Defining Adult Bullying And How To Manage It

Updated May 19, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

When most people think of bullying, they think of children being mean to a child in class or on the school playground. There is no denying that numerous children are exposed to bullying behavior, even at very young ages. However, bullying is not exclusive to childhood. Many adults bully other adults. In fact, there are just as many adults who are exposed to bullies in their age range as children in school. According to a survey done on behalf of the American Osteopathic Association, more than one-third of Americans have been bullied as an adult. In recent years, adult bullying has received greater amounts of attention from the mainstream media. In this article you will learn about the nature of adult bullying behaviors and how to deal with bullies and how to handle it if you are subjected to this behavior. 

Are You Living With Being Bullied As An Adult?

Reviewing Adult Bullying

Adult bullying is inherently toxic and insidious in all environments and any forms. Understanding the categories of adult bullies and how they operate is imperative to comprehending underlying reasons and other factors. Adults who engage in bullying are more likely to do so in ways that are not physical. However, there are cases where physical abuse and bullying happens. Typically, in the world of adult bullying, the perpetrators fall into certain categories:

Narcissistic Adult Bully 

Narcissists are self-involved to a such a degree that they ignore the needs of those around them. When a narcissist chooses to bully other adults, they do so because they lack empathy or fear of adverse repercussions. They generally struggle with self-esteem issues, hence their compulsion to denigrate other people. People who truly love themselves do not have to tear others down to feel superior. Narcissists will try to prove how firm they are although their mistreatment of others speaks volumes every time.

Impulsive Adult Bully

This type of adult bully tends to engage in sporadic and uncontrolled bullying. Sometimes this manner of bullying occurs when the perpetrator is under stress or going through a rough time. While impulsive bullying is not typically planned or premeditated, this does not excuse it. Going through challenges in life does not entitle anyone to lash out at others or engage in bullying. The actions of impulsive adult bullies are just as dangerous as other adult bullies who fall into other categories.

Physical Adult Bully

As the name suggests, physical adult bullies perpetuate bullying that involves physical actions and contact. Physical bullies often hit, slap, punch, kick, or otherwise assault people. They may also engage in stalking, stealing, or destroying one’s personal property. Numerous physical adult bullies also threaten to harm their target or the people who their target may be connected to, and these threats may include simulating violence. A physical bully may experience anger issues or other types of serious psychological issues.

Verbal Adult Bully 

These adult bullies tend to use their words to belittle people and can be considered passive-aggressive. It is important not to minimize the impacts of verbal bullying simply because these impacts are not tangible. Words used to cause harm are very powerful. They can ruin reputations, careers, inner self-worth, and can be a form of abuse. A notable amount of verbal adult bullies spread rumors, gossip about others behind their backs, and otherwise use words to be mean and hurtful. This type of passive-aggressive bully may fling personal insults, engage in cruel teasing, offer constant criticism, and even attack others by way of public shaming. A verbal bully is no less problematic than a physical one.

Secondary Adult Bully

Secondary adult bullies are witnesses to the actions of the bully and generally join in so they will not become the bully's next target. Many secondary adult bullies do not harbor true malice toward the person they are bullying. They are most likely are afraid to speak out against the bully’s behavior. It is important to understand that secondary adult bullying is not any less harmful simply because this perpetrator is acting out of fear. Adults who witness bullying should either speak up or report the incident instead of further hurting the person on the receiving end.


Handling Bullying When You Are The One Being Bullied

Whenever you find yourself on the receiving end of adult bullying, it can be challenging and upsetting. However, knowing ways to successfully handle bullying behavior can help you learn, grow, and experience higher levels of confidence. When you find yourself in this situation, one of the most important things of all is not to show the bully you are afraid. This can be challenging, depending on what type of bully you are dealing with, but bullies feed off fear. It encourages them to proceed with their bad behavior.

When you are experiencing bullying, make sure that you are connected to other people. Bullies generally view isolated individuals as easier targets who will have less of a support system to confront them. Having people in your corner, rather than maintaining your personal space and handling the bully on your own, can help you feel less alone and ensure that others are aware of your situation.

