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Grade School Bullying Can Lead to High School Substance Abuse

Posted 1/1/2018 by Kimberly Burkhart, PhD
Pediatric Psychologist, UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s
Assistant Professor, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine

Illustration of young girl hurt by gossiping classmates

School bullying is a serious problem that affects as many as one in three children in the U.S. The emotional scars from bullying can last into adulthood, affecting mental health, physical health and academic performance. Now, new research links early childhood bullying to an increased risk for substance abuse in high school.

Increased bullying tied to depression, drugs

Researchers collected survey results from nearly 4,300 kids in three states about bullying, mental health and substance abuse. The children were questioned in fifth grade, seventh grade and 10th grade.

When their answers were analyzed, researchers found a clear cascade effect. Children who were bullied in fifth grade were more likely to show signs of depression in seventh grade. Children who showed signs of depression in seventh grade were more likely to abuse alcohol, marijuana or tobacco in 10th grade.

The more often a child was bullied in fifth grade, the higher the risk for substance abuse later on, according to the report.

Kimberly Burkhart, PHD

Kimberly Burkhart, PhD

Watch for signs and let school staff know

It’s not always possible to tell if a child is being bullied at school. Research shows that one in three children do not tell an adult when they are bullied. But, according to Kimberly Burkhart, PhD, a pediatric psychologist with UH Rainbow Babies & Children’s, there are some signs to watch for:

  • Unusual injuries
  • School refusal
  • Frequent stomachaches and headaches
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Changes in eating habits or mood
  • Sudden loss of friends
  • Avoiding social situations
  • Lost or destroyed possessions
  • Drop in academic performance
  • Low self-esteem or feelings of helplessness

“If you think your child is being bullied at school, ask your child open-ended questions and remind him or her that you are there to help. If you suspect your child is being bullied, contact his or her teachers and the school principal to discuss a safety plan,” says Dr. Burkhart. “You can also contact a mental health professional if bullying starts to affect your child’s mental health. Learning coping strategies for symptom management and participation in social skills training may be beneficial.”

Find tips to beat bullying

Find more information about detecting signs of bullying and how to approach school staff at

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