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The Link Between Bullying and Substance Abuse

Teen getting shoved into a locker by a school bully while another kid films it

It may be hard to believe, but the term “bully” originated as a term of endearment back in the mid-16th century (much like “sweetheart” or “bae” are used today). Its meaning deteriorated as time passed, and today the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a bully as “one who is habitually cruel, insulting, or threatening to others who are weaker, smaller, or in some way vulnerable.”

It is common knowledge today that bullying is not simply some harmless adolescent activity or a rite of passage. In contrast, bullying (physical, verbal, or online) can have serious negative impacts on children and teenagers.

How Widespread is Bullying?

Research indicates that about one in every five high school students is the victim of bullying on school grounds, and that percentage is even higher among middle school-aged kids. Moreover, the majority of adolescents have been targeted by cyberbullies and one in three has been threatened online.

There are some common behaviors which may indicate that a kid is being bullied. Bullied children may suddenly appear to be anxious or depressed, and they may lose interest in their hobbies, social groups, extracurricular activities, or even school attendance. Lower grades, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, and the emergence of an eating disorder like bulimia or anorexia are also associated with bullying victims.

Here is the thing. These behaviors are also typical signs of substance abuse as well. So it should not be a surprise that links are being discovered between drug or alcohol use and bullying victimization.

The Consequences of Bullying

In 2012, researchers at Ohio State University released the results of a study of almost 75,000 middle and high school students in the U.S. They found that kids who are bullied are six times more likely to smoke regularly or develop serious illnesses or mental health issues. These conditions are often found in teens who experiment with drugs or alcohol. In addition, the study found that adolescents who are bullied tend to consume alcohol and marijuana more often than their non-bullied peers.

Interestingly, the negative consequences of bullying also extend to the perpetrators themselves. The same Ohio State study found that middle school bullies were almost 6 ½ times more likely to smoke marijuana than those not involved in bullying; while in high school, over three in ten bullies smoked pot, which is more than twice the rate of marijuana usage among non-bullying teens.

What is more, the impact of bullying does not always disappear once children become adults. A study led by researchers at the University of Warwick in the UK and Duke University Medical Center revealed that child victims of bullying were twice as likely to have financial problems and difficulties maintaining employment once they entered their 20s. Another Duke University-led study found a correlation between childhood bullying victimization and psychiatric problems or suicidal thoughts in adulthood.

What To Do About Bullying

If you believe that your child is being bullied by other kids, here are some steps you can take.

  • Listen carefully and without judgment to your child’s descriptions of the bullying behavior. Encourage regular communication between you and your child about this topic.
  • Consider being proactive in building your child’s self-esteem by offering tips on subjects from personal grooming and social skills to making new friends and using his or her natural talents.
  • Teach safety strategies to your child in an effort to minimize future bullying incidents. This may include finding a “safe area” away from bullies or walking with other kids.
  • When appropriate, talk to school administrators about the problem. Be as detailed as possible about the bullying behavior, who is doing it, and what your child has done to try to avoid it.
  • If your child is ever physically threatened either in person or online, contact the police immediately.

Gone are the day where parents and administrators can turn a blind eye to bullying and the pain that it causes. Because the more you learn about the effects of bullying, the more you realize that its impact stretches far beyond hurt feelings.

If you think your adolescent has turned to alcohol or drugs as a result of bullying, do not ignore the issue. Confront the child and take him or her to a medical professional to be assessed if necessary. If additional measures are needed, contact us to see if substance abuse rehabilitation would be helpful.

Medical Disclaimer: Next Generation Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options, and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.

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