adults need to intervene in this medical brain-informed way to say to the kid who’s bullying, okay, absolutely unacceptable. Let’s go and get you some help because you need some help. You are in a very problematic state. You’re in fight mode. 

And we need to find out why. And we need to start bringing down your stress response system because it’s super unhealthy, and you can’t hurt other kids. 

And then, of course, the same thing happened with the target. So we need to help the kid that’s gone into flight or freeze mode because they’re being targeted in this horrible way and help them too, but it’s not necessarily a moral discipline issue. It’s a medical issue.

SHERYL:  Yes, yes. I love how you distinguish between those two. And if we’re handling it like a moral issue, we’re not going to get to what’s going on to heal it. You talk about a broken system and the cycle of abuse. The victim’s damaged brain becomes abusive to either self or others. And that’s so true, either imploding or exploiting.

JENNIFER: Yep. And, hence why it’s a cycle. I made one of the things that I say or something that I always try and keep foremost in my mind to remind myself that hurt brains hurt. These feel pain. They hurt on the inside. 

If your brain has been damaged, if it’s been hurt, if you’ve been abused, your brain is hurt. And you need to start making that visual for yourself so that you have lots of self-compassion. But you need to make it visual for yourself. So you don’t try to pass on that pain to someone else to try and relieve it. So that’s just going to create more and more of this cycle. 

And this is why I think science is the key to helping all of us change the conversation and the system. I believe how we handle bullying, and abuse right now is outdated. It’s not up to speed. Even in the law, it’s not up to speed with the science. Schools aren’t up to speed. 

And if we started to just factor in what are the brain scientists, doctors, psychologists, and psychiatrists, what do they know about the brain? How can we harness that knowledge to fix the system and better care for ourselves and each other?

SHERYL:  Yeah, I agree. I think that it’s very important to recognize that to heal. We have to be able to recognize it. But we tend to minimize bullying. I think even as parents, it can get very confusing. 

Because we think we’re disciplining our child. Our kid does something, and they lash out in anger. We see this a lot with tweens and teens. And the parent, then you get triggered, and then you respond a certain way. 

I love the book too. You talk about yourself. And you talk about how what happened in your family growing up. And then how that was impacting how you were responding to your son. And then your son called it out. 

I love that. Can you tell just what are some of the things we do that we can all become more aware of? So that we’re not minimizing it, and we can heal it?

JENNIFER: Well, I love that idea of minimizing because I think what happens is we’ve all been raised, and most of us have been exposed – most of us have been raised in the bullying and abuse paradigm. I doubt anyone out there can raise their hand and say, What is this thing you speak of? What is this abuse? What does bullying mean? 

We’re steeped in it in society. You can just turn on and watch politics for half an hour. And you can see adults in positions of prestige and power treating one another in extremely hurtful and degrading ways. And there’s no accountability. It’s just normalized. 

So imagine we’ve grown up in this world where we’ve normalized this behavior and passed it on to our children. All we ever do is talk about a bullying epidemic among children. Well, where do you think they got it from? They got it from the adults in their world. 

So if adults aren’t role-modeling, empathy, compassion, and mindfulness, they will have very reactive children in their world. And then the worst thing that’s happened in this sense, and I’m not anti-technology by any stretch, I think it has its place, but I don’t think it has to dominate everything our kids do. I think it’s dangerous. 

So if you want to do something like TikTok, or any of those platforms that kids use, a lot of it is shocking, the bullying, it’s just absolutely shocking. So there, it just’s so unkind that it’s sort of breathtaking, but from a brain point of view, it makes perfect sense. 

So you and I talking here, we are looking at each other, we’re seeing one another’s eyes, even though it’s on a screen, but we are face to face, and we’re reading each other’s facial expressions, and seeing how the other is feeling. 

So if I started to cry, or I even choked up, you would feel automatic empathy for me, the empathy neural networks in your brain would light right up, your emotional part of your brain would light right up, and it would probably occasion impulse to compassion. So how can I help you? That’s very natural. 

