Bullying, Relationships and the Brain

October is Bullying Prevention Month and I want to take this opportunity to draw some attention to how important our relationships are in growing brains. There are lots of websites about Bullying, Bullying Awareness, Anti-bullying, Bullying Prevention and so on. The bottom line is we know it hurts and is bad for everyone. It makes people feel powerless or it gives powerful people too much power.

We often don’t think that we as the adult- either parent, teacher, care-giver, coach, community volunteer, etc. can have a great impact on the children we form relationships with. Through research about Resiliency, Brain development and Mental Health we now know that if a child experiences adversity, like adults, they feel stress. Stress causes the brain to release the hormones cortisol and norepinephrine. This is a normal self defense/preservation response. This heightened state of Alarm or Alert causes the brain to elicit a flight or fight response. This is not a good time to try to teach or explain something to a child. For example; if you are afraid of snakes and you see one, you are going to have a reaction-generally jumping, screaming, running away, etc. This would not be a good time for me to ask you to answer a question or explain something to me.

Usually, after the stressful stimulus subsides the brain returns to its calm state, the brain can refocus on other stimuli in a positive, receptive way. Now would be a better time for us to talk about something. This is very much true for children. When interacting during stressful times like someone taking their toys, hitting them or bullying them they have difficulty focusing on learning because their brain has sent out their stress hormones to be on the alert. Self defense mode. We can help to ease their stress by offering our comfort, understanding and to help them find a solution to the problem. Just believing and acknowledging that the child is experiencing bullying will give them some relief. Many times, adults brush off a report of bullying and simple answers like; ‘ just don’t play with them’, ‘tell them to stop’ are not enough support. If all of their environments are stressful; home, school, after school activities, their brain will be constantly releasing cortisol and norepinephrine- they will be in fight or flight mode all of the time and the chance for new learning to take place will be diminished. These children can become depressed, feel helpless and hopeless and this is when high risk behaviours can start. Research shows that having one positive adult relationship can be enough to ‘rescue’ a child from seemingly hopeless situations. As reflective adults we can plan to have a positive impact on children’s lives through our supportive, caring and understanding relationships. We can also, intervene and form positive relationships with children who are exhibiting bullying behaviour as this might be a sign that they too, need an understanding adult to show them the way to successful social skills.

For more on this see:






The Reslience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles by Karen Reivich