People once routinely brushed off bullying as a normal part of childhood that built character. Now we know with certainty that it actually tears people down in devastating ways.
The longterm risks of bullying, however, don’t have to shape the rest of your life. While the research on protecting yourself from those effects is still limited, there are some important steps you can take to boost your resiliency and improve your coping skills.
Studies have shown a connection between being bullied and doing worse in school, abusing alcohol, and experiencing mental health problems. New research published this week in Pediatrics, for example, showed that more frequent bullying experiences in the fifth grade were associated with symptoms of depression in the seventh grade, which was related to a higher chance of using alcohol, marijuana and cigarettes in the 10th grade. A separate Psychological Science study indicated that both bullies and victims were at higher risk for feeling more stress and had fewer skills for managing stress as adults.
“It is possible to cultivate a positive self-concept and strong self-esteem even if you’re being bullied or treated poorly by other people,” said Valerie Earnshaw, lead author of the Pediatrics study and assistant professor of human development and family studies at the University of Delaware.
Here are six strategies that can help diminish the negative influence bullying has on your emotional and physical health:
1. Get help from a supportive adult.
Research shows that young people who have strong relationships with adults are more resilient. A trusted adult, says Earnshaw, can help you deal with bullying by discussing coping techniques, developing a plan for responding to harassment, identifying everyday social skills that can build their confidence, and offering respect and support.
When an adult takes time to listen to and guide a young person, it can affirm their self-worth at the very time it’s under attack.
2. Look for social support elsewhere in your life.
People who bully try to isolate their targets from a larger social group. If you feel alone, it’s by their design. In order to counteract that effect, try seeking support from friends, sports teams, clubs, and other social networks.
What you’re looking for is emotional support, practical support (think a ride to your therapy appointment), and support from a larger group or organization, like a gay/straight alliance or even acceptance campaigns like the It Gets Better Project. While the research on the benefits of social support are limited and mixed, there is some evidence that it can help protect youth from the various effects of bullying.
3. Come up with a plan for how to respond to bullying.
When you’ve already experienced bullying, or worry about encountering it because you feel vulnerable for any reason, that can lead to anxiety-inducing vigilance. It’s a normal instinct to be on the lookout for signs you might be targeted, but that constant high-alert can take an emotional and psychological toll.
Dealing with this fallout shouldn’t be on you alone; school officials and other adults should work hard to prevent bullying in your community. But you can also take some individual control back by thinking about ways to respond to bullying behavior. Having a game plan, says Earnshaw, gives you more tools to address the problem than just being hyper-vigilant about potentially threatening situations. The Pacer Center’s Teens Against Bullying initiative has a student action plan resource guide to help you develop these strategies.
4. Talk to a professional.
Young people who experience bullying are more likely to report symptoms of depression, have suicidal thoughts, and harm themselves. They are also more likely to have health problems like headaches, stomach aches, back pain, and bed-wetting. These are issues that often can’t be solved on your own, and when go unaddressed, compound your suffering. Seeking help from a mental health professional or pediatrician who is well-informed about the effects of bullying can be essential to healing.
5. Avoid internalizing stigma.
Some young people experience more bullying than others. Research shows, for example, that youth who are obese, have chronic illnesses, or identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or gender non-conforming are more often victimized by their peers. Dealing with the negative effects of bullying means not only processing verbal or physical attacks, but also fighting any stigma attached to your identity.
Research suggests that some people who are bullied or experience discrimination internalize those experiences and, as a result, feel worse about themselves. Earnshaw says it’s important to recognize that you can feel good about yourself even if others treat you poorly. That self-acceptance can be fostered by some of the above strategies, including getting social support from caring adults and peers.
6. Focus on positive things that make you feel good.
When bullied adolescents and teens turn to drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes, they’re often self-medicating. Earnshaw instead recommends that vulnerable youth identify things that make them feel good but don’t involve substance abuse.
That can be as simple as a hike with good friends, doing something creative, volunteering, or playing a sport. While it’s not realistic to completely avoid social situations where drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes are present, because teens will be teens, you can recognize your risk for substance abuse and say no thanks.
After all, you might consider the best revenge against a bully as living a healthy, happy life.
If you’re experiencing an emotional or psychological crisis and need to talk to someone immediately, text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Here is a list of international resources.