Drug Abuse and Bullying: Everything You Need To Know

For better or for worse, we live in a world that rewards winners, and success can be attained in a number of ways. One of the easier ways is by criticizing, humiliating, or degrading others to make oneself look better. This approach can be learned as early as childhood. Bullies are people who repeatedly take advantage of their power over others to do harm, and bullying is defined as aggressive, repeated, and unwanted behavior that is based on an imbalance of power. It can be social, emotional, or physical and can eventually lead to drug abuse by everyone involved.

Is Bullying a Widespread Problem?

Incidences of bullying are prevalent throughout our children’s and teen’s school years. Bullying starts as early as elementary school and peaks in middle school. Below we’ve outlined the statistics and facts according to school level.

According to data of the National Center for Educational Statistics, about 15 percent of fourth-graders and 7 percent of eighth-graders in the US reported experiencing bullying at least once a month in 2015. These percentages were lower than the worldwide averages for children in these grades (16 percent resp. 8 percent). What is more, a study led by Dr. Thomas P. Tarshis of Stanford University Medical Center showed 90% of elementary school kids had been subjected to psychological or physical bullying by their peers.

You’d be correct to assume that most incidences of bullying occur in middle school, with verbal and social bullying being the most common forms. Statistics of the Center for Disease Control in 2015 show that 24% of junior high school students were cyber-bullied. 45% were bullied on school property that year.

Bullying in high school is also not uncommon. The Youth Risk Behavior Survey of the CDC showed that every fifth high school student in the United States was bullied on school property in 2015. Over 15 percent reported having been bullied online that same year.

Bullying among siblings is a burgeoning social problem, ranging from relatively innocent quips such as “I know you are, but what am I?” to physical abuse. A study published by Clemson University in September 2013 indicated that three out of four children are bullied by a sibling. 85% of study participants reported bullying a sibling.

Types of Bullying

There is not just one type of bullying; the real deal bullies will act as if on instinct to try and find the best method to pick on someone. The method they choose can vary from person to person. Though, there are four main types of bullying:

  • Verbal Bullying involves the use of words to harm others – insults, name-calling, making sexual or racist comments, verbal threats, and harsh teasing and taunting. According to a study by Bradshaw, C.P. and Sawyer, A.L. on bullying and peer victimization at school, cited by the US government website stopbullying.gov, 44.2% of junior high schools students experienced name calling, 43.3 % reported teasing, and 36.3% reported that someone had spread lies and false rumors about them.
  • Social Bullying involves excluding someone from a peer group. Rumors, verbal threats, and other forms of intimidation are used to this end. The above-cited study showed 28.5% of junior high school students had been threatened by peers. 27.3% had had their belongings stolen, and almost every fourth student (23.7%) had to deal with unwanted sexual comments or gestures.
  • Physical Bullying typically involves pushing or shoving, which 32.4% of surveyed students experienced according to the Bradshaw study. 29.2% of participants reported having been hit, kicked, or slapped.
  • Cyber-Bullying: According to data of the Center for Disease Control in 2015, 15.5% of high school students were cyber-bullied, and 20.2% were bullied on school property. These percentages are much higher in middle school: 24% and 45% respectively. A 2016 study by Patchin and Hinduja discerns a worrying tendency: the number of students who have experienced cyber-bullying has nearly doubled in the decade preceding the study (18% to 34%).

Risk Groups: Who is the Most Likely to Become a Victim of Bullying?

As you may imagine, race, gender, and religion are factors that may make one more likely to be bullied. Studies indicate the most vulnerable group are those identifying with the LGBT community. However, they are far from the only group struggling with this regrettable social phenomenon.

According to 2016 data of the National Center for Educational Statistics,  9% of Asian students, 17% of Hispanic students, 22% of Caucasian students, and 25% of African-American students report being bullied at school. A study by Rosenthal et al. in 2013 showed race-related bullying to correlate with negative emotional and physical health effects significantly.

23% of female students and 19% of male students report being bullied at school. Surprisingly, more boys than girls report being threatened with harm (5% vs. 3%) and being physically bullied (6% vs. 4%, National Center for Educational Statistics, 2016). Among bullies, boys tend to pick on both genders equally, while 80% of girl bullies bully other girls.

Physical and emotional disorders definitely make one more likely to be bullied. According to a study by Rose et. al. carried out in 2012,  35.3% of students with emotional or behavioral disorders, 33.9% of autistic students, 24.3% of students with intellectual disabilities, 20.8% of students suffering from impaired physical health, and 19% of students struggling with various learning disabilities reported having been victims of bullying. What is more, their victimization persists throughout the duration of their school years.

