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Bullies May Face Higher Risk of Substance Use in Adulthood

Man holding glass of alcohol, resting his head in his hand

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Key Takeaways

  • Information on the consequences of bullying often focuses on outcomes for victims, rather than the bullies, themselves.
  • A meta-analysis of research on the subject found that children who bully their peers are more likely to drink alcohol or use drugs in adulthood.
  • Childhood trauma is often a root cause of both bullying behavior and substance abuse in adulthood.

When we talk about the consequences of childhood and adolescent bullying, we are often referring to the experience of victims. Children who are bullied come away with mental, and sometimes physical, scars that take time and counseling to overcome.

To find out, a recent meta-analysis of studies on bullying, published in Pediatrics, examined the connection between bullies and substance use later in life.

But what about the perpetrators? What information do we know about the consequences, mentally and physically, for bullies, themselves?

The Research

Often, studies around bullying focus on outcomes for victims. While this information is vital, the meta-analysis spotlighted research around the bullies themselves. Researchers aimed to explore the connection between peer-bullying perpetration in childhood and adolescence and substance use later in life.

Laura Goldstein, LCMFT

Likely, someone who bullies in the first place already had high levels of shame and unhealthy coping skills, so they self-soothe by elevating themselves and putting others down.

— Laura Goldstein, LCMFT

Researchers also discovered that if an individual was a bully during childhood, rather than adolescence, they were more likely to use alcohol and tobacco in adulthood. The reasoning here is that adolescent bullying could be a "strategic and functional" behavior within social hierarchies of peer groups, rather than a response that could be linked to negative outcomes.

For more insight into behaviors at the time of bullying, one study focused on the connection between bullying and substance use during adolescence. Researchers found specific differences between boys and girls. For example, daily alcohol consumption and smoking was more common in boys who bully their peers, while the use of cannabis and hard drugs was more common in girls who bully their peers.

What they found was that bullies face a high risk of substance use in adulthood. Compared with non-bullying peers, children and adolescents that act as bullies have a higher risk of alcohol, drug and tobacco use later in life.

Bullying and Mental Health

Marriage and family therapist Laura Goldstein, LCMFT, is careful to conclude that the relationship between peer-bullying perpetration and substance use in adulthood is less causal and more correlative.

"If someone feels shameful about their bullying behaviors, among other things, I could see them turning to substances," Goldstein says. "Likely, someone who bullies in the first place already had high levels of shame and unhealthy coping skills, so they self-soothe by elevating themselves and putting others down."

Brooke Aymes, LCSW, LCADC

Bullying is typically a result of learned behaviors.

— Brooke Aymes, LCSW, LCADC

Research on this shows that bullying perpetration is associated with not only low self-esteem, but also depression, suicidal ideation, psychosomatic problems, and violence. This indicates that there might be greater pain happening under the surface, and while bullying behavior should never be condoned, it can, perhaps, be explained.

"Bullying is typically a result of learned behaviors," says drug and alcohol counselor Brooke Aymes, LCSW, LCADC. "The adolescent behaving as the bully is most likely being bullied themselves, suffering from low self-esteem and hiding behind defense mechanisms to protect themselves."

Aymes points to neglect, abuse of any kind, and household dysfunction as common examples that can cause attachment issues and low self-esteem. And these are the kinds of adverse childhood experiences that are linked to both adolescent bullying and substance abuse.

Beyond the idea of this common denominator, an adult individual often will recreate, knowingly or unknowingly, the same type of environment they experienced during childhood.

"People who bully often come from very invalidating households, and the same is true for people who turn to substances and the validating community that is substance abusers," Goldstein says.

Seeking Treatment

By addressing childhood trauma, it's possible to find the root cause of an individual's negative behavior like bullying others or self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.

Laura Goldstein, LCMFT

People who bully often come from very invalidating households, and the same is true for people who turn to substances and the validating community that is substance abusers.

— Laura Goldstein, LCMFT

It's important that therapists and mental health experts connect these dots, says Boris MacKey, a recovery advocate working at an addiction rehabilitation facility in the U.K.

"The implications of this for psychiatrists and therapists is to just be aware and to try to build these factors into a personalized treatment plan," MacKey says. "We make sure of evidence-based treatments, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, to help give people the tools to cope with the underlying mental causes of addiction without turning to drugs and alcohol."

What This Means For You

If you recognize your behavior as a response to childhood trauma, know that you are not alone. But you need not continue to struggle through it. Addiction is nothing to be ashamed of, and addressing adverse events through counseling can help you overcome it.

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  1. Vrijen C, Wiertsema M, Ackermans M, van der Ploeg R, Kretschmer T. Childhood and adolescent bullying perpetration and later substance use: a meta-analysisPediatrics. 2021:e2020034751. doi:10.1542/peds.2020-034751

  2. Luukkonen A, Riala K, Hakko H, Räsänen P. Bullying behaviour and substance abuse among underage psychiatric inpatient adolescentsEuropean Psychiatry. 2010;25(7):382-389. doi:10.1016/j.eurpsy.2009.12.002