Bullies may face a higher risk of substance use as adults

Key points

  • Information about the consequences of bullying usually focuses on the outcome of the victim, rather than the bully himself.
  • A meta-analysis on the topic found that children who bully their peers are more likely to drink or use drugs as adults.
  • Childhood trauma is usually the root cause of bullying and substance abuse in adulthood.

When we talk about the consequences of child and youth bullying, we usually refer to the victim’s experience. Children who are bullied will leave scars mentally and sometimes physically, which require time and consultation to overcome.

To find out, a meta-analysis of bullying research recently published in Bullying Pediatrics, The link between the bully and the substance use in later life was examined.

But what about the perpetrator? What information do we know about the psychological and physical consequences of bullies themselves?

This survey

Generally, research on bullying focuses on the outcome of the victim. Although this information is important, meta-analysis highlights the research surrounding the bullies themselves. Researchers aim to explore the link between peer bullying in childhood and adolescence and substance use later in life.

Laura Goldstein, LCMFT

It is possible that the people who bullied at the beginning already have a high sense of shame and unhealthy coping skills, so they comfort themselves by raising themselves and demeaning others.

—Laura Goldstein, LCMFT

Researchers also found that if a person is bullied in childhood rather than adolescence, they are more likely to use alcohol and tobacco in adulthood. The reasoning here is that teenage bullying may be a “strategic and functional” behavior in the social hierarchy of peers, rather than a reaction that may be related to negative outcomes.

To gain a deeper understanding of behavior during bullying, a study focused on the link between bullying and drug use during adolescence. Researchers found specific differences between boys and girls. For example, daily drinking and smoking are more common among boys who bully their peers, while marijuana and drugs are more common among girls who bully their peers.

They found that bullies face a high risk of drug use in adulthood. Compared with non-bullying peers, children and adolescents who are bullies are at higher risk of using alcohol, drugs, and tobacco later in life.

Bullying and mental health

Laura Goldstein, a marriage and family therapist at LCMFT, cautiously concluded that there is less causal and higher correlation between peer bullying and adult drug use.

“If someone is ashamed of their bullying behavior, among other things, I can see them turning to material things,” Goldstein said. “It’s very possible that those who bullied in the first place already have a high sense of shame and unhealthy coping skills, so they comfort themselves by elevating themselves and degrading others.”

Brooke Ames, LCSW, LCADC

Bullying is usually the result of learned behavior.

— Brooke Ames, LCSW, LCADC

Research on this has shown that bullying is not only related to low self-esteem, but also to depression, suicidal ideation, psychosomatic problems and violence.This suggests that greater pain may occur under the surface, and although bullying should not be condoned, it may be explained.

“Bullying is usually the result of learned behavior,” said Brooke Aymes, drug and alcohol consultant at LCSW and LCADC. “Adolescents who act like bullies are most likely to be bullied, have low self-esteem, and hide behind defense mechanisms to protect themselves.”

Ames pointed out that neglect, any form of abuse and family dysfunction are common examples of attachment problems and low self-esteem. These are bad childhood experiences related to teenage bullying and drug abuse.

In addition to this idea of ​​common ground, adult individuals often intentionally or unintentionally recreate the same type of environment they experienced in childhood.

“Bullies usually come from very ineffective families, and the same is true for people who turn to drugs and communities that abuse drugs,” Goldstein said.

Seek treatment

By addressing childhood trauma, it is possible to find the root causes of personal negative behaviors, such as bullying others or self-treatment with drugs and alcohol.

Laura Goldstein, LCMFT

People who bully usually come from very ineffective families, and the same is true for people who turn to drugs and communities that abuse drugs.

—Laura Goldstein, LCMFT

Rehabilitation advocate Boris MacKey, who works at a drug treatment center in the UK, says it’s important for therapists and mental health professionals to connect these points

“The significance of this for psychiatrists and therapists is to realize and try to incorporate these factors into personalized treatment plans,” MacKey said. “We ensure that evidence-based treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, help people provide tools to cope with the underlying psychological causes of addiction without the need for drugs and alcohol.”

What this means to you

If you realize that your behavior is a response to childhood trauma, know that you are not alone. But you don’t need to continue struggling. There is nothing shameful about addiction, and resolving adverse events through counseling can help you overcome it.