Confidence and a support system are important. However, reporting the bully is another pivotal course of action. Contrary to popular belief, simply ignoring a bully does not usually encourage them to stop what they are doing. As a matter of fact, adult bullies of all types of often view being ignored as a sign of weakness, and it encourages them to keep going. Do not be afraid to speak out and report the person who is bullying you.

The following content contains material that may be triggering for those who have been subjected to abuse. 

Although there are currently no federal laws against bullying, some forms of bullying are considered discriminatory harassment and even hate crimes. Violent acts and sexual abuse or harassment also constitute crime. In cases like these and in some other forms, bullies can be prosecuted under the law.

If you have been subjected to physical or sexual abuse of any kind, contact 911 or another authority immediately. Help is available 24/7 at 1-800-799-SAFE.

Handling Bullying As A Bystander

If you happen to be a bystander of adult bullying, it can put you in a very difficult position. Depending on whether you know the bully, the individual being bullied, or both, you may worry about the potential repercussions of any course of action. How you handle the bullying as a bystander is a matter of character and integrity. Even if you do not feel comfortable with confronting the bully, there are other actions that you can take other than ignoring it or becoming a secondary adult bully.

Reaching out to the person who was bullied in confidence is one way of making a positive impact. Many people experiencing bullying feel alone or otherwise alienated from others who could support them when they need it most. Letting that person know that they are not alone can make such a significant difference even if it seems minor to you. You never know the difference that support or encouragement can make in someone's life.

Ultimately, one of the best ways to handle adult bullying as a bystander is to report the incident. Depending on the situation, you may be able to report it without letting yourself known but bringing the matter to a higher authority is certainly necessary when adult bullying is happening. Bullies do not usually stop their flagrantly bad behavior unless they are forced to do so. Reporting the situation will make you feel better as a person. It will also help the life of the person who is being subjected to adult bullying.

Handling Bullying If You Are The Bully

If you happen to be the perpetrator of adult bullying, It is critical for you to know that what you are doing is wrong. Regardless of what your reasons or motivations may be, targeting someone and mistreating them is never an appropriate course of action. What you are doing is hurting another human being. If you are bullying someone, the first thing you should do is immediately stop what you are doing.

The compulsion to bully others is very troubling and disturbing. This could be a sign of an unresolved, underlying issue or a problem that is happening in your personal life. Regardless of the problem, becoming an adult bully is inacceptable. For this reason, you might consider working with a professional therapist. A mental health therapist can truly help you heal as an individual and deal with the problems that may be causing you to lash out at others.

Getty/Luis Alvarez
Are You Living With Being Bullied As An Adult?

Online Therapy With BetterHelp

Whether you are dealing with adult bullying or some other challenges in life, you may find that signing up for online therapy can help. One of the greatest merits of online therapy is that you can have a qualified and compassionate professional in your corner no matter who you are or where you live.

You may want to know a little more about online therapy before taking the next step. If so, many news outlets have written about the benefits and potential drawbacks of online therapy. The New York Times is one of them. In one of their recent articles, they summed up some of the top research that has been done regarding whether online therapy is as effective as traditional therapy. Research seems to indicate that common types of talk therapy are just as effective online when treating mental disorders (such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression).

Online therapy has other benefits to consider. If you are someone who is unable or worried about in-person therapy, online therapy alleviates these concerns. You can contact your counselor from a place of comfort if you have a safe, reliable internet connection. Another advantage of online therapy is that it's often more affordable than traditional therapy. Furthermore, our platform offers a range of bullying quotes that can provide guidance and hope for those seeking support in overcoming the negative effects of this behavior.

Here are some reviews by recent BetterHelp users about their counselors:

“She is an amazing counselor. She has helped me process a lot of things which came up this year including working through a toxic work environment. I would recommend her to anyone.” Read more on Alisha Cooper.

“Kristin Scott-Groves is helping me to reconnect with myself in a way I would have never felt possible after many years in a toxic relationship. Her thoughtful comments and questions have really challenged me, and her suggestions for dealing with my anxiety have been simple and easy to incorporate into my daily life. I'm starting to feel more joyful and in charge of my own feelings again!” Read more on Kristin Scott-Graves.

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