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Beating the Bully and Battling Genetics

Katherine Prudente is doing a guest-blog series, "Beating the Bully: Cope with Bullying At Any Age" at PscyhCentral.com. We will be re-publishing her blogs here.

Bullying Changes Genes in Children

DNA Wall

DNA Wall - via flickr JohnGoode

New research from the University of Montreal published in the journal of Psychological Medicine shows that a young child’s genes are altered if they have experienced bullying. This study is just one of many released this year further supporting that bullying adversely affects one’s mind and body.

The lead author, Isabelle Ouellet-Morin, and her colleagues found that children who have been bullied had lower levels of cortisol (the stress hormone). In turn, that reduction changed the structure of a gene that regulates serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is responsible for mood regulation, among other things.

While a child who is bullied repeatedly may have higher levels of stress, what this study suggests is that after repeated bullying over the course of 7 years (the study looked at twins, one who was bullied and one who was not and measured cortisol at 5, 10, and 12 years of age) there is a desensitization and the child’s body acclimates to the repeated attacks to their psyche.  The children who were bullied atypically responded to bullying, unlike their non-bullied twin. As Ouellet-Morin stated

The victims were not reacting physiologically to stress…the non-bullied twin showed the normal response, which is secreting the stress hormone while under stress.

While the study did not indicate if there is a decrease of serotonin, my presumption is that there would be and therefore a child may be more inclined to be clinically depressed. This may seem like “common sense” if someone were repeatedly bullied, eventually they would be depressed. Now our research supports our anecdotal knowledge! 

This change in cortisol and serotonin maybe a protective response to unrelenting bullying but leaves our children more susceptible to mental distress like depression. The higher the physiological threshold to bulling the more bullying a victim can “take.”  Yet, this change would also make it difficult for a bullied child  seek out peer or adult support and feel entitled to stand up for themselves. It’s as if the brain becomes hopeless that the bulling will stop and physiologically changes to cope with being victimized. 

The research also suggests that the changes in genetic structure can be reversed through appropriate interactions that support victims. More research is needed to support that claim. The study highlights the necessity for our environments need to change, “…if we make sure the victims are not victimized anymore, or if we give them the proper resources to cope better with the situation and get on with their lives, then we have the possibility of reversing what we are observing right now,” said Ouellet-Morin.

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