Friday, May 20, 2011

New Research Sheds Light on Predictors of Bullying

Newly-released data by developmental psychology professor, Dr. Elizabeth Kelley shows that kids who have outbursts and show strong reactive emotions are are more likely to be bullied. "Unfortunately, I think this says a lot about adolescent behavior." says Dr. Kelly, "Bullies pick on the kids they think they can get a rise out of, and when those kids react strongly, they just tend to get picked on more."

Although her study was done on children with autism, there's a lesson in it for all of us. Kids who have trouble controlling their emotions risk drawing in more bullying and ostracism.

Kelley says emotional intelligence -- the ability to read and understand the feelings of self and others --  plays a big part in whether or not a child will be bullied. Ability to control emotions and make rational decisions is part of the brain's executive function, and when this function is weak, we see more impulsive behavior and hair-trigger reactions. A child's ability to use good judgment is compromised when executive function is low, and this can cause him to act in ways that work against his own best interests. We often see this in kids who exhibit fragility or aggression when bullied.

I've been working with a child who totally fits this description. "Raymond" has fairly severe ADD and was seen by most of his peers as annoying.  Impulsive and quick to react, he was bullied constantly. Raymond actually knew he was annoying, but seemed unable to stop himself -- at least initially. Over time, however, using the process I describe below -- Stop, Breathe, Chill -- Raymond was able gain control over his impulses and essentially put the bullying to an end. These results were so good they even surprised me! Here's how he describes the changes he experienced:

"When people are mad I give them some space now. That breathing technique you taught me helped me calm down and get myself together. Like I was really mad when this kid took the football the other day. I almost fought him, but I stopped myself and did the breathing technique and my calming statement: 'I believe in myself. I can do anything I set my mind to.' It worked. I'm learning how to cope with life now. I get in trouble less, and I have a lot more friends." 

The good news is that people of every age can learn to "change their brains" and become less reactive, just as Raymond did -- even those with autism and other disorders that compromise executive function. Recognizing one's emotions is the first step. Then comes learning strategies to quell reactions.

That's where Stop, Breathe, Chill comes in. It helps us move out of the reactive part of the brain (the "reptilian brain"), into the place of executive function, the neocortex. I described this strategy in an earlier post, but just in case your missed it, here again is how it works.

Using Stop, Breathe, Chill

The minute anger strikes, and your heart starts pounding faster, immediately give yourself the cue to STOP.  Say the word silently and flash a stop sign in your brain. As you do this, BREATHE --  three slow deep breaths, inhaling deeply and as though the air can fill your abdomen.

Next, CHILL by replacing reactive thoughts with a calming statement. The one I always use is, "I can handle this." Some people use a single word, like "Calm," others use a favorite phrase from a song or prayer, and others use a calming image or a word that represents it (beach, sky, ocean). Choose a calming statement that works for you, and use it every time anger strikes. By doing so we stop the reaction process in its tracks, and enable ourselves to choose a response instead.

Each time we use "STOP, BREATHE, CHILL," we train the brain to handle reactivity in a whole new way.  For kids this can spell the difference between being bullied or not.

Kids can be taught to control reactions that draw in more bullying.

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