When you have a child in your life that means the world to you, as I do, when I saw this story arise, made me sick, disgusted and so frustrated that any school or community program would allow their coaches and trainers to clearly assault and abuse teens on their cheer team as they did at East High School in Colorado.

As a WARNING, this video is very disturbing as you hear this teen crying out many times yelling for the coaches to stop as she cries and screams in terror and pain. It is terrible, sick and extremely disturbing. The trauma this teen and her colleagues experienced will affect them throughout their teen years and adult life. As a cognitive-neuroscientist myself, with their stage of adolescent brain development this trauma will have future consequences affecting brain development, putting them at risk of mental health issues.
East High cheerleaders Repeatedly forced to do splits (Source: 9News Colorado)

As observed at East High School in Colorado, compare how the so called “adults” or “trainers” treated this one teen (although there are others) to the Mission Statement and Goals of the American Youth Football & Cheer (AYF), a National Service Organization for youth football and cheer. They failed in their mission and goals. This was clearly child abuse and neglect. This type of abuse will have acute (short-term) and chronic (long-term) physical, emotional and psychological affects, having significant influence to their brain development and affecting them into adulthood.
Child Abuse and Neglect Defined: At the Federal level of the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) defines child abuse and neglect as: “Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.” [CAPTA Reauthorization Act of 2010 (P.L. 111-320), § 5101, Note (§ 3)]. Types of abuse include:
  • Physical abuse: Defined as “any nonaccidental physical injury to the child” and can include striking, kicking, burning, or biting the child, or any action that results in a physical impairment of the child.
  • Neglect: Defined as the failure of a parent or other person with responsibility for the child to provide needed food, clothing, shelter, medical care, or supervision to the degree that the child’s health, safety, and well-being are threatened with harm.
  • Emotional abuse: Defined as “injury to the psychological capacity or emotional stability of the child as evidenced by an observable or substantial change in behavior, emotional response, or cognition” and injury as evidenced by “anxiety, depression, withdrawal, or aggressive behavior.”

Parents need to empower their children and teens so their child or teen knows what to do and how to get out of a situation immediately, if they ever feel threatened, ridiculed or forced into anything they feel painful or uncomfortable with.


While we want children and teens to follow rules, there are their own personal boundaries that need not be violated by anyone. These include unwanted touching, pain, discomfort, fear, put downs, ridicule, threats, to name a few. A child or teen might listen and follow instructions of the coach, trainer or other adult, because they have learned “listen to the adult”. But regardless, if there is unwanted touching, pain, discomfort, feat, put downs, ridicule, threats or otherwise that makes the child or teen feeling uncomfortable in any way, this can be child abuse and neglect and they need to immediately remove themselves from that situation any way they can. If this means like yelling out "stop", "I am in pain", "someone please call the police", or physically, out of self-defense to physically remove themselves from the coach, trainer or adult and run to get help, they need to do what they need to protect themselves. Do not wait and sustain abuse.


Remember you are the parent or caregiver, and the school, club or community program, these are the people you leave your child with to care for. With understanding that your child will be safe and not injured. They are responsible for your child and your duty as a parent or caregiver is to ensure those who you leave your child with, will keep your child safe from physical, emotional and psychological harm or they will be held responsible. And you as a parent or caregiver need to let your child or teen know, in addition to those responsible (and this means the principal athletic director, trainers and other adults).

1.      Be aware of what happens at practice and games: If you are not aware you cannot protect your child. For example, are coaches, trainers and other adults making positive and constructive comments to your child and team so they can learn and improve? Or do they humiliate, put down or force the child?

2.      Coaches, trainers and other adults must put your child’s safety first: While you put your child in their hands to care for, you are the primary advocate for your child. Do they put your child at risk of injury? Does your child feel safe? If your child is injured or feels pain, how do they respond? Do they ignore the child, put them down, or do they validate how they feel?

3.      Know the coaches and program priorities: First your job as a parent or caregiver is to make sure your child is safe. Does the coach care about your child? Or do they push them beyond a limit of personal boundaries, pain or fear? Is it only about winning? Or learning and to improve and support?

4.      Know your child-their physical, emotional and psychological ability: You know your child. All children are different. They learn differently and coaches, trainers and other adults also have different methods. But they need to understand that they are also responsible to protect your child’s boundaries. If they cannot that is not the best environment for your child. If a team or program seems abusive, research it by talking to other programs or schools to compare. If it is abusive, remove your child and find another program they will enjoy. But also, if needed, report them by contacting your local health department children's services (local child abuse hotline) if things go too far like in this video. Also make sure your child understands so they can learn and be empowered. Keeping your child safe is most important, not worrying about what their peers or other parents think or say.