Imagine kids on the internet who don’t see each other who are cyberbullying aren’t getting empathy signals from one another because they don’t see each other. The brain is completely wired for visual cues from other human beings. So if you eliminate that, you start eroding your empathy neural network because your emotional centers give you warning signs that you’re actually being aggressive and harmful. 

All of that’s missing. And so you can imagine in an internet age where parents are looking at their phones 24/7, and kids are looking at their phones, we aren’t doing a great job of keeping parts of our brain that are our superpowers like empathy. They’re not healthy. 

So just to remind listeners, empathy is when you are walking in someone else’s shoes, trying to understand what they are thinking, doing your best anyways, and always checking in with them to ask. 

Still, you’re using a lot of your complex machinery in your brain to figure out what they’re thinking, really kind of tap into what they’re feeling, and then also what they’re intending. So we were all born wired for empathy because that’s how babies and children survive. 

If they don’t know what the powerful people feel in the room, they will not survive. So they need to figure out facial expressions, tone of voice, and what gestures mean, get good at reading them, and behave accordingly, or they won’t make it. 

So you can see by evolution, we are naturally empathic, deeply empathic beings. Well, if we’ve got a generation of kids that don’t have empathy for each other, that’s on us. That’s called way too much technology, not nearly enough face-to-face carrying interactive social and emotional learning. 

And as you said, Sheryl, the pandemic will just throw a monkey wrench in kids’ lives. They went more onto the internet, not less. Wow,

SHERYL:  I’ve never heard anybody explain it like that. Technology affects empathy. But seeing the faces, connecting that way, and then saying things you wouldn’t say to somebody’s face makes so much sense. Thank you for explaining it that way.

JENNIFER: Well, and you asked me, it looks like now that I evaded the question, you asked me about my parenting moments where I’ve done something to say sorry, and I somehow didn’t answer that question. 

It’s a great question for me because, I mean, it’s one thing with your kids where you said triggered because we tend to think, Okay, our child behaved this way, and they triggered a response in us. 

But that’s not actually how the brain works. The brain is always predicting. So you predict someone will behave or do something based on your experience. 

So let’s say – I didn’t come from a home where I suffered corporal punishment, but let’s pretend I did, just because it’s easy to understand. So if my parents raised me with the belief that corporal punishment would be the way to help me learn and develop and grow and understand the consequences of mistakes, I might do that with my children. 

Not only is it normalized, not only it has been wired into my brain that this is how parents behave. But when my child behaves a certain way, my natural prediction, because I go back into the file folder of the past of my life, I find corporal punishment.

Now, if I grew up in a house where I never experienced that, I’m not going to find that in my file folder. So am I a wonderful parent? Because I never found corporal punishment in the past and then applied it to my child, or am I just randomly lucky? I don’t have a brain wired that way. 

So again, is that a moral situation right there with parents? Or is that a medical one? If my brain is scripted, with corporal punishment, chances are really good. So I will predict that’s the appropriate behavior for this moment. 

And, of course, let’s go back to neuroplasticity. All of us can change our brains. So if you grew up with corporal punishment, sat down today, and read all the research on it, you would learn that it is an incredibly ineffective and harmful method of working with a child. You are never going to get the results you want. 

Because you’re damaging the prefrontal cortex when you hit a child, and that’s the part that ultimately teaches how to make good decisions, way consequences, not be impulsive, manage emotional reactions, et cetera. 

Suppose you want to hurt that part of the brain. Great. Just know that corporal punishment is the way to do it. If you want your child to be mindful, regulated, respectful, happy, and able to problem-solve, think about the consequences. You never want to hit them because you’re hurting that part of the brain

Okay, wait, I did it again. Let’s go back to me and bad parenting because it doesn’t wash. I have lost that parenting, but even worse, I’ve done bad teaching. So if you’re a teacher for 20 years, guaranteed, you have moments where you make terrible mistakes with your students. I’ve written apology letters to students. 

