How to Deal with Adult Bullying

Published on: 21 Sep 2022
Clinically Reviewed by Bisma Anwar, LMHC
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Bullying is typically associated with the childhood years, but it can be a serious issue for adults, too. According to a survey conducted by a Harris Poll, 31% of people have been bullied as an adult. Bullying can be intimidating at any age, and many adults aren’t sure how to respond to it. 

Adult bullying often looks different from the types of bullying we hear more about amongst children. Learn ways to recognize the behaviors of adult bullies and how to deal with adult bullies.

If you are experiencing bullying, you can always seek an online therapist for help dealing with it.

Types of Adult Bullies 

Bullying and harassment are very similar. In fact, the two terms are often used interchangeably. While harassment can be classified as a form of bullying behavior, the term bullying describes an ongoing pattern of behavior. There are many types of adult bullies, which we’re discussing in detail below. 

The verbal bully

These bullies intentionally harm their victims with words. Verbal bullying may include subjecting a target to insults, harsh criticism, or persistent teasing. In some cases, verbal bullies might threaten or use racist, misogynistic, homophobic, or other intimidating, offensive language. 

The passive-aggressive adult bully

Passive-aggressive behavior can be a way for adult bullies to lash out at others indirectly. They may use gossip, hurtful jokes, or sarcasm to attack. Bullies who engage in this behavior often deny that they’re doing anything wrong, which can make the bullying victim doubt their own feelings. 

The physical adult bully

While these bullies may physically attack victims, they also might engage in violent and intimidating behavior. For example, a bully may throw or break objects. In some cases, physical bullies will simulate violence and laugh or mock an adult victim if they seem threatened.

The tangible/material adult bully

Adults who engage in tangible bullying have power or authority over their victims. A bully could be the boss or manager or have material power, like financial control over an adult victim. Even if you know how to deal with adult bullies you may feel helpless if your bully is someone who holds power over you.

The adult cyberbully

Approximately 40% of adults have experienced online harassment. In some cases that harassment evolves into cyberbullying. A victim of cyberbullying may be attacked or sent harassing messages via email, social messaging, or text messaging. Cyberbullies also engage in behavior like cyberstalking. If you’re being harassed by a cyberbully, check out these tips for how to deal with cyberbullying.

“There are many ways that adult bullying can show up. “Karens” became a term describing someone harassing a person of color by calling the police on them for situations that were not illegal. The “Karen” knowing that police would elicit a harsh response for the non-white individual makes it an example of adult bullying.”

Talkspace therapist Dr. Karmen Smith LCSW DD

Handling Adult Bullies 

Bullies often inflict significant harm on their victims. Not only can bullying damage self-esteem and have an impact on mental health, but adults who are bullied are also at increased risk for health issues like Type 2 diabetes and heart disease. For your own health and the health of others, it’s important to learn how to deal with bullying as an adult. 

Handling bullying as the one being bullied

When you’re being bullied, you should prioritize your safety and well-being. If possible, remove yourself from the situation and cut the bully out of your life. In situations where you can’t avoid a bully, you should work to build a strong support system. 

Some bullying behavior falls under criminal harassment, but in many cases, it’s unfortunately not illegal. Despite this, you should document any and all instances of bullying. If the bullying escalates, you can include this documentation in your police report or formal complaint.

“Being the target of a bully can be extremely stressful. It can bring about suicidal or homicidal thoughts. It’s very important to be vocal and express the events that are happening and your emotional reaction to them until there is relief, from both your emotional state and the bullying.”

Talkspace therapist Dr. Karmen Smith LCSW DD

Handling bullying as the bystander

If you witness bullying, you should do what you can to protect the victim. In cases where it’s safe to do so, you may want to call out the bully or question their aggressive behavior. Many bullies will immediately back down when they’re confronted by a group.

Even if you’re not comfortable confronting a bully directly, you can reach out to the victim and let them know that they have your support. Walk with the victim, so it’s harder for the bully to find them alone. Let them know that you’ll support them or provide a witness statement if they choose to report their bully.

Bullying at work 

Workplace bullying is a very common type of adult bullying. If you’ve been bullied at work, document all instances in detail. When you’re targeted by a workplace bully, let them know that their adult bullying behavior isn’t appropriate and that you won’t tolerate it.

If the bullying persists, report the behavior to your supervisor or human resources (HR). You may want to read up on company policies so you can clearly identify prohibited behaviors. Bullying can be costly for employers, which is why many companies have a no-tolerance policy. 

While reporting bullying often leads to a positive outcome, some workplaces will ignore the information. Don’t be afraid to escalate the situation. In extreme cases, you may want to consult with a lawyer to find out what your legal options are. 

The Effect of Bullying on Mental Health as an Adult

Being bullied as an adult can cause massive distress. Many adults who are victims of bullying experience symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). A bully can shatter someone’s confidence, making them anxious, paranoid, and stressed. 

While bullying clearly harms victims, it can also be damaging to bystanders. People who witness bullying in the workplace might be more likely to develop symptoms of depression. Bystanders may feel angry or upset if they fail to react, and they may be fearful that they’ll be targeted in the future.

Bullying can cause stress levels to skyrocket, leading to a significant decline in mental health. Stress can interfere with sleep and increase anxiety and irritability. These issues can persist even after bullying has stopped.

“Bullying can have a lasting effect on our self-esteem and how we see the world long after the harassing events have taken place. Therapy can provide a safe space to process through the thoughts and feelings that come up during that time.”

Talkspace therapist Dr. Karmen Smith LCSW DD

Seek Professional Help for Bullying

If you’re a victim of adult bullying, know that you’re not alone. While bullying in adults is rarely discussed, research suggests that it’s fairly common. In addition to workplace bullying, adults can be bullied online, harassed by a family member, or targeted by a friend, coworker, or romantic partner. 

Therapy can help you learn how to deal with being bullied as an adult. With the help of a mental health professional, you can work to rebuild your confidence and develop coping strategies. If you’ve been bullied, don’t hesitate to reach out and get the help you need to recover. 


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3. Xu T, Magnusson Hanson L, Lange T et al. Workplace bullying and violence as risk factors for type 2 diabetes: a multicohort study and meta-analysis. Diabetologia. 2017;61(1):75-83. doi:10.1007/s00125-017-4480-3. Accessed July 19, 2022.

4. Rodríguez-Muñoz A, Moreno-Jiménez B, Sanz Vergel A, Garrosa Hernández E. Post-Traumatic Symptoms Among Victims of Workplace Bullying: Exploring Gender Differences and Shattered Assumptions. J Appl Soc Psychol. 2010;40(10):2616-2635. doi:10.1111/j.1559-1816.2010.00673.x. Accessed July 19, 2022.

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Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

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