Understanding Bullying And Its Causes

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox, NCC, LPC
Updated May 13, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Bullying is defined by the American Psychological Association as “a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort”. Although most people associate bullying with childhood, it can happen to anyone at any age. It can also take many forms, from verbal harassment to physical abuse and more. Bullying isn’t confined to the playground, either. Individuals can experience bullying online, in the office, at home, and elsewhere. Read on to understand more about the reasons why people may engage in this type of harmful behavior and what to do if you are or have been affected by it.

Bullying can cause pain for all involved

Types of bullying

Bullying can take various forms and may be classified in different ways depending on how and where it’s perpetrated. Some of the most common types are outlined below.

Physical bullying

This type of bullying is the one that comes to mind first for many people, perhaps because it’s the type most commonly portrayed in media. Forms of physical bullying can include pinching, hitting, shoving, and other aggressive behaviors designed to physically intimidate and/or harm a person. It can be perpetrated by an individual or a group and can cause potentially serious physical harm as well as mental/emotional distress.

Verbal bullying

Although this type doesn’t involve direct physical harm, it can still be highly damaging to the individual on the receiving end. Verbal bullying can include threats or blackmail, stealing or damaging property for spite, playing unwanted and/or cruel tricks or pranks, and saying or writing insults or hateful remarks directed at one individual, which may include racist, homophobic, ableist, or similar language.


Cyberbullying is when bullying behavior is conducted through electronic means, such as phones or computers. It may take place via text, email, social media, or other online platforms or systems. This type of bullying can be public or a mixture of both, but is almost always intentional and repeated. For example, cyber bullies may spread rumors about an individual online, post embarrassing pictures of them without permission, and send threatening or otherwise aggressive texts, emails, or instant messages.

Relational/social bullying

The behavior of social bullies is intended to impact an individual’s relationships and/or social standing. They may spread rumors about the target or embarrass them in front of peers. They may also ignore the individual and encourage others to do the same in an effort to isolate and alienate them. It’s not uncommon for a social bully to recruit or otherwise involve others in ganging up against the target. This behavior can be seen across a variety of settings, from high schools to workplaces, and it can be more difficult to detect than other forms since much of it often occurs covertly.

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Common causes of bullying behavior

Bullying behavior is always unacceptable, but it’s still a widespread problem across countries, cultures, and age groups.

There are many different reasons an individual may engage in bullying behavior—and while these are not excuses, understanding them may help communities work toward solving this problem. Some of the common causes of bullying behavior are below. 

  • An attempt to improve social standing: Some people might bully others in an attempt to elevate or preserve their own social status. They may feel that demonstrating that they have power over other people makes them look better within their group and defends or improves their place within it. 
  • Lack of skills for emotional control: A person who bullies others may lash out because they don’t have the tools or knowledge to control their own difficult emotions. If they’re experiencing stress or sadness, for example, they may express these feelings in the form of aggression toward others.
  • Troubled personal relationships: An individual who feels lonely could act out to get social attention, even if it’s not positive. A child or adolescent who is neglected or even bullied at home may act out toward others as a result of that hurt.
  • A lack of social skills and/or empathy: Some people may lack the social skills to interact with others in a healthy way. They may not realize that their behavior is harmful to others, or they may not have the skills to get social attention in a more positive manner. They may also have trouble empathizing with others and putting themselves in their shoes.
  • A mental health condition: In some cases, a mental health condition or challenge may be contributing to an individual’s demonstration of bullying behavior. For example, trouble with impulse control—which may result in bullying behavior in some cases—can be a sign of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or even a personality disorder like borderline personality disorder. Getting treatment for these conditions may help an individual learn to better control problematic behaviors like bullying.

Psychological impacts of being bullied

The mental health consequences on a bullied individual are often lasting and can be devastating. Bullying can cause immediate feelings of isolation, rejection, and exclusion. Low self-esteem, problems with trusting others, and anger issues are common effects of being bullied as well. One study also suggests that those who have experienced bullying are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as substance use and unprotected sex. If a person is experiencing physical bullying, they could also sustain physical injuries.

Other research indicates that experiencing bullying can increase the risk of “physical health problems, behavior and emotional problems, psychotic symptoms, and poor school achievement,” and that it’s also associated with an increased risk of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts. It can also contribute to the development of a variety of mental health conditions, from depression and anxiety to panic disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Psychological impacts of engaging in bullying

People who engage in bullying behavior are also more likely to experience mental health challenges, both as a cause and effect of bullying others. Research suggests that those identified as bullies are more than twice as likely to experience depression, anxiety, and ADHD. They were also six times more likely to be diagnosed with oppositional defiant disorder, which is characterized by consistent patterns of aggression, irritability, hostility, and argumentative/defiant behavior.

Bullying can cause pain for all involved

What to do about bullying

If you or someone you know is being bullied, seeking the support of an authority figure is often a recommended course of action. If it’s taking place at school, involving teachers or administrators can help. If it’s happening in the workplace, managers or the HR department can be notified. Authority figures like these may be able to take the appropriate action to put a stop to the behavior and signal to others that it’s not acceptable. 

If you’re experiencing emotional or mental health challenges as a result of having been bullied, seeking therapy and/or a support group can help you on the road to healing. If you find yourself engaging in bullying behaviors, therapy may also be helpful in getting to the root of them so you can change the way you interact with others for the better.

Seeking the support of a therapist

Again, a qualified therapist can offer nonjudgmental support for any person involved in bullying behavior, whether they’re enacting it, experiencing it, or have a loved one who is enacting or experiencing it. If you’re having trouble locating a provider in your area or traveling to in-person appointments, you might consider online therapy as a more convenient, flexible alternative. With a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can meet with a licensed therapist via phone, video call, and/or online chat from the comfort of home or anywhere you have an internet connection. Research suggests that internet-based therapy can represent “a viable alternative” to in-person sessions in many cases, so you can typically choose the format that works best for you.


The reasons a child, adolescent, or adult may engage in bullying behavior toward others can vary widely, from a lack of empathy to a mental health condition. Regardless of the cause, this type of behavior is serious and can be damaging. If you’re having trouble coping with the effects of bullying behavior in any form, seeking the support of a therapist may be useful.
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