So here’s a classic example. I wrote this like it wasn’t harsh, but it was stolen. So needs to work a lot harder on their composition. And I’d like to see a lot more effort. And, the work to date hasn’t been to the best of his ability. 

When the mom contacted me, she said, do you understand that my son has a learning disability, and what you said would have broken his heart? He’s trying the hardest he possibly can. He is an incredible challenge. I was just like, and I’m the worst teacher on the planet. And I just died. And I hand-wrote this boy a note. 

And he, because kids are so forgiving, totally forgave me and gave me another chance. But, when you’re a teacher, you do these things. And, you think about your kids. We love our kids more than life. 

Does that stop us from yelling at the top of our lungs when they scare us by doing something dangerous? No. 

I’ve had to go and apologize to my son numerous times to say I lost my temper. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I have unbelievable stress going on here. And my kids are quite funny because they’re pretty astute. 

So the little one would say things like, that’s okay, Mom, I know. I was just the recipient of your anger there. And then, no hard feelings. It’s just like, Okay, no more psychology camps for you. 

I’ve never met a perfect parent. It’s a job that you learn on the go. It’s a high-stakes job. The brain learns by making mistakes. So you must forgive yourself when you make mistakes because that’s how you learn to improve. That’s how you strengthen desired neural networks. And the same with our kids. 

Our kids aren’t making mistakes because they’re trying to drive us crazy. They’re learning. That’s how the brain learns when you make a mistake when you fail. That is a brain in action. And you just need to coach and correct and be compassionate about it. Because the second you humiliate someone for making a mistake, they’re not going to take any more risks. 

SHERYL:  Yeah. And I like how you were saying how we can respond differently. And one of the things that you were talking about, I think, correct me if I’m wrong, is just even you grew up. Maybe it was like it was more withdrawing. And just not talking about it. 

And the tension, we can give the silent treatment. And we can think that’s okay, but I love how you’re aware that you share what you’re frustrated about. You share, as you said, when you’re feeling stressed, so you’re including your kids and what’s going on with you rather than reverting to some of the things you’ve learned growing up. 

I thought there was a lot of hope that we could change once we saw that this could be harmful to our kids when we resort back to those things. 

JENNIFER: Yeah, you use the perfect word by saying reverting because that’s a brain thing. You’re looking back in the file folder from the past. And the default neural network tells you. Oh, yeah, misbehavior or my child called me on something, and it embarrassed me or shamed me, and I’m going to punish them now by the silent treatment. 

That’s how I was treated. That’s just a default. But as parents, we can all be mindful. And we can try and create some space between the stimulus. The child embarrassed me and responded, how will I respond now? 

Do deep breathing and give yourself a moment to say what is the best thing. And, we tend in society to understand that something physical, like a striking out, is very, very harmful and hurtful. We just talked about corporal punishment. It is very harmful. 

But giving a child the silent treatment is equally harmful. It doesn’t leave a mark on the body, but it could leave a neurological scar on the brain. It’s not healthy at all. It’s one of the worst things you can do to a kid. 

Because going back to evolution, children’s brains are wired for connection. If the powerful people they love and depend on are dependent, those powerful people withdraw. It communicates to the brain that the brain is in jeopardy and in grave danger. It might not survive. That’s just as bad as being face-to-face with a predator from the brain’s point of view.

Because if you get ostracized and put outside the family cave, even if it’s just by parental silence and withdrawing from the brain, that’s a full-on massive stress response. And when the brain is super stressed out and panicking, it prompts the body full of cortisol and adrenaline and cortisol, in small doses when you need to run away from a predator or you need to freeze so the predator doesn’t see you, or you need to fight the predator, that it’s great to have tons of cortisol coursing through your system. 

It’s powerful. But in the 21st century, cortisol is getting tripped up in our kids over and over and over again. It’s not even dying down properly, as it should. It’s stained in the system. And it damages the body, blood, and vessels and does amazing damage to the brain. 

So we must reach a point where we teach our kids about cortisol. We teach all our parents and teachers and coaches and everybody about it. And we work hard that when we get ramped up into stress, we have all kinds of techniques to bring ourselves back down again and communicate to our brain that you use your mind to say, there’s no danger here. 

