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Bullying and Substance Abuse: The Connection

Substance abuse is perhaps one of the most commonly overlooked consequences of bullying: alcohol and drug abuse is common in both bullies and their victims. Why? Bullies are more likely to act out aggressively than kids who don’t use substances while their victims are more likely to start using and abusing substances as a result of being bullied. Victims, on the other hand, indulge in substances as a means of escaping the physical and emotional pain of being bullied, and habits are formed as a coping mechanism. It should also be noted that that bystanders–those who observe acts of bullying and do not intervene–are also at increased risk for substance addiction, particularly if violence is a recurring factor in their lives.

Substance abuse is perhaps one of the most commonly overlooked consequences of bullying: alcohol and drug abuse is common in both bullies and their victims. Why? Bullies are more likely to act out aggressively than kids who don’t use substances while their victims are more likely to start using and abusing substances as a result of being bullied. Victims, on the other hand, indulge in substances as a means of escaping the physical and emotional pain of being bullied, and habits are formed as a coping mechanism. It should also be noted that that bystanders–those who observe acts of bullying and do not intervene–are also at increased risk for substance addiction, particularly if violence is a recurring factor in their lives.

What is Bullying?: Behaviors & Consequences

Bullying stems from abuse of a real or imagined imbalance of power, and is defined as aggressive and unwelcomed behavior towards an individual. The victim is often perceived as weaker in order to humiliate and/or influence a reaction. The behavior is always repetitive and aggressive, usually falling into 3 categories: Physical, Emotional and Social abuse.

Physical Bullying

Physical boundaries are often challenged by youth, but what transcends an altercation and classifies as bullying? 3 specific points make the distinction between conflict and bullying: 1) Repeatedly targeting a specific victim, 2) The bully intends to physically intimate, humiliate or hurt the victim and 3) The actions occur in a situation with a real or perceived imbalance of power, such as when the bully is stronger than the victim or has a higher social standing.

Common forms of physical aggression:

  • Hitting
  • Slapping
  • Pushing
  • Kicking
  • Stealing and destroying personal possessions

Emotional Bullying

Emotional abuse occurs when bullies manipulate victims into feeling shame, anger, humiliation, and fear. This form of bullying is just as harmful as physical abuse, though its effects last much, much longer. The effects of emotional bullying are devastating and can resonate with a victim in the long term. Recent studies reveal that early emotional trauma as a result of lowered self-esteem, and bullying can lead to substance abuse, addiction. Often times, escapism from prolonged bullying is connected to the first time an addict uses. As a result, it isn’t unusual to rely more and more on alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism.

Common forms of emotional abuse:

  • Belittling
  • Threats
  • Torment
  • Name-calling and mocking
  • Spreading false rumors

Social Bullying

Social Bullying, including Cyber Bullying, is perhaps the most prevalent form of bullying seen today. As social interaction becomes more deeply entrenched in technology, digital means of bullying has emerged as a serious problem in recent years. The CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) in 2013 showed 20 percent of U.S. high school students report being bullied on school property and 15 percent were bullied via the internet and electronics. Cyber bullying is a term that is specific to the electronic harassment of a minor via internet (usually social media platforms) and mobile texts. Similar harassment and bullying tactics amongst adults is referred to as Cyberstalking.

No longer confined to school days and hours, victims in the digital age are given no relief from constant harassment on a larger scale. The characteristics of why perpetrators bully on social media is more difficult to identify, as the anonymity and detachment associated with digital technology means bullies don’t have to suffer real life consequences as soon, and don’t have to come face-to-face with the level of emotional damage they inflict.

Characteristics of Social Bullying via Digital Technology:

  • Harassment in behavior and the volume of threats directed at the victim
  • Spreading lies and rumors via text and social networks
  • Sharing and altering photos with the intent to shame and humiliate the victim via social networks such as Instagram

A Note About Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment as another form of social bullying that is not unusual among adolescents, and takes many shapes. Questioning traditional gender roles of male victims and the use of brutal homophobic slurs are common amongst middle school bullies, creating an imbalance in power around sexuality. Sexual harassment can thus become a tool of the victim, who may act out sexually on a member of the opposite sex to dispel rumors and slurs around homosexuality. It is reported that a study of sexual harassment and bullying among middle schoolers, 25% revealed being forced to kiss or assaulted sexually. Both girls and boys named males as the aggressors in most instances of sexual harassment and assault.

How Common is Bullying?: Reviewing the Data

According to the National Center for Education Statistics and the Centers for Disease Control:

7%

of eighth-graders in the U.S. report being bullied at least once a month (2015).

40%

of self-identified LGBTQ students consume alcohol daily, while 32% of self-identified heterosexual students reveal the same.

Over25%

of teens reveal that the have been bullied repeatedly through their cell phones or online.