25% of children are bullied because of their religion or faith according to a study by the Beat Bullying charity in the UK. The most frequently occurring forms of bullying are verbal (19.9%), psychological or emotional (17.3%) and physical (11.3%). 9% of students were bullied because of wearing certain religious symbols, and 6% reported cyber-bullying.

This is perhaps the most vulnerable group. 74.1% of students who identified as being or were perceived as LGBT were verbally bullied because of their sexual orientation and 55.2% were bullied due to the way they expressed their gender according to data of the National School Climate Survey in 2013. This survey also showed that 49% of LGBT students were subjected to cyber-bullying that year. 55.5% felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation.

The Signs of Bullying

If your child displays one or more of the following, it may mean they are being bullied:

  • Inexplicable injuries
  • Frequent stomach aches or headaches, feeling sick often, pretending to be sick
  • Lost or destroyed items
  • Sleeplessness, frequent nightmares
  • Poor academic performance, losing interest and/or not wanting to go to school
  • Unexplainable changes in eating habits, binging or skipping meals – bullied kids will often skip lunch and come home starving
  • Plummeting / poor self-esteem
  • Isolation, avoiding social situations
  • Talking about suicide, attempting to run away from home, cutting themselves

Alternatively, here are some indications your child may be bullying his or her schoolmates:

  • He/she is reported to be getting into fights often
  • Becomes more aggressive
  • Has unexplained new items or extra money
  • Never takes responsibility for his or her actions
  • Always blames others for conflicts that arise
  • Becomes increasingly competitive, being popular at school becomes a top priority

Bullying and Substance Abuse: The Connection

The emotional harm bullying does to young people can be irreparable, eventually leading to substance abuse and addiction. Victims of bullying at school are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol. Students who experience verbal abuse in middle school are three times more likely than their non-victim peers to abuse alcohol according to research by SAGE Publications. However, this tendency is valid for bullies as well – they are also more likely to abuse substances compared with their non-bully peers.

Data of the CDC 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey shows students between the seventh and twelfth grade were 1.5 times more likely to abuse alcohol if they had been victims of bullying.

An Undeniable Link​

A study carried out by Ohio State University showed 11.4 percent of middle school bullies used cannabis compared to just 1.6 percent who were not involved in bullying. Among high school students, 31.7 percent of bullies used marijuana, compared to 13.3 percent who were not involved. The results for alcohol and cigarette use were comparable.

Bullying and Substance Abuse: Common Risk Factors

Can you predict the extent, to which your child is at risk of bullying and substance abuse? It turns out that yes, there are ways. These problems have common roots, which involve aspects of social and family life, personality traits such as aggression, and environmental factors.  

Risk FactorInfluence
Peer PressurePeer pressure is an indisputable factor in both bullying and substance abuse. Kids and teens are more likely to get involved in such activities if their friends are. This is also the case for children who have a hard time socializing or connecting with their peers. To this end, it is helpful to expose children to social situations from an early age so they can develop social skills.
Lack of Parental SupportYoung people face a higher risk of being bullied, becoming bullies, and abusing drugs if parental support and supervision are lacking. Overly lax or strict parenting styles, failure to establish clear boundaries, and inconsistent discipline methods increase these risks as well. Young people whose parents abuse alcohol and drugs are also at risk.
Individual Personality TraitsAggressive behavior can be monitored as it tends to manifest from an early age, being as it is a personality trait. In many cases, aggression is a sign a child could start abusing drugs and alcohol and/or hassling and harassing schoolmates. Experts recommend recognizing and reinforcing children’s achievements and abilities to promote their productive skills and discourage deviant behavior.
Lack of Enthusiasm about LearningBeing unenthusiastic about learning puts a child at risk for bullying and substance abuse. Conversely, high academic performance correlates negatively with incidences of these forms of destructive and self-destructive behavior.
EnvironmentWe couldn’t underestimate the crucial role the environment plays in young people’s lives. Young people who grow up in areas with high crime rates, are surrounded by substance use, and/or experience violence at home are more likely to turn to alcohol and drug use and/or bullying as methods of coping.

How Different Roles Kids Play in Bullying are Connected with Substance Abuse

The connection between drug abuse and bullying is more pronounced in bullies than in victims of bullying. Bullies abuse substances more often, which is part of a set of problem behaviors. Typically, they have low self-esteem and turn to bullying others in an effort to feel stronger and more confident. In some cases, bullies are aware of the social power they yield and seek to dominate others to reinforce it. What all bullies have in common is a deep need to put others down so they can feel better about themselves.

Bullies are more likely to act aggressively and rule-breaking behavior tends to be more noticeable. The latest School Psychology Quarterly report indicates that perpetrators of bullying seek to self-medicate with alcohol or drugs in an attempt to deal with underlying mental health problems that are at the core of their aggressive behavior. The report also showed that bullies are also more likely to contact and communicate with peers who display the same kind of behavior or reinforce it.

