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Can adults be bullied? Yes, and it can be serious.

When most of us think of bullying behavior, we conjure up images of children pushing each other on the playground, or even harassing each other online. However, adult bullying is everywhere, and can be especially harmful because many adults don't consider adults to be bullies.

Adults bully in many of the same ways children do, but with more self awareness. It may be more difficult to spot an adult bully, as they may be a passive aggressive bully, or keep their physical abuse hidden.

Research suggests that an adult bully's actions can typically be traced to their own experiences with trauma or violence in the home in childhood. These bullies often have a low sense of self-worth and use bullying to feel superior to others in an attempt to boost their self esteem.

What's the difference between harassment and bullying?

Types of Adult Bullies

Responding To Bullying As A Bystander

Handling Adult Bullying As The Bully's Target

What are the effects of bullying on mental health?

Benefits Of In-Person or Online Therapy for Adult Bullying Behavior

How to Combat Adult Bullying

What's the difference between harassment and bullying?

Harassment and bullying behaviors look extremely similar, but there are some academic differences as far as the law is concerned. Bullying is defined as a person with power using it to target another person with unwanted words and actions.

This same behavior reaches the level of harassment under the law when the bully's behavior targets someone based on their color, race, religion, sex, age, or disability. Federal laws state that bullying of this type is considered discriminatory harassment under the law, and that federally funded schools are required under federal law to address the behavior.

Types of Adult Bullies

So, granted that adult bullies exist, what constitutes an adult bully? Some tell-tale signs of adult bullies include:

  • Intentionally ignoring boundaries set by another person, do not respect personal space
  • Using personal insults
  • Engaging in online harassment
  • Public shaming
  • Verbal or physical threats

Verbal Adult Bullying

Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Anyone who has heard that old phrase knows that it's not true. Words can be harmful and are a source of trauma for many adults. A verbal bully uses words as a weapon. This can include gossip, starting rumors, telling hurtful jokes, innuendo against others, cruel teasing, direct insults, or even indulging in yelling and threats.

Physical Adult Bullying

A physical adult bully may be direct with their bullying behaviors, initiating violent acts, causing physical harm, or engaging in sexual abuse. But physical bullies can also be more subtle. A physical bully may push themselves into your space and ignore boundaries. They can remain in a place that intimidates you (simply making eye contact and stepping into an elevator in the workplace can be an example of this). Any instance in which a person uses their body to intimidate is a physical bully.

The Adult Cyberbully

The online world has become inundated with bullying behavior over the years. A cyberbully may use trolling tactics, simply spamming a stranger's post with mean-spirited or even frightening rhetoric. They may be a friend or family member who ignores your boundaries, posting unwanted and inflammatory opinions on your social media even after being asked to refrain. In some of the more severe cases, an adult bully may stalk another's personal life online and harass them.

Workplace Bullying

Workplace bullying behavior can be individual or in a group setting. Some people targeted may find that they are standing alone against several other employees who have a targeted campaign of harassment planned. Witnessing workplace bullying can be stressful for bystanders too--often if they speak out, they will find themselves the target of the workplace bully too.

Responding To Bullying As A Bystander

Adult bullies thrive when bystanders say nothing. Adult bullying should be safely confronted whenever possible. If you witness bullying that looks dangerous, stay safe and keep your distance, but report what you see to authorities. Be upfront about communicating consequences, documenting details, and following through with your report.

Handling Adult Bullying As The Bully's Target

Stay calm and remember bullying is their problem. Adult bullying is the result of something broken in them, it has nothing to do with who you are. Remember your worth, value, and human rights. If you are in immediate danger, get away or get help in any way possible.

Don't argue with bullies, be calmly proactive, and talk about the experience to someone who can help. Experiencing bullying in the workplace, your go-to should be human resources to report the incident. If bullying persists, keep a detailed record of the times, places, and/or witnesses.

If anyone makes or threatens to make a physical attack on you, call the police immediately.

What are the effects of bullying on mental health?

Bullying behavior can harm mental health, in many cases leading to mental health issues. Those who are the targets of bullying may have low self-esteem, and difficulty honoring their feelings. Handling bullying as an adult can be complicated, especially if the bully is someone with narcissistic traits who is accomplished at hiding their behaviors.

Seek Professional Help for Adult Bullying

If you have been the target of adult bullying, a mental health therapist can help you manage the harmful effects. People who have had to deal with adult bullying may find that they have self-esteem issues, or they may find themselves experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety.

Benefits Of In-Person or Online Therapy for Adult Bullying Behavior

Adult bullies also deal with poor self-worth, trauma, and challenges to their mental health and well-being. Peer-reviewed studies show that it's fairly common for those who bully to have bullied themselves at some point.

This isn't to excuse the behavior of bullies but to share that there is emotional support and change available for you if you suspect that you may be someone who uses verbal bullying or engages in passive-aggressive behavior to dominate others. A licensed therapist using in-person or online therapy sessions can help change negative patterns of thought and behavior and help you build healthier relationships with others.

How to Combat Adult Bullying

One of the best ways to deal with adult bullying is to shine a light on it. The 3 "R"s of bullying behavior are:

Recognize. Understand what a bully looks like and what the warning signs of bullying are.

Respond. If you see bullying, respond to the victim with offers of help and support. Respond to the individual doing the bullying--be assertive and call out their behavior in front of others. Bullying often continues because no one says anything.

Report. Don't let bullying slide. Report it when you see someone being harassed by a bully.

While people who engage in bullying may also need help, this behavior should not be allowed to continue. Reporting bullies shows them (as well as their victims and onlookers) that bullying is not okay. It may be a wake-up call to get the victim and the bully the help they deserve through therapy with a licensed Austin therapist.

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