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Recognizing Adult Bullying and Why It’s Ok To Speak Up

by | Oct 14, 2022 | Infographic, Mental Health

Forward, Together with western tidewater community services board

When we think of bullying, we think of children stealing lunch money, or teenagers attacking each other physically or emotionally. We don’t usually think of adults – at work, at home, at social events, going about in their day-to-day lives – as bullies. But the truth is that adult bullying is very much a real thing. A survey conducted by Harris Poll found that 31% of Americans have been bullied as an adult. The survey defined bullying as being subjected to repeated, negative behavior intended to harm or intimidate.

How is Adult Bullying Different from Childhood Bullying?

Bullying isn’t just happening in schools, it’s also happening in adult friendships and romantic relationships, between parents and their adult children, on social media, and in the workplace. It can take the form of insults, public shaming, gossip, threats, constant criticism, ridiculing jokes, and more. Anytime someone makes you feel oppressed, belittled, threatened, or humiliated, it can be considered bullying.

How is Adult Bullying Different from Harassment?

According to Valerie Cade, workplace bullying expert, author and founder of the website, bullying and harassment are closely related, but there are some key differences:

  • Workplace harassment is intrusive, often involving physical contact such as invading physical space, including personal possessions and damage to possessions
  • Workplace bullying is almost always psychological
  • Workplace harassment is usually linked to protected status issues such as sex, race, prejudice or discrimination. Harassment based on these statuses is against federal law
  • Just about everyone can recognize workplace harassment because of its overt nature
  • Few can see workplace bullying because it is usually done behind closed doors
    A target of workplace harassment knows they’re being harassed immediately
  • A target of workplace bullying may not realize it for weeks or months
  • Workplace harassment is usually accompanied by offensive aggressive vocabulary
  • Workplace bullying often shows its face through trivial untrue criticisms of under-performance

Why Some Adults Become Bullies

Research from Duke University found that adults who bully often have had troubled childhoods and may be victims of abuse or bullying themselves. Another theory behind adult bullies is that, when under stress, adults regress to childhood behaviors. If the individual was prone to bullying as a child, they may once again participate in these types of behaviors

Why It’s So Much Harder to Talk About Adult Bullying

Bullying often goes unrecognized, especially when it’s happening between adults, because many people aren’t even aware that they’re being victimized, or they may be too afraid to speak up, out of fear that there will be consequences (especially in the workplace) or out of shame. 

What to Do If You’re the Victim of Adult Bullying

Get Away, If You Can

Determining how you should address the bullying depends on who the bully is, how often you see them, and how severe the bullying is. If you feel that a family member that you have to see every now and then is a bully, then avoiding them as much as possible might be the best option, but if your bully is a colleague who you see often, you can try getting your desk moved to another area, or restrict your interactions with them as much as possible. Overall, it depends on how harmful the bullying is to you.

Speak Up

You can also take a more direct approach. During an interaction with a bully, make eye contact. This can be very helpful in eliminating or slowing down the behavior as bullies have been shown to have less empathy when they can’t see someone’s face or eyes. Then, using calm and assertive language, explain why the behavior is unacceptable, and make your boundaries clear to the bully. If you need more support, it’s ok to reach out to colleagues or a supervisor. 

Document Everything

Document every bullying interaction that happens. Write down exactly what happened, including exact quotes, if possible. Write down the names of any witnesses and, if you feel comfortable doing so, ask them to document what they saw or heard. Make sure to note the date, time, location and any circumstances that led to the bullying. You may need this information in the future to file a complaint (if this is happening at work or within some other organization) or a police report if the bullying gets physical. 

If this is a workplace bully, be sure to check your company’s anti-harassment policies. Some of the interactions may count as harassment, and the policies (or your HR team) can tell you more about harassment, and how to report it. If there is any hard evidence of bullying, like emails or text messages, save them, too.

What to Do If You See Adult Bullying

If you see bullying at work or in another environment, you can help by:

  • Redirecting the conversation
  • Questioning the behavior of the bully
  • Checking in privately with the person being bullied to let them know you are aware of the situation and are on their side
  • In the future, spending time with or walking with the person being bullied, if possible, to prevent future potential situations

No matter how old we get, bullies don’t go anywhere. Children who use bullying others as a coping mechanism grow up, and, if they do not address their issues, then they simply become adults who use bullying as a coping mechanism. It’s important to remember that it’s not personal! Being the target of a bully has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with them.

A Community of Hope and Caring

If you’ve been the target of an adult bully or have engaged in bullying behavior yourself, we can help. Western Tidewater Community Services Board is the single point-of-entry for mental health services for Franklin and Suffolk and the Counties of Isle of Wight and Southampton. Our mental health counseling for adults program can help you work through issues like depression and low mood, anxiety and stress, problems at work, home or school, low confidence, and more.

Get started today.

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