WCW Blog

The Women Change Worlds blog of the Wellesley Centers for Women (WCW) encourages WCW scholars and colleagues to respond to current news and events; disseminate research findings, expertise, and commentary; and both pose and answer questions about issues that put women's perspectives and concerns at the center of the discussion.

Building a Culture of Bullies: Chronic judging builds a culture of "us" and "them" and a world of pain.

banksThis article was posted by Amy Banks, M.D., on September 18, 2018 in her Wired for Love blog on Psychology Today.

A number of years ago, a 15 year-old child hung herself after repeated, prolonged bullying by a group of peers. Phoebe Prince was different, but not that different. She had recently moved from a small town in Ireland to a small town in Massachusetts. In Phoebe’s case, her difference alone may not have made her a target for bullying. She also dated a popular, senior football player when she was just a freshman. She had unknowingly crossed a social line. Accounts of the abuse Phoebe endured are painful to read, but nevertheless essential in comprehending the magnitude of the social tragedy unfolding in many communities. The perpetrators did not fit the typical stereotype of the loner from an abusive home lashing out at a vulnerable child on the playground. In fact, a number of Phoebe's peers—both boys and girls—joined an all-out attack on her using every option available. She was verbally and physically assaulted repeatedly in school and cyber-bullied on Twitter, Facebook, and with text messages after school. In addition, two young men were accused of statutory rape.

While technology allows people to connect 24/7, it also allows people to harass others night and day. Phoebe had nowhere to hide, no safe haven from her tormentors. The country was shocked and outraged by the severity of the bullying and by the fact that an innocent child had taken her own life as a result of it. As these tragic events were dissected, layers of blame were passed around freely—to the children who bullied Phoebe, the parents who raised the bullies, the teachers who may have witnessed the assaults, and the school system in charge of student safety. Certainly, when a child takes her own life, there is plenty of blame to go around.

Seth Walsh and Asher Brown are two other young people who took their own lives. In another part of our country, these two young men were relentlessly harassed by peers for allegedly being gay. Both killed themselves at 13. These three children are the tip of the iceberg. With so many similar, heartbreaking stories, we can no longer discount these episodes of bullying as isolated incidents carried out by a few rogue students. The constant stratification of human beings into "better than" and "worse than" actively pits groups and individuals against each other. In this toxic culture, any child is just a weak or immature frontal lobe away from bullying someone else. In this toxic culture, every child could be bullied.

Awareness of the devastating emotional and physical impact of bullying is a step in the right direction, but most of the focus remains on the individual bully, as if each school or playground has but one bad apple to spoil the whole bunch. The bully and the bullied exist along a continuum of disconnection and destructive relational templates constantly reinforced by society’s message of separation, individuation, and hyper-competition. Our children receive confusing mixed messages even in the most relational communities.

A child succeeds in a hyper-individualized society by focusing on what he needs, labeling other children as “other,” and using “others” as a means to get what he needs or as competition in the way of what he needs. A successful businessman and the father of an old friend of mine summarized the dog-eat-dog world of American capitalism when he warned her, “Along the way to the top you have to step on some blades of grass.” This was not a threat, but a life lesson offered as a wise tip to his beloved daughter who was following in his business footsteps. It was a loving piece of advice from a caring father, embedded in a very sick culture.

When was the last time you went a day or an hour or even a minute without judging yourself or someone else? You walk into a fundraiser at your child's school and without even thinking, you compare yourself to every person in the room. Sam is prettier than Felice, Frank runs more than Bill, Hector's house is bigger than Sally's. If this sounds like you, you are not alone. In a society built around individual success, judging is an essential relational skill. In a cooperative society, difference is an asset, but in a competitive society, difference is a threat. If you and I are different, one of us is better than the other, and the better one is more deserving of the capitalistic rewards.

Remember the controversial book written a few years ago by the “Tiger Mom,” Amy Chua? It was an extraordinary account of raising Asian American daughters. Many of my peers were appalled by her rigid, controlling parenting style. Chua banned play dates and sleepovers, tolerated no grade below an A, and enforced daily music lessons for her two girls. Is this Tiger Mom an abusive parent, or a disciplined parent grooming her daughters for success? The debate started the minute the book hit the bookshelves. In her mind, she was raising her children to be successful in American culture—and they were wildly successful! So many children today are burdened by the pressure to compete in school, sports, and music. Our kids' lives are packed with activities designed not only to keep them engaged, but also to help them “get ahead.” The cultural message is very clear: Be better than those around you. I believe the cultural pressure to be better than the rest (as opposed to being the best you can be) launches a destructive cascade of pitting people against each other. The competition reinforces separation, the separation stimulates distress, and the distress helps shape a dysregulated anterior cingulate cortex (a part of the brain activated by both physical pain and the pain from social exclusion) in everyone, not just the bullied and the bully.

IF YOU DO NOT FIT IN, YOU WILL BE LEFT OUT

Last year, a good friend’s 11-year-old son asked if he would be able to go to college and if not, if he would end up homeless. From college to homelessness, his young mind had grasped the implications of a hypercompetitive society. He had struggled in school because of a nonverbal learning disability and had just started middle school feeling the huge uptick in peer pressure. I was shocked and deeply saddened by his question. Even in my friend’s loving home, he had ingested the pervasive cultural message: If you do not fit in you will be left out.

