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Bullying in grade school can lead to substance abuse in teens

Main Line Health October 22, 2018 Child and Adolescent Health

If you don’t think your child is involved in bullying, think again. A shocking one in three students is bullied at school, according to the American Society for the Positive Care of Children, while 30 percent of youth admit to bullying others and 70 percent have been “bystanders” or witnesses to bullying. Yet only about 20 to 30 percent of students who are bullied notify adults about this behavior and—the older the child—the less likely they are to report bullying.

Bullying can have lasting effects. A recent study shows that kids who are bullied in fifth grade are more likely to have depressive symptoms in seventh grade, which in turn is related to a greater likelihood of alcohol, marijuana and tobacco use in tenth grade. Young people also turn to prescription painkillers for relief from stress and anxiety, which can also result from bullying.

30 percent of youth admit to bullying others and 70 percent have been “bystanders” or witnesses to bullying. Yet only about 20 to 30 percent of students who are bullied notify adults about the bullying.

“Many of the kids who use substances to cope with the effects of bullying already have a substance use history, but bullying exacerbates the desire to turn to substances,” adds Meine James, MSW, LSW, a program therapist at Mirmont Treatment Center, part of Main Line Health. “In those who don’t have a pre-existing issue, there’s often someone in the family and/or a close friend that does. It’s a learned behavior: ‘This is how to cope with negative experiences.’”

What is bullying behavior?

According to stopbullying.gov, bullying is “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance.” The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. An imbalance of power refers to a child using physical strength to intimidate or using information that can embarrass someone. Power plays also include leveraging one's own popularity to dominate, harass or isolate another.

To better recognize bullying when you see it, think in terms of verbal, social and physical bullying.

  • Verbal bullying is saying mean things such as teasing or name-calling, or threatening harm to a person. Verbal bullying includes writing mean things as well.
  • Social bullying is when a person uses social relationships to damage another’s reputation and friendships. This includes behaviors such as excluding someone on purpose, spreading rumors about someone, or telling other kids to not be friends with someone. Embarrassing someone in front of others is another example of social bullying.
  • Physical bullying includes harming a person or the person’s belongings. Hitting, spitting, tripping and pushing are all forms of physical bullying.

While kids do need to be able to work through disagreements on their own, there is a difference between conflict resolution, in which both parties are on equal footing (no imbalance of power) and bullying behavior in which one person attempts to wield power over another.

Is my child being bullied?

If you’re like most parents, you’ve got your antennae up any time your kids talk about playground incidents or locker room shenanigans. We all want to know what’s happening at our kids’ schools and how our children are handling uncomfortable or challenging interactions. And we’re keen on knowing where the teachers are when these things go on.

No child is exempt from bullying but there are certain kids at greater risk of being bullied. Children who:

  • Are perceived as weak and unable to defend themselves
  • Are difficult to get along with and perceived as annoying or antagonizing to others
  • Look different physically, such as overweight or underweight children, or kids who wear glasses, or wear clothing that’s not considered cool by other kids
  • Are new to the school and don’t have close social bonds in the new community of kids
  • Are depressed, anxious, withdrawn or have low self-esteem
  • Have few friends and are less popular

“Kids with IEP (Individualized Education Programs) or those on the autism spectrum are also vulnerable,” says James. “Anything that puts you on the outside of the popular group puts you at risk of being bullied.” This goes for kids who are sexual minorities (or perceived as such) or who were once in the “in” crowd but decided not to participate in bullying and then became the target of bullying themselves. “We see that a lot, actually,” she adds.

Signs that your child is being bullied

Some children may communicate about issues at school while others keep it to themselves for a variety of reasons. If you have concerns, here are a few signs your child may be being bullied:

Physical changes

  • Unexplained injuries
  • Frequent headaches or stomachaches, or regularly needing to go to the nurse’s office
  • Having trouble sleeping or having nightmares

Behavioral changes

  • Not eating as well (skipping meals or bingeing)
  • Avoiding social situations or losing friends all of a sudden
  • Self-destructive behavior (cutting self, running away from home, talks/thoughts of suicide)
Other signs your child is being bullied may include frequent loss of school books or supplies, or personal items such as electronics, jewelry or clothing. Children who are bullied may also start to pull away from school work, resulting in declining grades and a change in attitude toward school.

How to deal with your child being bullied

It’s absolutely critical to keep the lines of communication open with your child, and it’s especially important to believe children if they say they’re being bullied.

“A lot of what we do is teach young people assertive communication skills so they can advocate for themselves,” says James. “We also focus on positive self-talk, self-esteem and body image. A person who is confident in themselves is less likely to be continually bullied as they’re more likely to tell someone about it.”

Other tips for parents of bullied children include:

  1. Let your child know that you’re on their side. Kids may be reluctant to tell you they’re being bullied because they’re embarrassed or ashamed, or they think they’re deserving of the mistreatment in some way. Make sure they know that bullying behavior is not acceptable and that you’re going to help them get through this in an empowered way.
  2. Teach your child not to react, if possible. Help your child develop coping skills such as ignoring, walking away, or getting help from a teacher.
  3. Give your child permission to defend themselves. Let your child know that if they are feeling physically threatened and there’s no one around to defend them or intervene, they have every right to defend themselves, even though getting into a physical altercation is “against the rules.” Bullies prey on perceived “weakness” and sometimes standing up to them is the only way to get them to back off.
  4. Talk with teachers and school guidance counselors. Make sure teachers are aware of what’s happening and find out what they have observed. Make sure your child knows their teachers are looking out for them. Work with counselors to help your child develop positive ways of interacting with bullying children.
  5. Reach out to the parents of the bully, if needed. If the situation has escalated or is ongoing, reach out to the parents directly or talk with the school about coordinating a meeting with both families to work through the issue together.

James encourages parents of children who have been bullied and are turning to substances and/or exhibiting psychological and emotional problems as a result to ask for help. “We can be a great advocate and resource,” she says. “Some parents struggle with what to say or do when faced with this situation, specifically finding the balance between being too passive or overbearing. We can help, so they’re not alone in this.”

If your son or daughter needs help but you aren’t sure where to turn, Mirmont Outpatient Centers can help. With locations in Broomall and Exton, Mirmont Outpatient Centers provide therapeutic programming for individuals 14 years of age and older, for both mental health and substance use disorders. To speak to someone about a potential evaluation or admission, please call us at 1.888.CARE.898 (227.3898), option # 2.