Research shows that children who are bullied often carry a posture and a story of victimization. Trauma, low self-esteem, learning disabilities and obesity also can set up a child for ridicule and rejection. As we’ve noted before, such children begin to walk and talk in a victimized way. They begin to form a story of rejection and low self-worth that perpetuates bullying.
Yet “the bully” often comes from a place of trauma and victimization, too, posturing him or herself in a way that threatens, hurts and ridicules others. As the poet WH Auden put it years ago:
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.”
Bystanders, meanwhile, are often caught in a conflicting role, not knowing what to do. All too often – and even if it happened only once, it would be too often – the result can look something like this:
This is a powerful message, aiming to override the various resistances young people have toward expressing warmth and kindness. Such messages are vital. But as with so many other well-intentioned interventions, they are not enough. They speak to emotion or reason or will.
But speaking to mind or heart alone is seldom enough.
For even when bullying is “just words,” it is a physical experience, as well. A child being bullied may feel their stomach knot, their eyes burn, their throat constrict or any number of unique physical sensations that can come with feeling overpowered. The bully may feel large, energized, buzzing with energy as he or she exerts power over another.
The body receives the impact of the experience, and the body remembers – sometimes even more so than the mind or even the heart.
In fact, research continues to show that the mental/emotional experience of being bullied actually changes the structure of the brain. Studies have shown that bullied children have less grey matter in multiple regions, abnormalities in the corpus callosum (the area connecting the two lobes of the brain), and possible damage to the hippocampus.
Clearly, what’s needed is a somatic approach to bullying, through which body, heart and mind are brought together to nurture strong, resilient children.
This is something that Yoga Calm co-founder Lynea Gillen and Yoga Calm Trainer Kathy Flaminio will be presenting next month in San Diego for Bridging the Hearts and Minds of Youth, an annual conference on mindfulness and compassion in clinical practice, education and research. Through interactive role play, yoga and simple mindfulness practices, participants will learn how to teach K-8 youth practical skills that build self-awareness, leadership, resilience and a positive life story.
One of Lynea’s experiences with a student powerfully illustrates how this holistic approach gets put into practice and makes a difference:
Jacob, a 12 year old student who was often teased, rushed into my office exclaiming, “It worked, Mrs. Gillen! It really worked!”
“What worked?” I asked.
“That thing you taught me about bullying. I stood in Mountain, rooted myself, looked him in the eye and said ‘Stop’ in my strong voice. And guess what? He stopped!”
Jacob looked as though he still couldn’t believe he had the power to stop the bullying behavior.
Bullies likewise can learn to stop through such self-awareness and self-regulation as we teach throughout the Yoga Calm curriculum. Those in the middle can learn how to express positive feeling or to stand up for what is right.
Only by addressing the issue on all three levels – physical, mental and emotional – can we make long-term progress toward a bully-free future.