Does Being Tough on Young People Improve Performance?

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In the mid-1990s, Damien Chazelle was accepted as a drummer in the very competitive jazz band in his New Jersey high school. His experience with his verbally abusive music teacher and the anxiety and fear that resulted caused him to walk away from music altogether.  

In 2014, Chazelle’s movie, Whiplash, portrayed the terror and anguish of his fear-fueled relationship with his music teacher. The film won three Oscars, including one for Best Adapted Screenplay for Chazelle. But this isn’t a story about a happy ending after undergoing bullying and abuse by an overly demanding teacher.

In fact, reliving the experience while making the film scared Chazelle once again, as trauma often does. Still, he was compelled to expose the abusive behavior that teachers, coaches and adults in positions of power too often inflict on young people to enormous detriment, including suicide.  

A Culture Seeped In Bullying and Abuse 

Chazelle’s experience is far from unique. Our culture is so seeped in bullying and abuse — from children’s playgrounds to the upper echelons of leadership — that we’ve come to normalize the behavior and overlook the wreckage. This bullying paradigm has parents, teachers and coaches believing they must be tough to the point of emotional abuse in order for children to acquire the grit and resilience needed to attain excellence in a competitive world.  

Society accepts the practice of walking a fine line between being tough and being abusive to achieve an end result. But in reality, setting high expectations in an atmosphere of safety, trust and empathy is light years away from using threats, humiliation and cruelty if the goal is high achievement. And now science can prove it.  

Neuroscientists have found visual evidence in brain scans of the damage that occurs when subjected to bullying and abuse. It kills neurons in the hippocampus, which plays a major role in learning and memory. The bullied brain correlates with failure to perform, substance abuse, aggressive behavior, chronic disease and mental illness. Further, those harmed by bullying are more likely to become bullies themselves, perpetuating the destruction. 

In short, all forms of bullying and abuse harm minds, brains, and bodies. They do not optimize performance — they sabotage it. 

Dismantling The Bullying Paradigm

It’s time to dismantle the bullying paradigm and replace the broken framework with a new one grounded in knowledge of our brains. These suggestions can open the door to healing, both individually and as a society. 

  1. Acknowledge the harm bullying has caused.

    Few have not been affected by bullying and abuse. It’s okay to grieve, because the bullying paradigm wants you to dismiss and deny your sadness. The more you become aware of the protective mechanisms that want you to avoid acknowledgment of bullying, the more you can harness your feelings of empathy and compassion for yourself and others.
  1. Learn about the brain’s power to heal.

    You have the power to bring an end to the abuse cycle. The power of transformation is wired into your brain. By harnessing the brain’s neuroplasticity, it’s possible to replace destructive neural networks with ones capable of critical thinking, trust and empathy. You can replace your rigid ideas and fixed mindset with a growth mindset, and you can change old habits of deriding yourself for mistakes by instead embracing mistakes — because that’s how the brain learns. 
  1. Enter a new empathic paradigm.

    You can’t walk away from the bullying framework without reflecting on your own role within it. Know that you can let go of a story that’s been projected upon you by others. You can unlearn helplessness and learn instead to harness your power, your agency and your outright refusal to participate any longer in this destructive, fruitless bullying paradigm.

    Dispel the clouds of false thinking and exchange them with clarity. Replace obedience to authority with your natural-born empathy. Reject abusive messaging and respond to another’s plight with compassion. 

What we’ve been taught about bullying and abuse in school, on sport fields, in arts programs, in governance and politics, and at the workplace is ignorant at best and outright harmful at worst. It’s vital to debunk the myth generated by the bullying paradigm that harshness or unempathic conduct builds toughness, perseverance and resilience. Science provides evidence that the opposite is true. 

Copyright 2022. All Rights Reserved.
Printed with permission of the author/publisher.

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Book by this Author:

BOOK: The Bullied Brain

The Bullied Brain: Heal Your Scars and Restore Your Health
by Dr. Jennifer Fraser.

book cover of The Bullied Brain by Dr. Jennifer Fraser.While your brain is vulnerable to bullying and abuse, it is at the same time remarkably adept at repairing all kinds of traumas and injuries. The first part of The Bullied Brain outlines what the research shows bullying and abuse do to your brain. The second part of the book, "The Stronger Brain" provides case studies of adults and children who have undergone focused training to heal their neurological scars and restore their health.

These accessible and practical lessons can be integrated into your life. Strengthening your brain acts as an effective antidote to the bullying and abuse that are rampant in society.

For more info and/or to order this book, click here. Also available as a Kindle edition, an Audiobook, and an audio CD.

About the Author

photo of Jennifer FraserJennifer Fraser, best-selling author and award-winning educator, has a PhD in Comparative Literature. Her online courses and workshops provide dynamic lessons in the impact neuroscience has on personal development and culture change. Her previous book, Teaching Bullies: Zero Tolerance on the Court or in the Classroom (Motion Press, Aug. 8, 2015), explores what happens when the bully is a teacher or coach.

Her new book, c (Prometheus Books, April 1, 2022), delves into how bullying affects the brain and how the brain can heal. Learn more at  

More books by this Author.

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