Bullying: When Adults Are the Victims

Reviewed Apr 30, 2016

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Summary

  • Consider the motivation and the psychological state of the bully.
  • Pay attention to your physical and emotional reactions.
  • Remain calm.

When we think of bullies, most of us think of children being the victims—bullied on the school bus, on the playground, over the Internet, or through text messages. But adults can be bullied too.

Take inventory of your life. Do you see rude, selfish, jealous, manipulative, or frustrating people in your family, at work, in your neighborhood, at your child’s school, or in the stands at a sporting event?

Examples of adult bullying

A mother-in-law who criticizes your parenting, a neighbor who blows leaves into your yard while cleaning up his, the parent of your child’s teammate who starts rumors about your child, a rival sports fan who yells profanity and spills beer on you during a game—these are all examples of adult bullying behavior. 

Consider this situation:

You volunteered to be on a committee to plan a fundraiser for your child’s school. You met weekly with parents to share ideas and to pool skills and resources to plan a successful event. One of the parents frequently criticized your ideas and cut you off in mid-sentence. Before each meeting your stomach hurt and you would hope that parent would not attend.

Why does it happen?

Adult bullies target victims in many of the same ways children who bully do. No matter their age, bullies are opportunistic and tend to prey on people they perceive as a threat or that they dislike because of differences. They often choose targets who excel and are capable, dedicated, popular, intelligent, and attractive but whose interpersonal style tends to be non-confrontational. A bully’s goal is to gain control by making others feel angry or afraid through the use of verbal abuse such as name-calling, sarcasm and teasing; threatening; mocking; insulting; ignoring; or discrediting the person by spreading rumors.

Bullying is a learned behavior. As children, adult bullies were likely not taught how to communicate their needs in healthy ways. Their parents may have modeled bully-like interactions with others. Many adult bullies were either bullies or bullied as children.

Combat bullying

  • Take inventory. How important is the relationship you have with the bully or the activity that you find yourself in with this person? Most likely it will be easier to deal with a co-worker who is bullying you outside of the workplace where your livelihood is not threatened. If the bully is a member of your family, it may be more challenging. As you take inventory, consider your roles and values.
  • Consider the motivation and the psychological state of the bully. Many bullies have been victims of bullying or abuse themselves. They may feel insecure or inadequate and be putting you down to make themselves appear more powerful.
  • Don’t take the bully’s behavior personally. His actions have nothing to do with you and everything to do with his own pain.
  • Document what’s happening. Where and when does the behavior occur? Record the words the bully has said to you. If email or texts have been sent, print them. Although each incident is significant, it is the pattern that cannot be explained away.
  • Pay attention to your physical and emotional reactions, and remain calm. Does your heart race, your stomach get knotted, your head pound? Do you feel afraid, anxious, or uncomfortable? Practice taking deep, slow breaths and visualize yourself remaining relaxed in the presence of the bully. Bullies are looking for an emotional reaction, not a calm, problem-solving response.
  • Decide what course of action to take. If you get angry, your judgment gets clouded and you may say something you will regret later. If you withdraw, the cycle continues. Ask yourself if it is possible to distance yourself from this person. If your connection is through a volunteer position, might you find an alternate committee? If the person is a member of your family, might you choose to spend less time together?
  • Assess your nonverbal behaviors. Body language and tone of voice convey 93 percent of a face-to-face message. Maintain an open body posture (don’t cross your arms or glare). A calm, direct voice tone conveys assertiveness. 
  • If you decide to assertively confront the bully, talk to the person privately.
    • Use “I messages” to calmly and objectively describe an example of the person’s behavior and your feelings, and to request a behavior change. In the school committee example above, the person might say, “At the last meeting, when I suggested having a silent auction, you interrupted me and said, ‘That will never work!’ I felt devalued and disrespected. When I have a suggestion, I would like you to listen, acknowledge my idea and let the committee discuss it.”
    • Tell her why this will be better for both of you. A common goal works well: “This way our committee can be more effective and successful with the fundraiser.” 
    • When communicating, having both of you seated is more effective than standing.
  • If you decide on a different course, try creating a distraction, changing the subject, or “killing him with kindness.” Try using humor or a well-chosen word or kind action to disarm the bully. For example, if a bully says, “You are so stupid!” You might say, “I understand you being annoyed by this problem, but let’s focus on discussing the best solution for this issue.”
  • Remove yourself from the situation. You must work to change your own response to bullying by being assertive and setting healthy boundaries.
  • Get support. Confide in someone you are close to—a family member, partner, or close friend. An employee assistance professional can coach you in effectively handling strong negative emotions such as anger, shame, anxiety, and depression that can result from bullying.
By Kristen Hooks, MEd, LPC, LMFT, CEAP

Summary

  • Consider the motivation and the psychological state of the bully.
  • Pay attention to your physical and emotional reactions.
  • Remain calm.