Victims of bullying tend to withdraw from social situations, circles of friends, and family. They face a higher risk of developing symptoms of depression. Bullying may also exacerbate pre-existing conditions. Some victims develop behavioral problems, mood disorders, drug abuse disorders, and other mental health issues as a result of being bullied.

Victims of bullying are also more likely to suffer from a range of afflictions that might include anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders, persistent feelings of loneliness, and sleep problems. They begin isolating themselves, and isolation reinforces the extent, to which they are suffering from one or more of the above afflictions. School Psychology Quarterly reports a link between being a victim of bullying and increased school dropout rates. Research suggests that some victims of bullying try to relieve stress or cope with anxiety, isolation, and depression by self-medicating with illegal substances.

Bystanders are exposed to a higher risk for marijuana use than uninvolved students, but the risk found for bullies is higher than that for bystanders. Durand et al., 2013 and Rivers et al., 2009 have found bystanders to seem to be more alike to victims as a group, which is one way of explaining the connection between witnessing incidences of bullying and substance abuse. These students have an empathic understanding of how victims suffer, which leads to psychological co-victimization (Durand et al., 2013). At the same time, they do not intervene in favor of the victim out of fear of taking their place at some point in the future (Durand et al., 2013) or because they recall experiences from the past.

One recent study (Rivers and Noret, 2013) showed children and adolescents who were exposed to violence suffered deep psychological distress. Being exposed to bullying episodes is also associated with other risk behaviors, such as teen pregnancy and attempts to commit suicide. Rivers and Noret found that feelings of helplessness and frequency of observed bullying incidences are two key factors that make bystanders more likely to abuse drugs and have suicidal thoughts.

Of the various types of bullies, there is one seemingly bizarre class that merits special focus – bully-victims. These are children or adolescents who have been both victims and perpetrators of bullying. Often subjected to ruthless bullying, they unleash their pent-up rage and frustration on others whenever the opportunity arises. This runs contrary to expectations as one would think a victim of bullying would be capable of empathy.

In most cases, bully-victims have suffered at the hands of bullies for a very long time and bullying others is an attempt to regain control. They often come from homes wrecked by drug abuse and domestic violence. Bullying is learned behavior if they were abused by an older sibling, which is sometimes the case. According to a survey by the Journal of Emotional Abuse on 133 middle school students, bully-victims and bullies showed higher rates and degrees of severity of depression than passive victims and students not involved in bullying. Numerous studies by the American Journal of Public Health show a direct link.

What is Special About Bully-Victims?

Bully-victims are unique in the extent, to which they experience emotional stress, problems fitting in, failure to control emotions, and other distinct features. The main ones are clarified below.   

  • Social Awkwardness
    Bully-victims often have a harder time “fitting in” than their peers. They also are less sociable and cooperative than other students. Their peers tend to avoid them. Frequently, bully-victims have few, if any, friends. Research suggests that social isolation is a result of bullying behavior and the frequency of their own victimization.
  • Severe Emotional Stress
    Bully-victims suffer more stress compared to passive victims and other bullies, which can lead to what borders on emotional distress. They face a higher risk of anxiety disorders, eating disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Suicidal ideation is frequent. Their coping mechanisms are inadequate, causing them to respond to stress aggressively.
  • Inability to Trust
    Studies have shown that bully-victims are more likely to bring weapons to school than bullies who aren’t victims or to believe it is acceptable to do so. These children or teens have trust issues and live in a heightened sense of awareness, always expecting other students to attack them or behave in an otherwise hostile manner and are always ready to respond with aggression. This makes them appear unfriendly and defensive, serving to isolate them further.
  • Inability to Cope with Emotions
    Often, bully-victims react to name-calling, conflict, and other threatening behavior by lashing out, causing other students to keep bullying them. Because of the insufficient or lack of ability to manage emotions, deal with frustration, and control anger, they are often predisposed to further victimization. They will then take their anger out on others. It is a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle. Eventually, they may turn to alcohol or drugs as a way of breaking it.

How to Cope with Bullying

Bullying isn’t as simple as widely believed, and its negative impact goes far beyond victims. Below are some approaches that victims, parents, teachers, and authorities can adopt to cope with this wide-ranging problem.