5.      Teach your child about the role of the coach, trainer and other adults: As a parent or caregiver talk to your child so they understand the role of a coach. A coach, trainer and other adults need to be supportive, kind, compassionate. Sometimes they can go too far and violate personal boundaries, physically, emotionally and psychologically.

6.      Make sure your child knows they can talk with you openly about how they feel: As a parent or caregiver, if you feel your child is having problems or if there are signs of abuse, “listen” to your child and “respond” being compassionate with understanding. This will help your child feel more comfortable coming to you if there is a problem. Sometimes the best thing is to listen, give the child options to consider and often they can make the best choice. You are there to help stimulate and help them make the best choices. If you need to take more control, then you do, but listen and respond, do not react to quickly. Allow them to continue to come and talk to you. 

It is all too often that we hear cases of teen behaviors resulting in physical fights leading to outcomes where the teens never expected or even desired. Including disability, death, prison time, all resulting in consequences that can  change their lives forever.
It is easier for adults to understand this, because adults make most decisions with their prefrontal cortex. The part of the brain responsible for decision making and understanding consequences and planning. This is the executive functioning part of the brain, that is not fully developed until the mid to late 20's. Among teens, this part of the brain is not yet functional. Instead teens utilize their limbic system to make decisions. The part of the brain responsible for strong emotions.  While there are other neurodevelopmental factors such as neurotransmitter changes that also affect risk taking and acting out behaviors, this part of the brain is where teens act out based on strong emotions and move straight into fight-or-flight. They lack understanding, negotiation, remembering consequences, etc.

Schools can have all the regulatory requirements, programs, disciplinary practices necessary, but yet with teens, once the limbic system is activated, these programs and even disciplinary practices are not a part of their decision making in that moment. Even if a small part is, the teen is often unable to think of consequences but rather survival and strong emotions. The teens "react" rather than "respond", resulting in unintended outcomes and consequences.  Regardless of who started what or why, this is unfortunately what happened among several teens at Howard High School of Technology in Wilmington, Delaware, that resulted in the death of a 16-year old sophomore.

As an injury and neuroepidemiologist, as well as a parent, it is sad to see how these teens lives are now changed forever. There is no reason for us adults to allow such behavior. Of course it is difficult especially if adults try to intervene in the moment. What teens need is help through skill building activities way before, so they do not get to this stage of behavior. It seems clear that adults understand the teens behavior, but they seem to lack the reasoning of why they behave this way and the teens difficulty in their inability to stop. It is all to often adults think only if we have stronger discipline and consequences then they will behave differently. In some cases this can work. But again those work when the teen limbic system has not been fully activated during fight-or-flight. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have shown how teens differ from adult developed brains. These studies in the lab have confirmed how a teen will increase risk taking even when they just think their peers can see them.
The teen developing brain is different. It is not that teens are not intelligent. Many teens that I have taught in schools are amazing. Of course they are young, unexperienced, not yet ready to conquer the world, but very knowledgeable and even eager with many interests. Which is something adults need to encourage and nurture.  However once the teen becomes emotional there is no more sanity. It is not that they are crazy.
Time laps of the human brain between the ages of 5-20 years illustrating range of maturity
As adults, now that neuroscience studies have demonstrated why this occurs and have identified such differences between the adult and teen brain, injury and violence prevention programs, including discipline and even academic classes, need to be structured with the consideration of how the teen brain is developing. Studies have shown this can improve not only their behavior but also academic skills. It is not about adults telling teens they are bad, in trouble, or to threaten them that they are about to get into trouble, or yell at them saying were you not thinking? Remember they cannot think under their emotional condition at that moment. So no, they were not thinking. Of course, they are still responsible for their behavior.  

These developmental differences among the teen brain however are further magnified when children and teens have been exposed to child abuse and neglect, intimate partner violence, family dysfunction or even that parent who is just "a little controlling". These all can contribute to negative effects, making the reactions of the emotional brain  even more severe. Further, are those teens who have parents and caregivers who model poor, unhealthy and risky coping skills to them.

Adults, educators, administrators, policy makers, all need to consider the development of the teen brain  when planning prevention programs and even disciplinary practices. This is why I have studied and applied neuroscience to develop more strategic and effective public health programs. Without this neuroscience based component, teens will continue to act out, misbehave and never learn how to control their emotions. Resulting in another generation of adults who will eventually be in relationships raising children. And yet another generation of acting out behaviors, despite the best intentions of parents/caregivers, educators or policy makers. But such neuroscience based programs are not just helping to reducing emotional and violent behavior but also effective in reducing other risky behaviors observed throughout adolescence such as alcohol and drug use, early sexual behavior and thrill seeking. Overall without applying neuroscience based programs, we are not doing justice to teens. We have the understanding and evidence base neuroscience. So now it is time to develop programs more strategically with the teen brain in mind.
Parents, caregivers, school administrators and educators, and even probation now have programs available that include a neuroscience based approach. Pro Consumer Safety has developed Cognitive-Based Integrative (CBI) Programs to help provide parents and teens with the necessary skills so they can become empowered and have the ability practice healthy behaviors and skills to make positive choices in their life. 
Parents and caregivers often have the best intention for their children, but when the parent or caregiver are unsure or even not aware of how their own past upbringing and existing behaviors contribute to their child's development and behavior, the best is often not reached and the parents/caregiver get the opposite of what they want. Teens also want the best for themselves. While they are trying to learn, searching for their own interests they also have peer pressure, pressure trying to meet parental standards and even negative effects from media and marketing to children and teens. Again guiding the child or teen in a direction of unwanted territory. It is up to us, as adults, to provide them with the best approaches based on the emotional brain (limbic system) so they can make healthy decisions for a successful future, leading to more successful generations.

