Adults Get Bullied, Too. Here’s How to Stop It

Their goal is to get under your skin. Here’s how to regain your confidence and stop the abuse in its tracks.

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When you hear the word “bully,” the first thing that probably comes to mind is childhood bullying. But the reality is, adults also experience bullying. Most everyone will encounter an adult bully at some point in their lives, but that doesn’t make the experience any more pleasant.

An adult bully can be a controlling partner, an intimidating boss, a rowdy neighbor, an aggressive parent at soccer practice, a pushy salesperson or any other type of adult figure that is hurtful. Childhood bullies often grow up and continue their negative behavior, but a need for power and domination can also fuel adult bullies.

If adult bullying persists, it can affect your stress levels, self-esteem, productivity and your overall wellbeing. But handling an adult bully can be confusing. Should you confront them? Are you supposed to report them? Here are the answers.

Bullying is not just physical or verbal

Simply put, bullying, according to the American Psychological Association, can be defined as a type of aggressive behavior in which a person intentionally and repeatedly causes another person harm or discomfort.

Unfortunately, adult bullying happens everywhere—it happens standing around watching your child play on the playground, it occurs in the middle of a meeting at work and it’s forever embedded on Facebook walls. And bullying comes in many forms—it’s not just verbal and physical.

When bullying is repeated over and over again, it’s considered a form of mental, physical or emotional abuse. Here are the various types of bullying and examples of each:

  • Physical: date rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, personal space violation or any type of violence like throwing, hitting, slapping or burning.
  • Material: using power or material goods to bully another. This is meant to intimidate and threaten, harass or harm the other person.
  • Verbal: threats, shaming, teasing, insults, criticism or racist, sexist or homophobic language.
  • Passive aggressive: gossip, negative teasing, facial expressions, sarcasm, causing embarrassment, damaging someone else’s health, happiness or livelihood.
  • Cyber: negative, aggressive behavior via social media, texts, emails or online forums.

No matter what the form, you shouldn’t put up with this type of abuse, says psychiatrist Christina Lynn, MD, Medical Director of the Behavioral Health Unit at Grand Strand Medical Center in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. You have control over how you handle the situation, and there are many things you can do to prevent and stop adult bullying for good.

7 ways to regain your confidence and handle adult bullies

Whether the bully is at work, at your child’s school or your cashier at the grocery store, it may seem intimidating to reach out for help or to confront the bully yourself. Here are some basic guidelines:

Make sure you’re safe: Although you may want to confront an adult bully, don’t disregard your personal safety. Things can happen and above all, you’ll want to make sure you’re safe. If you’re in immediate danger, call 911. If you’re at work and able to contact your Human Resources department, do that as well.

Acknowledge the reality: Lynn says that besides making sure you’re safe, the first thing you’ll want to do is acknowledge that you’re being bullied. “If you’re aware of your feelings, you’ll start to notice patterns and you’ll recognize how often you’re being bullied.”

Don’t make excuses for bullies either—a bad day, a rough meeting, a problem at home—there is no excuse for repeated bullying.

Once you’ve accepted that you’re being bullied, it will be easier to handle the situation and seek help.

Stay calm: If you do choose to confront the bully directly (only do so if you feel safe), remember that being aggressive will only fuel their fire. Try to stay calm and collected when discussing the situation with them. Their goal is to get under your skin, and if you react to their snarky comments or gestures, they’ve achieved what they want.

Bullies want you to get worked up over their comments and rude gestures. “A bully wins when you get emotional,” says Lynn. “They get you to feel angry, lonely or left out and then they use that emotion against you.” The calmer you are, the more agitated they’ll become and the less likely they are to continue with the bullying.

Instead, maintain your composure and use confident, direct phrases. For example, if an adult calls you by a degrading nickname, you can say: “I’m not on board with that—please use my real name.” Or if you overhear a colleague or friend being bullied, you can say: “Please stop messing with him or I’m going to HR.”

Responding in this way shows them that there is no incentive for provoking you or someone else, and it may even encourage them to stop.

Talk to someone about it: Talking to a friend, colleague or family member about the situation may help you feel better, especially if they’ve been bullied, too. “If you notice another colleague is having the same issues, talk to them,” says Lynn. You can discuss your feelings, plus how you’re going to handle the situation.

Get it in writing: “Make sure you have proof of what’s going on and that you keep good records,” says Lynn. Whenever you experience a bullying incident, write it down and when you do, write out as many details as possible.

This will ensure you have the proper documentation and information you need to accurately discuss what happened with your human resources department, legal authority or the bully themselves.

Know your rights: Lynn says that you should also know you have the right to your own opinion. “You have the right to say no and that you don’t agree when you are put in uncomfortable situations.” Make sure you’re safe above all else, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with assertive communication as long as you’re not bringing harm to others, she adds.

“Expressing your ideas and opinions doesn’t mean you’re attacking them or trying to tell them how bad they are. You’re just voicing your opinion about whatever is going on.”

For situations where actual threats are involved, approaching or confronting the bully may not be the best option. “Sometimes you have to make a decision that it’s not worth fighting for or confronting them about. Your safety is the most important thing.” If you do feel safe, it’s okay to tell them how you feel.

Know that you’re not going to change a bully: No matter what the situation, always know that you’re not going to change a person, says Lynn. Even if you express your opinion, you’re not doing so to change theirs. An adult bully will have to acknowledge what they’re doing, then get help on their own.

Bullying is a form of abuse and unless you are reciprocating the bullying, it’s never your fault. Reaching out for support can help you break free from the negativity, but it may also encourage the bully to work through their problems, too.

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