When we think of bullies, most of us think of children being the victims—bullied on the school bus, on the playground, over the Internet, or through text messages. But adults can be bullied too.

Take inventory of your life. Do you see rude, selfish, jealous, manipulative, or frustrating people in your family, at work, in your neighborhood, at your child’s school, or in the stands at a sporting event?

Examples of adult bullying

A mother-in-law who criticizes your parenting, a neighbor who blows leaves into your yard while cleaning up his, the parent of your child’s teammate who starts rumors about your child, a rival sports fan who yells profanity and spills beer on you during a game—these are all examples of adult bullying behavior. 

Consider this situation:

You volunteered to be on a committee to plan a fundraiser for your child’s school. You met weekly with parents to share ideas and to pool skills and resources to plan a successful event. One of the parents frequently criticized your ideas and cut you off in mid-sentence. Before each meeting your stomach hurt and you would hope that parent would not attend.

Why does it happen?

Adult bullies target victims in many of the same ways children who bully do. No matter their age, bullies are opportunistic and tend to prey on people they perceive as a threat or that they dislike because of differences. They often choose targets who excel and are capable, dedicated, popular, intelligent, and attractive but whose interpersonal style tends to be non-confrontational. A bully’s goal is to gain control by making others feel angry or afraid through the use of verbal abuse such as name-calling, sarcasm and teasing; threatening; mocking; insulting; ignoring; or discrediting the person by spreading rumors.

Bullying is a learned behavior. As children, adult bullies were likely not taught how to communicate their needs in healthy ways. Their parents may have modeled bully-like interactions with others. Many adult bullies were either bullies or bullied as children.

Combat bullying

  • Take inventory. How important is the relationship you have with the bully or the activity that you find yourself in with this person? Most likely it will be easier to deal with a co-worker who is bullying you outside of the workplace where your livelihood is not threatened. If the bully is a member of your family, it may be more challenging. As you take inventory, consider your roles and values.
  • Consider the motivation and the psychological state of the bully. Many bullies have been victims of bullying or abuse themselves. They may feel insecure or inadequate and be putting you down to make themselves appear more powerful.
  • Don’t take the bully’s behavior personally. His actions have nothing to do with you and everything to do with his own pain.
  • Document what’s happening. Where and when does the behavior occur? Record the words the bully has said to you. If email or texts have been sent, print them. Although each incident is significant, it is the pattern that cannot be explained away.
  • Pay attention to your physical and emotional reactions, and remain calm. Does your heart race, your stomach get knotted, your head pound? Do you feel afraid, anxious, or uncomfortable? Practice taking deep, slow breaths and visualize yourself remaining relaxed in the presence of the bully. Bullies are looking for an emotional reaction, not a calm, problem-solving response.
  • Decide what course of action to take. If you get angry, your judgment gets clouded and you may say something you will regret later. If you withdraw, the cycle continues. Ask yourself if it is possible to distance yourself from this person. If your connection is through a volunteer position, might you find an alternate committee? If the person is a member of your family, might you choose to spend less time together?
  • Assess your nonverbal behaviors. Body language and tone of voice convey 93 percent of a face-to-face message. Maintain an open body posture (don’t cross your arms or glare). A calm, direct voice tone conveys assertiveness. 
  • If you decide to assertively confront the bully, talk to the person privately.
    • Use “I messages” to calmly and objectively describe an example of the person’s behavior and your feelings, and to request a behavior change. In the school committee example above, the person might say, “At the last meeting, when I suggested having a silent auction, you interrupted me and said, ‘That will never work!’ I felt devalued and disrespected. When I have a suggestion, I would like you to listen, acknowledge my idea and let the committee discuss it.”
    • Tell her why this will be better for both of you. A common goal works well: “This way our committee can be more effective and successful with the fundraiser.” 
    • When communicating, having both of you seated is more effective than standing.
  • If you decide on a different course, try creating a distraction, changing the subject, or “killing him with kindness.” Try using humor or a well-chosen word or kind action to disarm the bully. For example, if a bully says, “You are so stupid!” You might say, “I understand you being annoyed by this problem, but let’s focus on discussing the best solution for this issue.”
  • Remove yourself from the situation. You must work to change your own response to bullying by being assertive and setting healthy boundaries.
  • Get support. Confide in someone you are close to—a family member, partner, or close friend. An employee assistance professional can coach you in effectively handling strong negative emotions such as anger, shame, anxiety, and depression that can result from bullying.
By Kristen Hooks, MEd, LPC, LMFT, CEAP

Summary

  • Consider the motivation and the psychological state of the bully.
  • Pay attention to your physical and emotional reactions.
  • Remain calm.

