Are You Being Bullied as an Adult?

Bullying is not just for the playgrounds. A survey of more than 2,000 people in the United States found almost a third of them had been bullied as adults. (And those were just the people who recognized and acknowledged they were being bullied.) The bullying significantly impacted their lives, causing stress, anxiety, depression, sleep loss and more.

October is National Bullying Prevention Month, which aims to raise awareness about bullying. In the spirit of the month, here are some common types of adult bullies — as well as expert tips on how to combat bullying.

Who are adult bullies?

A boss yells at an employee.

Bullies come in many forms. They can be colleagues, bosses, partners, friends, family or total strangers. “Bullying can take the form of physical contact, words or more subtle actions,” according to the American Psychological Association. And sometimes you might not even realize the actions qualify as bullying.

Here are five common types of adult bullies, according to Psychology Today.

Physical bullies

Physical bullying “refers to the use of physical intimidation, threat, harassment and/or harm,” according to Psychology Today. It includes physical violence, simulated violence (such as raising a fist), sexual harassment and rape. It also can be personal space violations and intimidation using size or numbers (i.e., a group ganging up on a victim).

Verbal bullies

Verbal bullies use threats, teasing, insults or shame to target someone. It can involve racist, sexist or homophobic language, as well. The words might be overt verbal punches, or they could be a barrage of subtle comments. Regardless, this mental cruelty can leave lasting wounds.

Controlling bullies

Controlling bullies have some sort of power or leverage over their victims that they use to their advantage. They might threaten, intimidate, harass or harm to get what they want. An example is a boss threatening to fire an employee if the employee doesn’t agree to their unreasonable demands.

Passive-aggressive bullies

We might not always realize some passive-aggressive behavior is in fact bullying, but these adult bullies are all around us. “A passive-aggressive or covert bully … behaves appropriately on the surface, but takes you down with subtlety,” according to Psychology Today. Examples include gossip or joking at someone’s expense. Even more subtle approaches are using the silent treatment or excluding someone from social or professional circles.


These days, it’s nearly impossible to go online without seeing some sort of cyberbullying. Cyberbullies employ many bullying tactics in their online abuse — threats of violence, verbal abuse, harassment, passive-aggressive comments, etc. They range from anonymous commenters to even close friends and family. According to Psychology Today, identity theft is also a form of cyberbullying.

How to handle a bully

A woman tells a person to stop.

The response to bullying can vary greatly, depending on the situation. Some people might have to involve law enforcement, while others might simply need to give their bully a firm “stop.”

Although these might not work for every circumstance, Psychology Today offers some tips to combat adult bullies.

Stay safe

This is your first priority in dealing with any bully. “If you don’t feel comfortable with a situation, leave,” Psychology Today says. “Seek help and support if necessary.” Contact law enforcement, a crisis hotline, friends, family and whomever else you need to help you handle the bully. You should never feel like you’re unimportant or alone.

Keep your cool

It’s easy to be impulsive when a bully confronts you. And sometimes that’s exactly what the bully wants — to get a rise out of you. In some cases, it’s best to keep your distance entirely. But if you do choose to engage your bully, maintain a level head. “Some bullying scenarios may require a strong and assertive response, while others may be handled simply with you being unimpressed,” according to Psychology Today. Remember, cooler heads prevail.

Know your rights — and your worth

Your fundamental human rights protect you against abuse, exploitation and fraud, according to Psychology Today. And you have the right to stand up for yourself, as long as you don’t harm others. Some fundamental rights include being treated with respect, expressing feelings and opinions, saying no without guilt, getting what you pay for, protecting yourself from threats and creating your own happiness. “You have the power and moral authority to declare that it is you, not the bully, who’s in charge of your life,” Psychology Today says. Never let a bully make you forget about these rights.

Engage assertively

If you must engage with a bully, do so assertively. It’s also best to set consequences for your bully if they won’t back down. “When effectively articulated, strong and reasonable consequence(s) gives pause to the adult bully, and compels him or her to shift from violation to respect,” according to Psychology Today. Plus, it’s also ideal to stop a bullying problem as soon as possible, so damaging patterns don’t form. “Whenever possible, formalize your daily communication with the bully by either putting things in writing, or having a third party present as witness,” Psychology Today recommends.

Share your experience

It’s completely up to you whether you want to share your experience as a bullying victim. But it often can be helpful to open up. “Being a quiet victim is not only mentally and emotionally unhealthy, it can encourage the bully to repeat and intensify their aggressive behavior,” Psychology Today says. Find whatever support you need to help you overcome the experience.

How to help someone who’s being bullied

Two women have a serious conversation sitting on a couch.

It’s difficult enough to confront your own bully. But sometimes it’s even harder to watch someone else being bullied and not know what to do. Fortunately, antibullying organization Ditch the Label offers some advice on how to respond when someone you know is bullied.

Believe them

If someone confides in you about a bully, believe the situation is causing them considerable stress. Don’t be dismissive or suggest they simply “ignore it.” “Ignoring the bullying unsurprisingly doesn’t actually work and saying something like this might stop them from sharing anything else in the future,” according to Ditch the Label. Instead, be compassionate, and show you’re taking them seriously.

Talk about it

If the person wants to talk, be a good listener. Ask about what’s been happening, and allow them to share as much as they want. “This question gives the person the opportunity to talk honestly and openly if they wish to get what’s bothering them off of their chest,” Ditch the Label says.

Don’t make excuses

Never tell the person they’re being too sensitive or overreacting about the situation. “It implies it is their reaction to the bullying that is the problem,” according to Ditch the Label. Instead, let them know it’s OK for them to feel the way they do.

Don’t give unsolicited advice

Some of the worst advice you can give is telling the person “just stand up for yourself” or “just avoid them,” Ditch the Label says. That doesn’t give the person anything concrete to handle their particular bully — and it could make the situation a lot worse. So instead of giving generic, unsolicited advice, tell the person you’re there for them. Ask how they want to proceed, and help them work toward a resolution.

Offer resources

Nobody should ever have to suffer a bully alone. If someone confides in you — or if you notice someone being bullied — assist them however you can. Encourage them to get the support they need to improve their situation. Depending on the circumstances, you may offer to mediate a discussion between the person and their bully. Or assist the person in finding resources — including law enforcement, lawyers, therapists and support hotlines — that could help them. And frequently check in with the person to reassure them that things will get better.

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Main image credit: Wavebreakmedia/Thinkstock


Marie W
Marie W22 days ago

Thanks for sharing

Jack Y
Jack Y4 months ago


Jack Y
Jack Y4 months ago


John J
John J4 months ago

Thank you

John J
John J4 months ago

Thank you

Greta L
Past Member 5 months ago

thank you

Sophie A
Past Member 6 months ago

thanks for sharing

John W
John W6 months ago


Val P
Val P6 months ago


Frances G
Past Member 6 months ago