Related Information
Public Shaming and Public Humiliation before Cyberbullying: Taking a moment to look back and an opportunity for cultural change and what parents can learn.
 As technology changes, bringing in newly defined terms such as cyberbulling, cyberstalking, etc, but before these terms and existing technology existed, public shaming and humiliation still occurred having similar negative consequences. It was not until I heard Monica Lewinski speak on TedTalk and after my 12 years of doing research in this area, that made this recall of my own thoughts and experience while at The White House during that time.
In 1998 I had the fortunate opportunity to have interned in The White House while I was pursuing my graduate degree in public health from George Washington University. While my position as an "intern" was amazing I was only an intern and while I did have the opportunity to have met former President Clinton at the time, it was truly a rewarding experience. Although this was my second opportunity providing a voluntary work at The White House but this time was different. I recall one morning before I received my identification badge and had to enter through the security gate. This particular morning was the fourth day being crowded with media reporters waiting for their clearance. I was there in my suit like most are dressed formally in Washington DC and I overheard two reporters talking saying "it must be a zoo in there, wild, crazy". I was only an intern and did not want to participate in pointless conversation. However I thought to myself “if you only knew, inside it is professional, respectful and the most hard working environment I have ever worked”. I did not speak much about me interning at The White House, other than my immediate family, not even to my colleagues. But honestly, with the amount of negative media and internet attention the situation was gaining, I did not want any needless attention.  
There were many interns at The White House and I did not work with Monica Lewinski, nor did I ever meet her. Obviously she had a much different level of internship at The White House. With my position, I only spent every Friday there with my internship work. When I did hear of her name was only in the news. Hearing words that were so hurtful and unprofessional that even at that time in my career, I felt were uncalled for, disrespectful and damaging. When I would be out with colleagues we would hear jokes about her which were degrading and unfair. Although they had a right to express their own opinion. But this was more than an opinion it was harmful. Eventually email lists and jokes at the time were similar. While I did not know how this affected her personally, I did know she was young and this could damage her reputation and have negative psychological consequences.
As time went on, I finished my internship, research and graduated. I began a full time position as a behavioral scientist in public health. At the time part of my work was a technical adviser with the Child and Adolescent Suicide Death Review Team where we reviewed suicide related death cases for the coroner to assist in determination and assist in the development of prevention programs. I worked with the team for 12 years and most of the child and adolescent suicides were due to dysfunction in the home and bullying. It was not until recently that I heard Monica Lewinski speak on Ted Talk, that I began to think of that incident back in 1998. Hearing her speak confirmed of what I thought at that time, and what I learned over my 12 years doing research and being part of the death review team. Hearing her speak confirmed her view of a 22 year old girl and at that time I recalled of no adult or professional of ever considering how their words they used against her would affect her at such a young age in her college career or future. With my background in cognitive neuroscience and research on the adolescent brain, her brain was in a late development stage which upon such exposure could have traumatic effects. Further with brain development regardless of age the brain is plastic and adapts to respond to its environment. Looking back, I recall professionals and adults publicly shaming her resulting in further trauma. And at the time what she needed were healthy adults and professionals in her life to model for her how to respond and show guidance. Unfortunately she got worldwide attention because of her internship position and relationship with the President of the United States, from websites to emails defining and judging her worldwide within days that continued and continued.

When Monica Lewinski speaks on TedTalk one can observe how she felt and while at the time it was cyberbulling even though this term was yet to be defined. While social media platforms of today did not exist then, internet websites and email did, which is how most of the public slamming was widely spread.  As adults, our behaviors are often modeled to those younger. It is up to us adults to take those who are younger into account before we react and instead respond appropriately. In the blog "An Apology: How I Failed Monica Lewinsky" provides an excellent example of how one can take responsibility for past behavior. Once we take responsibility for our own behavior we not only learn of ourselves but also model such positive behaviors to those younger. Whether students or young professionals, we can begin to change social norms. Take a moment to listen to Monica Lewinski on Ted Talk and read the Blog, from HopeLab.