When we think of bullies, most of us think of children being the victims—bullied on the school bus, on the playground, over the Internet, or through text messages. But adults can be bullied too.

Take inventory of your life. Do you see rude, selfish, jealous, manipulative, or frustrating people in your family, at work, in your neighborhood, at your child’s school, or in the stands at a sporting event?

Examples of adult bullying

A mother-in-law who criticizes your parenting, a neighbor who blows leaves into your yard while cleaning up his, the parent of your child’s teammate who starts rumors about your child, a rival sports fan who yells profanity and spills beer on you during a game—these are all examples of adult bullying behavior. 

Consider this situation:

You volunteered to be on a committee to plan a fundraiser for your child’s school. You met weekly with parents to share ideas and to pool skills and resources to plan a successful event. One of the parents frequently criticized your ideas and cut you off in mid-sentence. Before each meeting your stomach hurt and you would hope that parent would not attend.

Why does it happen?

Adult bullies target victims in many of the same ways children who bully do. No matter their age, bullies are opportunistic and tend to prey on people they perceive as a threat or that they dislike because of differences. They often choose targets who excel and are capable, dedicated, popular, intelligent, and attractive but whose interpersonal style tends to be non-confrontational. A bully’s goal is to gain control by making others feel angry or afraid through the use of verbal abuse such as name-calling, sarcasm and teasing; threatening; mocking; insulting; ignoring; or discrediting the person by spreading rumors.

Bullying is a learned behavior. As children, adult bullies were likely not taught how to communicate their needs in healthy ways. Their parents may have modeled bully-like interactions with others. Many adult bullies were either bullies or bullied as children.

Combat bullying

  • Take inventory. How important is the relationship you have with the bully or the activity that you find yourself in with this person? Most likely it will be easier to deal with a co-worker who is bullying you outside of the workplace where your livelihood is not threatened. If the bully is a member of your family, it may be more challenging. As you take inventory, consider your roles and values.
  • Consider the motivation and the psychological state of the bully. Many bullies have been victims of bullying or abuse themselves. They may feel insecure or inadequate and be putting you down to make themselves appear more powerful.
  • Don’t take the bully’s behavior personally. His actions have nothing to do with you and everything to do with his own pain.
  • Document what’s happening. Where and when does the behavior occur? Record the words the bully has said to you. If email or texts have been sent, print them. Although each incident is significant, it is the pattern that cannot be explained away.
  • Pay attention to your physical and emotional reactions, and remain calm. Does your heart race, your stomach get knotted, your head pound? Do you feel afraid, anxious, or uncomfortable? Practice taking deep, slow breaths and visualize yourself remaining relaxed in the presence of the bully. Bullies are looking for an emotional reaction, not a calm, problem-solving response.
  • Decide what course of action to take. If you get angry, your judgment gets clouded and you may say something you will regret later. If you withdraw, the cycle continues. Ask yourself if it is possible to distance yourself from this person. If your connection is through a volunteer position, might you find an alternate committee? If the person is a member of your family, might you choose to spend less time together?
  • Assess your nonverbal behaviors. Body language and tone of voice convey 93 percent of a face-to-face message. Maintain an open body posture (don’t cross your arms or glare). A calm, direct voice tone conveys assertiveness. 
  • If you decide to assertively confront the bully, talk to the person privately.
    • Use “I messages” to calmly and objectively describe an example of the person’s behavior and your feelings, and to request a behavior change. In the school committee example above, the person might say, “At the last meeting, when I suggested having a silent auction, you interrupted me and said, ‘That will never work!’ I felt devalued and disrespected. When I have a suggestion, I would like you to listen, acknowledge my idea and let the committee discuss it.”
    • Tell her why this will be better for both of you. A common goal works well: “This way our committee can be more effective and successful with the fundraiser.” 
    • When communicating, having both of you seated is more effective than standing.
  • If you decide on a different course, try creating a distraction, changing the subject, or “killing him with kindness.” Try using humor or a well-chosen word or kind action to disarm the bully. For example, if a bully says, “You are so stupid!” You might say, “I understand you being annoyed by this problem, but let’s focus on discussing the best solution for this issue.”
  • Remove yourself from the situation. You must work to change your own response to bullying by being assertive and setting healthy boundaries.
  • Get support. Confide in someone you are close to—a family member, partner, or close friend. An employee assistance professional can coach you in effectively handling strong negative emotions such as anger, shame, anxiety, and depression that can result from bullying.
By Kristen Hooks, MEd, LPC, LMFT, CEAP

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