It’s not a rite of passage. It’s not about “boys being boys.” It goes far beyond girls gossiping. And it’s anything but harmless. This National Bullying Prevention Month and World Day of Bullying Prevention (the first Monday of October), the conversation must go beyond wearing a blue T-shirt or telling kids to “play nice.” To address this issue effectively, it’s imperative to recognize just how deeply bullying affects adolescents, and the alarming ways in which kids and teens try to cope with its harmful effects.
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How Are Bullying and Substance Abuse Related?
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) define bullying as “any unwanted aggressive behavior(s) by another youth or group of youths, who are not siblings or current dating partners, involving an observed or perceived power imbalance and is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.” Bullying happens everywhere, from hurled insults in high school halls to threats through social media and texting (cyberbullying).
When a child or teen is bullied, he or she can experience profound physical, social, psychological and emotional distress. Those who have been bullied are more than six times more likely than their peers to be diagnosed with a serious illness, smoke regularly, or develop mental health issues. More often than not, victims of bullying develop progressive behavioral disorders (e.g. depression and anxiety) as a result of being harassed. When combined with a victim’s low self-esteem, these conditions may spur experimentation with drugs and alcohol as a way to cope with how helpless being bullied makes them feel.
And it’s not just the targets of cruel and unusual treatment who are likely to turn to substances. Laura Crothers, a psychology professor at Duquesne University and expert on childhood bullying affirms that bullies are just as likely — if not more so — to use drugs as victims of bullying. “In terms of perpetrators, bullies themselves, there seems to be a connection between engaging in bullying and using or abusing substances. The idea is that children who are aggressive at a young age tend to seek out peers who are also non-rule governed,” Crothers explains. Teens who bully others are prone to a host of behavioral problems like vandalizing property, poor school performance, and early sexual activity. They are also often apt to try drugs and alcohol long before their peers ever do.
Perpetrator or victim, studies show that middle and high school students involved in bullying are more likely to use cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana. While these substances might be viewed as experimental, they can be gateways to more deadly drugs like opioids and cocaine, which are not unheard of on school campuses. If a child or teen is struggling with their self-esteem or grappling with a behavioral health disorder, drug use will only exacerbate these problems. This makes it all too easy for co-occurring disorders (e.g. mental health issues) and drug use to become a vicious cycle of harmful self-medication.
Bullying and Substance Abuse: Similar Signs and Symptoms
Sadly, the risk factors for bullying and substance abuse overlap extensively. In many cases, the signs that someone may be the victim of bullying are the same as the red flags of a substance use disorder. If you’re a parent, educator or friend trying to uncover whether someone you know is being bullied (or using drugs), it’s important to pay attention to these changes in behavior.
Be More Than a Bystander
When it comes to the reality of bullying and the prevalence of substance use disorders in schools, there’s no beating around the bush: Something has to be done. Whether you’re a concerned parent, worried faculty member or dedicated friend, there are many ways you can nip bullying in the bud and prevent adolescent drug and alcohol addiction:
- Learn more about teens and addiction. The Recovery Village’s teen addiction resource portal offers answers to the most frequently asked questions about drugs, alcohol and adolescents.
- Take action in the school. For educators, the CDC recommends improving supervision of students, enacting and enforcing a school-wide anti-bullying policy and increasing communication between school staff, parents and guardians.
- Know your options for immediate assistance. The website stopbullying.gov compiled a list of common bullying problems, solutions and resources that can be bookmarked or used in a crisis situation.
- Don’t rule out counseling or rehabilitative care. If you’re the parent or guardian of a child or teen struggling with bullying, substance use or both, outside help might be necessary. Talk therapy and counseling can be highly beneficial for a young person struggling with their self-worth as a result of bullying. Rehab care can help a student overcome the scars of bullying that spur a substance use disorder. To talk through your options for free, call The Recovery Village today.
If you know a child or teen who is dependent on drugs or alcohol, we can help. Next Generation Village is a facility in The Recovery Village network that focuses solely on adolescent rehabilitation. Therapists and clinicians at this renowned center help individuals ages 13–17 overcome substance use, mental health and eating disorders in a safe environment. To get started with treatment for yourself or a loved one, call our intake specialists today. It’s free and confidential, and there’s no pressure to commit to treatment. We’re ready when you are — take the first step today.