My mom’s having a really bad day. We’re just gonna leave her alone. She needs some quiet time. She’ll come around, as she always does. But we’re safe. We’re completely safe. Let’s do something that we like to do, like exercise or meditation, or playing with our friends until everything’s back on track. 

You can talk to your brain like that. You can put your mind in the driver’s seat and keep the brain in the engine’s power, but never let the brain be in the driver’s seat because it doesn’t know. It doesn’t know.

SHERYL:  Yeah. This leads me to what we do. How can we help our kids? So many listeners have kids who are being bullied, have been bullied, and don’t even want to go to school. And what would you say to that parent that’s listening that’s in that place?

JENNIFER: Well, the first thing that I think they need to do is, and of course, they’ve probably already done this, let their kid know that the hurt that they feel or the harm that they feel is serious and understood. And there’s no denying it. It just is. And when someone is aggressive like that, and they target you, it can feel horrible. 

But then I would say to the kids, the person in real trouble, the person who’s suffering, is the kid doing that to you. And then explain to them why. So say to your kid, what do you start looking for when you go to school? 

Get them to answer, get them to engage with you. What do you look for when you get to school? You look for your friends. You are looking for something fun to do. You look for a challenge on the playground. Maybe you’re in the locker line hallway. 

We’re talking about older kids. You look for classes to learn in because you’re starting to think about your career and are excited. You’re certain subjects at school you love more than life itself. But that’s what you’re doing. 

Now let’s think about the kid who’s bullying. What do they do when they get to school? They are so traumatized that they aren’t looking for friends. They’re not looking for fun. They’re not looking for learning. They’re not looking for their career. 

They’re looking for a target because they are so empty, incomplete, and traumatized that they can’t function without you. They need you. They are desperate. So they are trying to find you, and you’re trying to create an event around you. 

That’s how much they need you because they’re incomplete. They need you. And they are essentially creating a kind of fake community around their aggression. And they’re showing how powerful they are. Because actually, they don’t have any power. Whatever happens has stripped them of natural, comfortable, confident, healthy power. It’s missing. They know it. 

And they will use you to act out a bunch of fake power in front of a traumatized group of kids that are watching or benefiting from this display. And basically, you need to feel sad for that kid because the kid is waving a big red flag, and written on that red flag is I’m on the path towards mental illness. I’m on the path toward the criminal justice system. I’m not on the path toward confidence, happiness, health, mental health, or a fulfilling career. 

I feel sad for that kid. I know you’re being targeted, and it hurts, but at least you’re not that child. And the teacher should be alerted immediately that there’s a child in danger, a child in trauma, or a child demonstrating mental illness, but that’s not you. 

You just want to have fun, play with your friends learn stuff at school. It’s the kid that’s doing that behavior. And the teacher should be alerted because they need help. Yeah, because they’re a bad kid. 

They are a traumatized kid. And what needs to be figured out is what’s going on in that child’s life and how they can get their family to be supported. There’s something serious going on.

SHERYL:  I can get choked up right now, even sharing it when this kid bullied me. Every day when I got on the bus, it was just horrible. Years later, I found out that his dad was always hitting him. And he was being abused in his home force. 

And, to also to think about, it wasn’t my fault, because I think when you’re bullied, the message I was getting is, what’s wrong with me? Believing what he was telling me to be true and internalizing that, and what I like about what you’re saying is getting our kids to think that it’s not you, this is something wrong with this kid, he’s traumatized. 

And what can you focus on in your day that’s going to be good? Rather, it’s like being more proactive versus reactive, and everything becomes about the boy. 

JENNIFER: The other thing for kids to know that is really important is that we tend to teach them that the bully has power over them. That’s not true. Bullies don’t have any power. They’re the least powerful people, or they wouldn’t behave that way. 

So I think we need to change the way we talk about it. We talk about the power imbalance between kids who bully and kids that are targeted. What power imbalance? There’s a huge power imbalance between adults and children. 