What to Do if You Are a Victim

  • Stay with a group and/or a teacher to prevent the bully from harassing you.
  • Try to gather evidence of bullying – keep emails or text messages as evidence if cyber-bullying or try to get someone to record a bullying episode on their phone if it is physical, social, or verbal.
  • Talk to a teacher or other official about this problem, but not when other people are present, as this can lead to increased incidences of bullying.
  • When you tell your parents or officials about the incidents of bullying, lay out the facts. Explain clearly how the bully behaves, what he says and/or does, and how you react.
  • Choose a way home from school or office that is well-lit and safe, ideally with surveillance cameras around.
  • Do not retaliate with physical or verbal aggression during a bullying episode. Instead, try to get out of the situation.
  • Know that it is not, nor has it ever been, your fault for being bullied.
  • Engage in an activity that could improve your self-esteem, confidence, and overall emotional resilience – music, a sports activity, etc. This could also help you improve your social skills, meet like-minded people, and build friendships.

What to Do if Your Child is a Bully

Here are some expert tips for parents who have received complaints from their child’s school or parents of other students regarding bullying. These tips are also helpful if you suspect your child may be a bully based on the signs listed earlier in this article.

DoDon't
DoGet the factsDon'tPunish your child without having a full understanding of the situation
DoEncourage your child to engage in positive social activities with positive role modelsDon'tBully them back to show how their victims felt
DoProcess your feelings to better manage your reactionsDon'tReact emotionally
DoThank the parent or teacher for informing you, and listen to what they say about your childDon'tBlame them, the victim, or the school for your child’s behavior
DoWrite as many details down as possibleDon'tAssume the situation will resolve itself
DoTalk with your child calmlyDon'tUse strong-arm tactics – this perpetuates bullying
DoMake clear and concise statements – ex. “Bullying is wrong and it must stop.”Don'tLecture your child
DoTry to find out if your child is sad, angry, upset, or being bullied themselves.Don'tExcuse the behavior as being transient ("just once")
DoSuggest constructive ways of dealing with conflictDon'tMake positive comments about bullying (ex. “You should keep standing up for yourself") as this will perpetuate the abuse

When accusations of bullying or other abusive behavior are made, parents tend to react emotionally, which is understandable to an extent. “I know my son and he would never do that!” is a typical reaction. Please know this isn’t necessarily true. Also, avoid making direct contact with the victim’s parents if you can, as this may make things worse.

Preventing Bullying and Subsequent Drug Abuse

Effective prevention programs involve education of teachers, students, school administrators, and parents on how harmful bullying can be with the aim to foster improved understanding of how bullies and victims are perceived. Annual student surveys can help maintain awareness of how severe the bullying problem is and of any possible consequences, such as alcohol and drug abuse. Informing a victim’s parents can improve his or her quality of life. An effective anti-bullying program will set clear consequences for bullying and educate bystanders how to stand up for victims and stigmatize their behavior.

How the Legal System Has Failed Victims

Research by Hatzenbuehler & Keyes carried out in 2012 showed that schools that included LGBT students in the scope of their anti-bullying policies had fewer incidences of peer victimization in general. Unfortunately, not every school has such policies in place. What is more, there is no federal anti-bullying law in the United States. Frequently, victims of ruthless bullying attempt suicide. When a youth does commit suicide, it tends to be covered as a crime, while it is, in fact, a public health issue. When bullying also constitutes harassment, it is a violation of federal law.

Bullying is legal in the country despite the fact that 49 states have anti-bullying legislation.

Effective Legislative Measures

A study by the University of Columbia on more than 60,000 high school students in public and private schools in 25 states found that states with anti-bullying legislation in place saw fewer incidences of bullying. The U.S. Department of Education created a document with effective anti-bullying law recommendations in 2010, and results were quick to follow. In states that implemented one or more of these recommendations, reports of cyber-bullying dropped by 20%, and reports of face-to-face bullying – by 24%.

Workplace Interventions

To prevent bullying at the workplace, measures and interventions need to be implemented throughout the organization, as with schools. Coworkers and managers are encouraged to be respectful toward one another, participate in delegated tasks fully, and avoid excluding anyone from conversation or gossiping about them.

Where Can Victims and Bullies Get Professional Help?

Bullying is hard on all parties involved. Since poor self-esteem is a risk factor for becoming a bully and a victim of bullying, constructive measures that promote self-confidence are important ways to reduce this risk. These can include engaging in work projects, sports, musical activities, theatrical performances, and psychotherapy. Listening to a person and/or getting them to join a support group will help them feel less alone and go a long way toward providing the stability needed to protect them from further victimization.

A qualified professional can perform a comprehensive evaluation of the child in order to establish whether there are any underlying issues, such as depression, anxiety, learning disorders, or drug and alcohol abuse. Therapy can explore the child’s feelings, thoughts, and behavior and help them stop bullying other students and/or protect themselves from bullying. Professional help is mandatory in cases where the child is experiencing severe trauma, such as parental separation or the death of a parent. Psychotherapy and possibly medication therapy may be required if the bully or victim of bullying has grave emotional or physiological symptoms that keep them from functioning optimally.

Drug Abuse and Bullying: Everything You Need To Know
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