How To Handle Adult Bullying

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated May 11, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

When most people think of bullying, they usually think of children being mean to a peer on the school playground. However, bullying is not necessarily exclusive to childhood. Many adults bully other adults as well. According to one survey, more than one-third of Americans have been bullied as adults. Adult bullies can be described as having narcissistic traits, or they may be impulsive bullies, physical bullies, verbal bullies, or secondary bullies. If you are the target of an adult bully, it can be helpful to maintain confidence and a support system while also reporting the bully to the relevant authorities. Whether you are being bullied, have witnessed bullying, or have acted as a bully yourself, online therapy can be a helpful way to address and resolve any challenges you may be experiencing.

Have you experienced bullying as an adult?

An overview of adult bullying

Adult bullying can be inherently toxic in all forms and environments. Adults who engage in bullying are usually more likely to do so in ways that are not physical. However, there can be cases in which physical abuse and bullying occur. When it comes to adult bullying, the perpetrators tend to fall into specific categories that can include the following:

Adult bully with narcissistic traits

An adult bully with narcissistic tendencies can be self-involved to such a degree that they may ignore the needs of those around them. When a person with narcissistic traits chooses to bully other adults, they may do so because of a lack of empathy or fear of potential consequences. They generally experience self-esteem issues, which can lead to a compulsion to denigrate other people. People who truly love themselves usually do not have to hurt others to feel superior. 

Impulsive adult bully

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

Physical adult bully

Physical adult bullies typically perpetuate bullying that involves physical contact like hitting, kicking, slapping, punching, or otherwise physically assaulting others. They may also stalk, steal from, or destroy the personal property of their targets. Some physical adult bullies may also threaten to harm their target or the people to whom their target is connected. A physical bully may experience challenges with anger management and other potential psychological concerns.

Verbal adult bully 

Verbal adult bullies tend to use their words to belittle people and can be considered passive-aggressive. It can be important not to minimize the impacts of verbal bullying, as words can be very powerful. They can ruin reputations, careers, and self-worth. Some verbal adult bullies may spread rumors, gossip about others, and otherwise use words to hurt their targets. 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 typically no less problematic than a physical one.

Secondary adult bully

Secondary adult bullies can be defined as witnesses to the actions of the bully, and they generally choose to 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 most likely are afraid to speak out against the bully’s behavior. However, secondary adult bullying may not be any less harmful because the perpetrator is acting out of fear. In general, adults who witness bullying should either report the incident or speak up in the moment instead of further hurting the person on the receiving end.


Handling adult bullying as the bully’s target

When 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 usually feed off fear, which can encourage them to proceed with their destructive behavior.

When you are experiencing bullying, try to make sure that you are connected to other people. Bullies generally view isolated individuals as easier targets who may 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 can be crucial. However, reporting the bully is often another pivotal course of action. Contrary to popular belief, simply ignoring a bully does not usually encourage them to stop what they are doing. Adult bullies of all kinds often view being ignored as a sign of weakness, and it may encourage them to keep going. Do not be afraid to speak out and report the person who is bullying you.

Although there may not currently be federal laws against bullying, some forms of bullying can be considered discriminatory harassment or hate crimes. 

Violent acts and sexual abuse or harassment may also constitute crimes. In cases like these and in some other forms, bullies can be prosecuted under the law.

Responding to 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 can be a matter of character and integrity. Even if you do not feel comfortable with confronting the bully, there may be other actions you can take, rather than ignoring it or becoming a secondary adult bully.

Reaching out to the person who was bullied in confidence can be 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 a significant difference, even if it seems minor to you. 

Ultimately, one of the best ways to handle adult bullying as a bystander can be to report the incident. Depending on the situation, you may be able to report it without anyone knowing it was you who did so, but bringing the matter to a higher authority is frequently necessary when adult bullying is happening. Bullies do not usually stop their harmful behavior unless they are forced to do so. 

Handling bullying as the bully

If you happen to be the perpetrator of adult bullying, please note that regardless of what your reasons or motivations may be, targeting someone and mistreating them is usually never an appropriate course of action. What you are doing is likely hurting another human being. If you are bullying someone, the first thing you should generally do may be to immediately stop any harmful behavior.

The compulsion to bully others can be a sign of an unresolved underlying issue or a challenge in your personal life. For this reason, you might consider working with a professional therapist who may help you heal as an individual and effectively address any problems that may be causing you to lash out at others.

Getty/Luis Alvarez
Have you experienced bullying as an adult?

Getting professional help

Whether you’ve found yourself as the target of an adult bully, a witness to adult bullying, or the perpetrator of adult bullying, you may find that in-person or online therapy can be helpful. 

Benefits of online therapy

One of the greatest merits of online therapy may be that you can have a qualified and compassionate professional in your corner, no matter who you are or where you live. In addition, you may find that it’s easier to open up about potentially vulnerable topics like bullying from the comfort of your own home. 

Effectiveness of online therapy

Although there is not currently much information on the efficacy of online therapy for those in adult bullying situations, research suggests that online therapy is generally as effective as in-person therapy. Please don’t hesitate to reach out for the help you deserve.

Counselor reviews

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.


Bullying may not only happen in childhood. It can frequently happen during adulthood as well. Adult bullies tend to fall into several categories: physical bullies, verbal bullies, impulsive bullies, secondary bullies, and bullies with narcissistic traits. If you’ve become an adult bully’s target, it can be crucial to report them to the relevant authorities, as well as to remain confident and connected to your support system. Therapy, whether in person or online, can be a helpful tool for those who have experienced bullying situations.

Is bullying impacting your life?
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