bullying, depression, disorders cause pain for students – how can we help them deal?

By Betty Hoeffner

In classrooms throughout America, adolescents and teens experience painful things — whether it be anxiety, depression, disorders or being bullied. Some come from homes where a cycle of domestic abuse exists and suffering is the norm. Others experience stress, bullying or pressure at school during the day. No matter the cause, though, many of these students are dealing with their pain and suffering improperly.

It isn’t uncommon for these students to numb their emotional pain with binge drinking, drug use or other destructive behaviors. And it’s no secret that many of these behaviors can lead to these young people losing their lives.

Why Are Teens Hurting?

Teen self-worth depends on the approval of others, and their desire for social acceptance can drive them to engage in destructive behaviors, even if they know these behaviors are harmful. A recent study by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America showed that 73 percent of teens report the number one reason for using drugs is to deal with the pressures and stress at school.

A 2007 Partnership Attitude Tracking study from the Partnership also reported 65 percent of teens say they use drugs to “feel cool.” The same study found that 65 percent of teens use drugs to “feel better about themselves.” This shows that not only are teens using drugs to feel cool to others, but they’re also using drugs to feel good about themselves.

When adolescents are bullied, they too experience lower self-worth and emotional problems such as depression. A 2010 National Institute of Health study reports that more than a fifth of U.S. adolescents in school had been physically bullied at least once in the past two months. Additionally, 53.6 percent had been verbally bullied, and 51.4 percent felt socially bullied. Electronic, or cyberbullying, on computers, smartphones and other digital devices can lead to even higher levels of depression than traditional face to face forms of aggression. And bullies feel depressed, too. Bullying is associated with other problems, such as substance abuse, obesity, racism and youth suicide.

How Should Teens Learn to Heal?

Clearly, the statistics point to an issue — adolescents today are feeling pain and making harmful choices to try and fix that pain. A solution had to be created.

Based on these staggering statistics and my own personal experience, I started a program called, Deal, Feel & Heal. The program gently guides youth in peer-to-peer learning settings and by using emotional learning methodologies to help them discover that resorting to drugs and alcohol because of bullying, and other forms of hurtful behavior, is not a road they, or their friends, should consider. My second objective was to influence any students who may be using drugs or alcohol to stop this destructive habit.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime studied the use of peer-to-peer strategies in reducing and preventing drug abuse. The technique is found to work because those who fall on the same peer group feel more comfortable communicating with each other. Clear communication lines mean that there is more room for understanding and learning.

Research conducted by Roger Weissberg, professor of psychology at the University of Illinois Chicago, in the American Journal of Psychology*, found that students who enrolled in social and emotional learning empathy teaching programs scored at least 10 percentage points higher on achievement test than peers who weren’t. This research, which was conducted through 300 scientific studies, also found that discipline problems were cut in half.

According to Weissberg, “Some teachers may be skeptical [about social and emotional learning] at first, but they are won over when their students learn more, are more engaged and better problem solvers.”

An insight from young people

As part of my program’s development, I worked with four groups of students in Indiana and Texas. These groups were made up of 20 high school students, 20 middle school students and 13 elementary school students, and we spent three, one-hour activity sessions together. Participating students were informed that their wisdom was going to be shared in a book and curriculum I was writing called “Deal Feel Heal.” They were excited to know their insights would be helping youth all over the world. Gaining their insights makes it possible for educators, adults, guardians and leaders to understand what exactly is impacting young lives today.

Following are what the youth said about the pain they felt:

What Hurts Us?

  • Abuse (verbal and physical), abusers (parents, teachers, friends and enemies), and drug abuse
  • Disabilities and mental disorders
  • Bullying and friendship problems, such as peer pressure or gossip
  • Family troubles
  • Diseases
  • Doubt
  • Failing
  • Global warming
  • Hazing
  • Hunger
  • Insecurity
  • Violence, including sexual violence
  • Racism
  • Stress
  • Suicidal thoughts

How Do We Handle Hurt? 

When teenagers and adolescents incorrectly deal with pain, they can beat themselves up about what they’re going through, block out their feelings or direct their pain toward others through bullying. Additionally, young people dealing with negative emotions might commit crimes, turn to substance abuse, develop disorders or experience depression or anxiety.

As an adult, you might notice adolescents in your life go through the aforementioned situations. They may push those away who try to help. Ignoring their pain is just as harmful as dealing with it in the wrong way, such as through extreme behaviors.

Why Do We Ignore or Stuff Away Pain?

  • We don’t know how to handle emotional pain.
  • It’s scary to tell parents because of the consequences.
  • Admitting to suffering can end in violence or more anger from those who inflict the pain.
  • Ignoring is better than whining.
  • Parents tell us to just suck it up.
  • It’s embarrassing to admit, and we want to appear strong.

What Are the Dangerous Outcomes of Stuffing Our Feelings?

Young people answered that the outcomes of suffering were harmful behaviors such as drinking while driving, self-harm (like cutting themselves), drug use, hoarding and suicide. Other outcomes, although extreme and some physical, can include: obesity, baldness, hallucinations, high blood pressure, violence toward others and mental disorders.

How Can We Deal with Pain?

  • Attend bullying prevention seminars
  • Avoid the source of pain, like a bully
  • Cry — letting emotions out is good!
  • Exercise
  • Find a safe place to retreat
  • Find supportive and accepting friends
  • Work to forgive others
  • Have a readily available mentor help you
  • Journal your thoughts or meditate
  • Tell a trusted adult, like a parent.
  • Find a hobby and practice it, such as playing an instrument.

What Can You Do if a Teen is Hurting?

If a young person in your life is hurting or even considering suicide, you should step in and help — always. Tell a trusted adult, or call a suicide hotline. It’s also a great idea to help him or her find a counselor or therapist to talk to. Praying, attending church or finding a religious guide can also help your friend in a tough time. The best thing you can do is be there for your friend or young person and help them navigate through this time in a healthy way that does not involve harming himself or others.

To learn more about dealing, feeling and healing emotions, check out my book at The accompanying curriculum will be released in September 2016.

*Source: American Journal of Psychology, Vol. 58, No.6/7 2003, pages 466-474.


Betty Hoeffner is the founder of Prevent Bullying Now and the co-founder/President of Hey U.G.L.Y. – Unique Gifted Lovable You, the international nonprofit organization that empowers youth to be part of the solution to bullying, substance abuse and suicide. Hoeffner is the author of the Stop Bullying Handbook – A Guide for Students And Their Friends; Hue-Man Being – A Book To End Racism; and DEAL FEEL HEAL – Keys to Understanding and Healing Emotional Pain. Hoeffner and the Hey U.G.L.Y. organization have been an instrumental partner in informing Impero Education Pro’s internet safety keyword libraries, helping to update them for US audiences.