So that kid’s dad, that’s beating him, that’s a power imbalance. He’s trying to navigate how do I level the playing field. I’m going to get aggressive with someone I’ve found that will mirror back to me so I can survive another day in that house. I’m going to get them to mirror back to me something bigger, stronger, better, right? 

That’s all you’re doing is sort of forced to act out their script. They put you in the play. Well, why did they select you for the role in the play? Often, they will just randomly find something that maybe makes you stand out, or maybe makes you different, that they can hone in on, and as soon as you show a sign of like, oh, I guess I feel bad about that, or that’s different about me. 

The second that happens, you’re locked, stuck together, in the play and in the drama, but kids will often choose someone who has what they want. For all, he saw that you came from a happy family. He saw your parents kiss you, and as you got on the bus, he saw your big brother put his arm around you and help you up the stairs into the bus. 

You had everything he wanted. You had friends. You had athleticism. You had smarts. You had a sense of something cool and different about you; you were from a different place, who knows. 

But that kid, whatever it is, needs something from you. They are hungry for it. And as soon as you start to feed them, well, then then they connect with you in that way. And they’ll sometimes cast a bit of a net to find out who will take the shame pose that makes me feel big, right? Soon as you do this. 

Again, it’s the brain. The brain says, put your eyes down, hunch your body, and you’ll communicate to the predator that you are not a threat. You’re not even gonna look them in the eye. Like, you don’t look a dog in the eye. 

Suppose it’s been very aggressive. You don’t look like a predator. The kid bullies adults in the eye there. That’s what the shame position is for. And it’s your brain trying to keep you safe. It’s always trying to keep you safe. But that’s maybe not the best position to take with a bully. 

You look them straight in the eye and go. I feel so sad for you. Gosh, you are being driven by some kind of unholy pain. Let’s go together. Let’s get an adult and see if we can get you some of the help you need. 

Are you okay? Do you think you’d keep being bullied? If you publicly said to the bully, Wow. You’re manifesting mental illness. This aggressive behavior is not tolerated at all in society. Let’s get you some help. Maybe let’s go tell the bus driver.

SHERYL:  Being able to say that, like having scripts ready to say that, like what’s wrong with you? That you’re behaving this way. Let’s get you some help. 

JENNIFER: Don’t you have any friends? Where are your friends? Let’s get some kids around you to have fun with you, poor thing. Yeah, I mean, the tragedy is that kids are being beaten at home. That’s the tragedy. 

You don’t get on the school bus looking for a target unless you’ve got real trouble. So, I mean, I sort of say some of those things. To bolster up the power and the energy of the kid that gets targeted? Because it’s terrible? But usually, it’s a red flag. The kid needs help.

SHERYL:  Yeah. And how powerful that would have been if, at the time, my mom just didn’t know to teach me to be able to say, let’s think of some things you can say back to him, some good comebacks because I was like, you’re looking down and crying, and he sees all those things. He hit me exactly on those things that brought shame. And so I was a good target. But I didn’t know what to say back. So empowering our kids.

JENNIFER: Yeah. Because that boy has no power. Why are you giving your power away to that kid? That kid’s got nothing on you. When I started to look at bullying, I looked at adults and adults in positions of trust and power over children. Now, that’s a lot of power. If you’re a teacher or a coach, you tell the kid what their value is. You assign a grade to them that says what their value is. You open and close doors for them in their future opportunities. 

That’s power. You get to see what their character is. You get to be a spokesperson to other people and their parents about who they are as an individual. That is colossal power. 

Now, no kid has that. But we keep talking about children bullying as if they’re these powerful beings. They are not. They’re aggressive. And they’re aggressive because there’s something wrong.

SHERYL:  Yeah. That’s so good, Jennifer. So what can we do? You share in the book some things that we can do, not just to help our kids but also ourselves, to not continue this cycle of hurt. What are just a few of like the top ones?