21%

of students from 12 to 18 year of age report being bullied at school

Signs of Bullying in Children & Teens

Children who are bullied display sudden changes in behavior as a result of being victimized, and compromised physical, social and emotional wellness becomes apparent. Warning signs to keep an eye out for:

  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social activities
  • Increase in illness and faking illness; Frequent stomach aches and headaches
  • Unexplainable injuries
  • Threats of suicide and self harm
  • Loss and damage of personal possessions
  • Alarming changes in appetite

As noted previously, substance abuse can be a sign that your child or teen is a bully or victim, so it is important to understand the signs of addiction, too.

Signs of Adolescent Substance Abuse

Studies show that drug and alcohol abuse is a common problem associated with bullying. Alcohol and drug use and abuse is common in kids who bully victims or participate in peer-bullying. They are more likely to act out aggressively than kids who don’t use substances, and substance abuse may be a factor that actually triggers bullying behavior. Bully victims are likely to resort to substance use as a result of being bullied. Victims’ abuse of substances develop as a means of escaping the physical and emotional pain of being bullied, and habits form as a coping mechanism. It is interesting to note that that witnesses and bystanders (those who observe acts of bullying and do not intervene) are also likely to abuse substances.

What to look for when you suspect your youth is engaging in substance abuse:

  • Drop in grades and skipping school
  • Lying and secretive behavior
  • Strange habits develop like laughing for no reason, and bouts of the munchies
  • Laziness and loss of interest in regular activities
  • Neglecting hygiene and personal experience
  • Diminished personal appearance
  • Avoiding eye contact
How Juvenile Addiction Programs Can Help

Substance abuse treatment can be quite beneficial to adolescents who have experienced bullying behavior in all forms. Talk therapy exercises help patients heal their emotional wounds and equip themselves with new coping mechanisms. Treatment is also a good place for patients to interact with peers who share their experiences and develop friendships in abstinence. In treatment, patients have a safe and supportive environment to address and work through trauma that is associated with the effects of bullying on self-worth and how it is connected with the use of drugs and alcohol.

Behavioral intervention is an excellent way to help adolescents identify bullying and its connection to substance abuse. By actively participating in their recovery, patients develop important skills surrounding self assertion, physical and emotional boundaries. Socialization is also emphasized, allowing bullies to develop empathy and learn how to accept personal responsibility.

With proper support, teens can find the help they need to address and move beyond bullying and its destructive behaviors.

Identifying Potential Bullies & Victims

Bullies: Common Characteristics

Bullies act on a perceived imbalance in power over potential victims, not necessarily having to do with size. Bullies seek attention and social comfort at the expense of others. They tend to have dominant tendencies and be dismissive of authority without fear of consequences. While personal qualities alone are not sufficient in determining whether one is a bully, bullies do tend to:

  • Be outspoken & disruptive
  • Challenge or disregard rules
  • Bet easily frustrated and angered
  • Seek popularity and peer acceptance
  • View Violence as positive reinforcement
  • Show less empathy for others
  • Have limited adult supervision
  • Socialize with other bullies

Victims of Bullying

Children targeted by bullies tend to be quiet and keep to themselves. Socially awkward teens, and those who are part of marginalized and special needs groups are particularly vulnerable to being bullied. Often times if substance abuse develops in victims, it is in response to escapism and stress relief impacted by the bullying. Common characteristics of victims of abuse:

  • Viewed as meek or without physical power
  • Quiet and socially awkward
  • Suffer from depression, anxiety, cognitive or emotional problems
  • Children who are LGBTQ, obese, or physically and developmentally disadvantaged

How to Handle Bullying: Common Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them)

Mistake: Missing the warning signs

An inability to see or understand the importance of changes in a child’s behavior can mean missing a cry for help. Keep an eye out for subtle signs; Becoming withdrawn, changes in eating or sleeping patterns, avoiding school, becoming sick often or feigning sickness to avoid school, and a drop in self-esteem are all symptoms of being bullied by peers at school and/or electronically. Kids often won’t discuss the trauma adults or try to cover it up for fear of retribution from bullies.

Mistake: Overreacting

When bullying behavior is revealed, adults tend to overreact. Getting upset and feeling angry is normal, but think before you act. First and foremost, create a safe and non-judgemental space for the bullied child to open up. Defensive and knee-jerk reactions can make the situation worse and more stressful for the victim.

Get all the facts before making a distinction between conflict and bullying. If incidents happen repeatedly, there is an imbalance of power, and harm is intended- then you know you are dealing with an instance of bullying.

Mistake: Doing Nothing

A common mistake adults make is to advise children to simply ignore their bully, and it will stop with a dismissive “It’s only a phase” “Kids will be kids” or “Just toughen up”. To recommend a child absorb threatening and abusive behavior widens the gap in power between bully and victim. This furthers the emotional trauma experienced by victims of bullying. Do not expect that the situation will resolve itself, because it won’t.

