Being the target of bullying is a serious problem for many of today’s teens. It can lead to significant emotional pain and trauma, and isn’t something that a teen merely needs to “get over.” The emotional impact of bullying can leave lasting scars. Sadly, some teens turn to alcohol and drugs as a way to cope. Over time, this can lead to the development of an alcoholism or drug addiction problem. Even though kids have been teasing each other for centuries, the problem of bullying has become increasingly common. Surveys have shown that at least one in five high school students has been the victim of a bully. Bullying goes beyond normal teasing. It is done with the intent to hurt, intimidate, or damage another person in some manner. This aggressive behavior can be physical, such as when one kid pushes, hits, or trips another; or it can be verbal, for example when a teen calls a peer a “slut,” “fag,” or “loser.” Bullying can – and often does – take place via electronic channels as well, referred to as “cyberbullying.” Adolescents are increasingly using text messaging and social networks to hurt and humiliate a vulnerable peer. Research consistently shows the power a bully’s actions or words can have on teens. For instance, one study showed that teen girls who had experienced verbal or cyberbullying had higher rates of depression than teen girls who weren’t targeted by bullies. The researchers also found that both adolescent male and female bullying victims thought about suicide more often than their non-bullied peers. The effects of bullying can last well into adulthood – and even for a lifetime. Teens who are bullied have a greater risk of developing mental health issues, including depression, panic attacks, anxiety, and agoraphobia, as adults. Anxiety disorder is particularly a problem, with bullied teenagers being much more likely to struggle with it as adults than those not bullied.
Bullied Teens and Substance Abuse
As mentioned above, the emotional pain of being bullied can lead to alcoholism and drug abuse in some teens. Being bullied at school increases the odds that a teen will abuse alcohol. In fact, students (grades 7 through 12) were 1.5 times more likely to abuse alcohol if they had been bullied. Experiencing verbal abuse in middle school, in particular, may have a significant negative impact, increasing the risk of high school alcohol abuse by as much as three times. Bullied teens may even have different drinking behavior than non-bullied peers. Evidence suggests that teens who drink alcohol when alone are more likely to be the victim of a bully than teens who drink in social settings. Alcohol isn’t the only substance bullying victims may abuse. Smoking cigarettes and using marijuana are also not uncommon. For example, while 30% of high school students who both bullied others and were bullied themselves smoked pot, only 13% of students not involved in bullying did so.
Coping with Substances
Teenagers turn to alcohol and other substances as a way to self-medicate and cope with their emotions. Many bullied teens feel embarrassed by the bullying. They often feel powerless to stop it. Bullying can also socially isolate teens during a time when connection with their peers is especially important. Alcohol and drugs can seem like a good way to ease the emotional pain of loneliness or rejection. Bullying can also trigger depression in vulnerable teens. Depression is often marked by prolonged feelings of sadness or hopelessness. The painful symptoms can spur some teens to medicate themselves with substances. However, alcohol and drugs make depression symptoms worse. This can lead to even more substance abuse in an effort to ease the depressive symptoms. This pattern can easily become a vicious cycle that’s very difficult to break, especially without professional treatment.
Helping a Bullied Adolescent
If you have a teenager who’s the target of bullying, the first course of action is to try to resolve the bullying behavior. Your teen can’t begin to heal emotionally until he or she feels safe. Don’t minimize what’s going on or advise your teen to “deal with it.” Take necessary actions to protect your child. Don’t hesitate to approach teachers, principals, or other school officials to stop the bullying. This is a critical step, especially if your teen has been in a residential or inpatient substance abuse treatment program. Thrusting him or her right back into an unsafe environment greatly increases the risk of relapse. When looking into alcoholism or drug recovery programs, choose one that specializes in working with adolescents. Since teens often have a hard time stopping their substance use while in their regular environment, inpatient or residential treatment is usually recommended. Choosing a residential facility also allows your teen to receive round-the-clock medical supervision. This will ensure that he or she detoxes safely and with a minimum of discomfort. Psychotherapy is the basis for substance abuse treatment in adolescents. Therapy sessions provide a safe place to express feelings about the bullying and other situations that may have contributed to the substance abuse. A skilled therapist will help your teen learn healthy and productive ways to cope with painful feelings. Therapy sessions may be one-on-one and / or done in small groups. Family counseling is often an essential part of substance abuse treatment for teenagers. Family therapy will help each family member, including the teen, address issues that cause strife. In addition, the therapist will teach family members how to provide appropriate support and help your addicted teen stay sober. If needed, your teen will also be treated for underlying or co-occurring conditions that may be playing a role in his or her alcoholism or drug addiction. Adolescents who have been targeted by bullies are at higher risk for clinical depression and anxiety disorders. A mental health professional will determine if your teen requires additional treatment for these conditions. This additional therapy can be crucial to recovery, since individuals with untreated mental health disorders may be more prone to relapse. Building self-confidence will also help your teen heal from substance abuse and bullying. When teenagers are bullied, the experience can result in a radically negative self-perception. This derogatory self-image can adversely affect everything from current schoolwork to future job performance. Work with your teen’s therapist to find ways to boost his or her self-esteem. For example, find an activity your teen will enjoy and can have success in, like learning karate or how to play an instrument. Problem-solving skills training may also give your teen the confidence to work through problems that present themselves in daily life. Bullying is a serious issue that can shatter a teen’s emotional well-being. Work to stop the bullying behavior and find help for your child. He or she deserves a life that’s free from alcoholism or drug addiction and filled with hope and joy.