JENNIFER: Yeah. So I mean, I constructed the book, even in the tough chapters at the beginning, where I’m talking about, very specifically, what the science tells us about all forms of bullying and abuse due to the brain, I still am building in action steps every step of the way. 

They’re evidence-based about what we can do. And there’s an enormous amount of things we can do inexpensively that’s not a quick fix. It’s like getting in shape. It’s as hard as getting in shape. 

When you start, you feel clumsy. It makes your lungs hurt. If you’re doing aerobic exercise, your heart beats faster, you just don’t feel your muscles hurt, and you want to stop getting your brain back in shape, like really working hard to replace outdated neural networks with new ones that are healthier and happier and higher performing. 

It’s hard work. It takes months. It’s not going to be like a quick fix. But the book is full of all kinds of practices we can do that the neuroscientists know about that improve how we behave, feel, and do. We don’t have time to get into the science right now. 

But science is very empowering and very inspiring. It’s like a guidebook. Hey, okay. The guys in the lab know all this stuff. And why don’t we start applying it to our lives? Why don’t we? Why don’t we teach it to our kids? Why don’t our kids know anything about their brains, just like we don’t know anything about our brains? 

He imagined if we taught children what’s going on in a bullying brain and what’s going on in a target’s brain, and what’s happening in a bystander’s brain. That should be curriculum, kindergarten, let’s go, and learn about these destructive behaviors and all the things we can do to address them that would be so powerful.

SHERYL:  To be able to do that and understand it, why am I even doing this? Why am I being a boy to raise awareness starting when they’re young?

JENNIFER: Well, I mean, we’re so able to understand this with animals. So if I came in to meet with you, and I had a dog, a very scary dog, and it had a big, huge harness on it, and a big choke chain, and I had a super thick leash, and I said to you, yeah, I’m retraining this dog. It’s an abused dog. It comes from a lot of neglect and violence. 

And you’d be looking at that dog going, oh, boy, I hope she doesn’t let it anywhere off its leash because it probably will go straight into attack mode. But you would have no problem understanding that that dog that aggressive, scary, threatening dog didn’t get that way by accident. That dog was beaten into being that type of manifestation of its behavior. 

Same thing with a human being. You got that boy who’s going after you every single day. You got to know there’s something wrong. Why aren’t we going and finding out and getting that child the help he needs? I do not know.

SHERYL:  Yeah, yeah. So good, Jennifer. Well, I would love for parents to get your book. So good caregivers, teachers, and whoever’s listening to this in a child’s life. Tell them where to find you, your book, and all that, and I’ll share the links too.

JENNIFER: So my website is https://bulliedbrain.com/. And then I use that as my social media handle now for everything. So the book title is The Bullied Brain: Heal Your Scars and Restore Your Health. You can buy it pretty much anywhere. But if you buy it on Amazon, that’s easy. 

And yeah, people say it’s a page-turner on neuroscience. And they didn’t expect that. And it’s, really, for the general reader, the science, it’s all evidence-based, and it’s all there. But it’s not overwhelming. 

It doesn’t make you feel like you’re reading science. You feel like the science is there. And then it applies so powerfully to our lives. You can contact me on my website. 

It’s full of resources, like tons of interviews and articles I write for Psychology Today, a regular blog called Bullied Brain. I tried to share smaller bits and pieces of things that would help us know how to treat each other better if we knew more about our brains. And so there’s the there’s that as well.  

I also write a blog, kind of for myself, called How I Became An Unlikely Whistleblower because I ended up in this situation where I ultimately went to national news. It was just such an incredible crisis, but I’m not a whistleblower type. 

And so I became quite fascinated in what makes somebody do that, why why would you speak up? Why would you call out abuse in the way that I did, and just interested me, so people that are interested in that idea of speaking up and why and what does it mean in society? So there’s that as well.

SHERYL:  Wonderful. Well, thank you, Jennifer, so much for writing this book and for all the work that you’re doing. And I feel like you’re gonna make a humongous difference in this area to help our kids and us. So thank you so much for coming on the show today.

JENNIFER: Thanks for having me, Sheryl.

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