Listen carefully to your child and encourage them to face the problem head on rather than try to ignore it. Encourage them to be assertive, and provide the tools and guidance to do so. Be vocal and seek resolution to the problem instead of avoidance.

Mistake: Demonstrating Poor Behavior

When bullying is revealed, adults often feel powerless to protect the victims. Seek a resolution to the issue, not revenge. Don’t let anger and the desire for ‘justice’ to cloud what is important: face the problem and help the victim to move beyond it. Avoid badmouthing or spreading rumors about the bullying child or their family. Stay focused on creating a safe and supportive environment and let go of the urge to punish the bully.

What is the Right Way to Handle Bullying?

Help kids identify when they are being bullied. Involve teachers, school administration and other trusted adults to create a safe and non-judgemental space for victims to confide in. Keep the lines of communication open during the battle against bullying. Provide victims with techniques of self assertion, plus tools to help build and maintain personal boundaries.

For kids who bully others, set strong limits on acceptable behavior and respecting the limits of others. Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) is a program designed to reduce and eliminate bullying behavior in schools. The program emphasizes exercises around developing empathy, impulse control, anger management, communication and creative problem-solving skills. SEL programs have resulted in a significant drop in bullying behavior and sexual harassment by equipping adolescents with self-awareness and healthy ways of developing and maintaining relationships.

Q&A with Substance Abuse Expert Teresa Mendoza

About Teresa Mendoza

Teresa Mendoza is residential substance abuse counselor in Oakland, CA

  • Q. What advice do you have for adults who suspect that their kids are being bullied others and abusing drugs & alcohol?

    A. Create and hold a safe space” said Teresa, “Listen to what they have to say.” Empower them to get involved with the school counselors, administration and teachers discuss strategies for an intervention.”

  • Q. What are common pitfalls should adults avoid when addressing childhood substance abuse and bullying?

    Be prepared to simply listen” Teresa advises, “Don’t get angry, proceed with caution and compassion. There is a reason why the youth is using, and it is beyond partying with their friends. Ease up on any language or tone that can be perceived as judgemental and authoritative.

  • Q. What are some effective coping techniques for victimized kids to help them avoid substance use?

    A. It is important for kids to find and connect with peers who don’t use who don’t use, and activities that avoid putting them at risk for using or being around other that use.” Teresa notes that treatment is a good place for teens to connect with others who understand their struggle. It is important for bullied kids to feel safe and centered in their lives, and their abstinence. Friendship, support and affection are vital tools needed for young addicts to thrive.

  • Q. How can substance abuse treatment help teens that are bullying or have been bullied? How can it help those who have been bullied?

    A. The importance of peer relationships can’t be underestimated- especially when it comes to bullying. Experimentation with substances is prevalent around schools, and can make abstinence very challenging to teens- whether they are popular kids who bully others or victims who feel socially isolated.” Teresa notes, as a recovering addict herself who started to use at the age of 12.

    Treatment addresses the symptoms of substance abuse as well as the underlying issues that have led to it. “Kids learn new ways to communicate, develop alternative coping mechanisms, and practice empathy and compassion. They are strengthened by the peer relationships they make while in treatment.”

Q. What advice do you have for adults who suspect that their kids are being bullied others and abusing drugs & alcohol?

A. Create and hold a safe space” said Teresa, “Listen to what they have to say.” Empower them to get involved with the school counselors, administration and teachers discuss strategies for an intervention.”

Q. What are common pitfalls should adults avoid when addressing childhood substance abuse and bullying?

Be prepared to simply listen” Teresa advises, “Don’t get angry, proceed with caution and compassion. There is a reason why the youth is using, and it is beyond partying with their friends. Ease up on any language or tone that can be perceived as judgemental and authoritative.

Q. What are some effective coping techniques for victimized kids to help them avoid substance use?

A. It is important for kids to find and connect with peers who don’t use who don’t use, and activities that avoid putting them at risk for using or being around other that use.” Teresa notes that treatment is a good place for teens to connect with others who understand their struggle. It is important for bullied kids to feel safe and centered in their lives, and their abstinence. Friendship, support and affection are vital tools needed for young addicts to thrive.

Q. How can substance abuse treatment help teens that are bullying or have been bullied? How can it help those who have been bullied?

A. The importance of peer relationships can’t be underestimated- especially when it comes to bullying. Experimentation with substances is prevalent around schools, and can make abstinence very challenging to teens- whether they are popular kids who bully others or victims who feel socially isolated.” Teresa notes, as a recovering addict herself who started to use at the age of 12.

Treatment addresses the symptoms of substance abuse as well as the underlying issues that have led to it. “Kids learn new ways to communicate, develop alternative coping mechanisms, and practice empathy and compassion. They are strengthened by the peer relationships they make while in treatment.”