The data is clear: being socially disconnected is not just painful; it is lethal. Because we are social beings, social exclusion stimulates our pain pathways and our stress response systems. Chronic exclusion means chronic pain which leads to chronic stress. There is an overwhelming amount of research documenting the negative effect of chronic stress on the immune system, including higher rates of illness and death from all causes. But still we socialize around hierarchy and stratification. Early on, children learn both their ABC’s and who is the smartest and who is the dumbest, who is the fastest and who is the slowest, which kids are shipped from the inner city to the suburbs for a better education and which kids can walk to the same school from their large house. Make no mistake: Extreme competitiveness is at the core of childrearing and brain-building in our successful capitalistic society.

I believe human experience is richer when differences are less dichotomized; when we focus on being differentiated from others rather than separated from others. We are not all the same, and it is in this amazing diversity of human experience that true resilience resides. If we can find ways to connect across these differences with respect and openness, the true power of connection is released. As adults, we must teach our children (and remind each other) that humans are most productive not when they are stressed out by the threat of social exclusion, but when they are cooperating and can take for granted that they belong to a larger interconnected web of people. In human networks, the whole is bigger then the sum of the parts. Whether you are on a sports team, in a family, or part of a business, you can take pride in working hard and trying your best, but it is just as important to encourage others. In life, everyone has a role and everyone is needed to succeed. In the long run, our society will be stronger when everyone is included and everyone has a well-modulated anterior cingulate cortex with strong relational memories of acceptance and inclusion.

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Separating Parents from Children: A Policy of Abuse? Research tells us the negative consequences are lifelong.

Shadow of adult and child holding hands while walking next to a fenceThis article was posted by Amy Banks, M.D., on June 19, 2018 in her Wired for Love blog on Psychology Today.

Like many, I have been watching in horror the images of children taken from their parents, housed in caged containers, huddled under silver blankets. As the intellectual debate about whether this is sound border patrol policy or outright child abuse wages on, it feels urgent to share my perspective as a psychiatrist with twenty-five years of experience treating individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder from related childhood abuses. When you look through the lens of neuroscience there is no debate – ripping children from parents is extraordinarily traumatizing. In fact, the pain and impact of the separation is likely setting off the same biological alarm system that would be activated if they were being beaten in these cages. Let me explain.

When mammals evolved from reptiles millions of years ago something very interesting happened. Reproductive strategy shifted dramatically from mass producing eggs and hoping a few of the offspring survive to adulthood (like turtles) to producing offspring internally. Carrying a child internally for nine months meant a dramatic decrease in the number of children born to mammals and the infants created were immature and unable to fend for themselves making attachment to parents or caregivers essential to survival. To assure attachment a corresponding evolution of the nervous system occurred. Humans developed a “social engagement system” to assure that parents and children stay connected.

When separated from his parents, a child’s nervous system sends out a loud signal to signify that he is in grave danger. The child will become dysregulated, extremely anxious and stressed out – he will protest by crying out for his parent as a full load of adrenaline or norepinephrine is surging through his system. The child separated from his parent is terrified and because the brain function to modulate affect is built within this care taking relationship and is ongoing well into the late teen years, that child is also not able to calm the terror. Over time, if the parent does not respond (or in this case can not respond), the child will flip into a parasympathetic shutdown of his body creating a state of learned helplessness or despondency. At this persists, the child enters an extremely dangerous state called failure to thrive in the attachment literature.

This is not new information and certainly should be in the hands of anyone considering making public policy that adversely impacts children. It was learned back in the late 1950’s when Harlow set up an experiment where he placed an infant monkey in a cage with a cold wire monkey that provides milk and another wire monkey covered in a warm material that offered comforting contact. Repeatedly, the young monkeys chose the comfort of the cuddly mother over food. That is how important touch and holding is to primate children. One of the policies being reported at these centers is that workers are not allowed to pick up or comfort the children. The results for these children will be devastating.

Likewise, the Abnormal Childhood Experience Study (ACE Study), a twenty-year longitudinal research project on the health outcomes of children who have had traumatic experiences in childhood, suggests that a child disconnected from his/her parents (as one of only a few abnormal experiences) has negative impacts on health and well-being. Not only are mental health issues like depression, anxiety, and substance abuse found to be higher in people with a high ACE score but also physical illnesses like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and even infections are increased.

Additionally, research by Eisenberger and Lieberman at UCLA (SPOT Theory)identified an area of the human brain – the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex- that is activated when a person is feeling socially excluded or disconnected. The dACC also happens to be the same area of the brain that is activated when a person is feeling the distress of physical pain. Essentially, SPOT Theory tells us that being connected to safe others is so important to human survival that it shares a neurological alarm with the distress of physical injury or illness. In essence, ripping children from parents carries the same risk as hitting them. To human beings pain is pain and so these children, their parents, and anyone who is witnessing this cruelty without disconnecting from it, is in deep, deep, preventable pain.

Given the clear science, how is it that some humans are not upset about this abuse? One explanation is found by looking at the neuroscience of "othering." Studies show that when I see someone as “not like me”, my mirror neuron system shuts down and I do not feel a physiological resonance with his suffering. Rather, I look at him through the area of my brain that helps me understand abstract ideas. This is a disconnected way of knowing another and heavily influenced by cultural stories and biases. This is not an excuse but rather a warning of the social impact of policies and rhetoric that divides people and communities into “us” and “them”.

The neurological bottom line is clear, separating children from their parents is child abuse. And anyone who has a sense of morality must do everything in his or her power to help it stop ASAP.

Continue reading the full article on Psychology Today in Amy Banks' Wired for Love blog.

Amy Banks, M.D., is a senior scholar and director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute, a legacy project of the Wellesley Centers for Women at Wellesley College. She has spoken throughout the U.S. on the neurobiology of relationship and has an ongoing passion to spread the message that humans are hardwired for connection.

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