New York Magazine recently published an article entitled “Why You Never Truly Leave High School“ by Jennifer Senior. It is an amazingly insightful article about our brains and why the things that happen to us during our adolescence can and do stay with us into our adult years.
The article makes some powerful points and shares studies from experts on the issue. There is even some coverage of the bullying issue. The article talks of some experiments done that hit home just how this issue might be seen in adults.
“Casey and two of her colleagues, Francis Lee and Siobhan Pattwell, were part of a team that co-published a startling paper last year showing that adolescents—both mice and humans—were far less capable of dialing back their fear response than children or adults. They did so by designing two very simple experiments: In mice, they paired a neutral tone with a shock; in humans, they paired a neutral color with a horrible noise. Both populations learned to associate one with the other. The mice froze as soon as they heard the tone; the humans, when seeing the color, would sweat more. Over the next few days, the researchers again played the neutral tone for the mice and showed the neutral color to the humans, but this time without the horrible outcome (no shock, no loud noise). And over the course of those few days, both the adults and the children—whether mice or human—learned to dissociate the two.
But not the adolescents. Whether they were pubescent mice or high-school students, the adolescents remained as fear-stricken as ever. Their systems remained on high alert, as if a threat were just around the corner.
These studies could have sobering implications. If, as the researchers say, adolescents have an exaggerated sense of fear when faced with certain triggers, isn’t it possible they could carry that exaggerated panic into adulthood, because they never developed the tools at the time to beat it back? I phoned Pattwell and Lee to ask this question. The press release accompanying the study notes that an estimated 75 percent of people with fear-related disorders “can trace the roots of their anxiety to earlier ages.” Doesn’t this suggest that the fears of adolescence are harder to overcome?
“It’s funny you say that,” said Pattwell. “We actually checked in with the mice 30 days later, once they’d reached adulthood.”
“Their level of fear was just as high,” she said. “It was as if the experiment had just been done.”
In another section of the article, they address the issue of bullying and the shame it causes head-on, talking of people who struggle years later to cope with what was done to them during these years as in this research by Brené Brown.
“Brown says it’s remarkable how many parents of teenagers talk to her about reexperiencing the shame of high school once their own kids start to experience the same familiar scenarios of rejection. “The first time our kids don’t get a seat at the cool table, or they don’t get asked out, or they get stood up—that is such a shame trigger,” she says. “It’s like a secondary trauma.” So paralyzing, in fact, that she finds parents often can’t even react with compassion. “Most of us don’t say, ‘Hey, it’s okay. I’ve been there.’ We say, ‘I told you to pull your hair back and wear some of those cute clothes I bought you.’ ”
And it’s not just the bullied who carry the shame of those years. Rosalind Wiseman, author of Queen Bees and Wannabes (subsequently transformed into the movie Mean Girls), points to the now-legendary Washington Post story that ran last spring, which documented Mitt Romney’s escapades as a prep-school ogre: pinning down an outcast and cutting his hair; shouting “Atta girl” to a closeted boy when he tried to speak; leading a teacher with poor eyesight into a set of closed doors. Years later, one of the victims carried that pain with him still (“It’s something I have thought about a lot since then,” he said). But even more telling, she notes, was that Romney’s co-conspirators in thuggery felt so awful about their misdeeds as boys in 1965 that they talked about them openly, on the record, as grown men in 2012. “To this day, it troubles me,” Thomas Buford, a retired prosecutor, told the Post. He carried around that shame for almost half a century.”
I won’t share all the article discusses and research it goes through here on my blog, You can read it online at the New York Magazine here. I believe it is a powerful and very real and true look at why many of us suffer with the long term effects of bullying that happened so many years ago.