How to Deal With Adult Bullying

Illustration of group of friends looking embarrassed while one of them bullies another person across thee room

Verywell / Nez Riaz

Most of us encounter bullies at specific points in our lives. And while many believe that bullying only happens throughout childhood, unfortunately, bullying doesn’t always stop once you become an adult. 

An adult bully can be an intimidating boss or colleague, a controlling romantic partner, an unruly neighbor, a high-pressure sales/business representative, a condescending family member, a shaming social acquaintance, or other types of people that engage in abusive relationships.

This article explores the different types of adult bullies, what you can do as a victim, bystander, and perpetrator, as well as a few ideas on how to deal with an adult bully. Adult bullying is a severe problem and may require legal action in some circumstances.

What Constitutes an Adult Bully?

Just like children and teenagers can be bullies, so can adults. What defines an adult bully is if they regularly make you feel oppressed, belittled, humiliated, or de-energized.

The cruel actions that often lead to those feelings include personal insults, ridiculing jokes, threats, public shaming, invasion of your personal space, or unwanted personal contact.

What's the Difference Between Harassment and Bullying? 

Bullying and harassment are often used interchangeably when talking about hurtful or destructive behavior. They are very comparable, but in terms of definition, there's a significant difference.

Bullying and harassment are similar as they're both about:

  • Power and control
  • Acts that intentionally hurt or harm another person 
  • A disproportion of power between the victim and the bully 
  • The target having trouble stopping the action directed towards them

The difference between bullying and harassment is that when the bullying behavior is directed at a target who belongs to a protected class, it's defined as harassment. Protected classes include:

  • Race
  • Color
  • Religion
  • Sex
  • Age
  • Disability
  • National origin

There are numerous different types of adult bullies, some of which include:

  • Tangible/material bully: These types of bullies like to use their formal power, like being your boss or manager. Or, they have some sort of authority or control over your finances, which they use to intimidate you and others.
  • Verbal bully: A verbal bully likes to shame and insult you with their words. Often, they throw constant criticism or use cruel teasing. Unfortunately, sometimes the language used by these types of bullies is sexist, racist, homophobic, or threatening.
  • Passive-aggressive bully: You may not consider someone who is passive-aggressive to be a bully, But, this type of bully is the most cunning in some ways. They act amicable on the outside but take unexpected swings at you. Things like gossip, sarcasm, and hurtful jokes are a few ways this type of bully behaves. They may roll their eyes, make rude facial expressions and ridicule their victims by mimicking. They may also isolate their targets, causing you to feel anxious and insecure.
  • Cyberbully: A significant problem today is cyberbullying, especially for younger and more vulnerable adults. Regardless, anyone can be a victim of harassing emails, text messages, and social media. 
  • Physical bully: Physical bullies can range from simulating violence by raising their fists as if they were about to strike, to throwing and breaking objects, to violent acts of physical, domestic, and sexual abuse.

What to Do If You're a Bystander

There are several things that bystanders to bullying can do:

  • Question the behavior of the bully to shift the focus of the interaction.
  • Utilize humor to redirect the conversation.
  • Remember, there is strength in numbers. Bystanders can intervene as a group to demonstrate their disagreement with bullying.
  • Walk with the person who is the victim of bullying to help diffuse potential interactions.
  • Check-in privately with the bullied person to let them know you disagree with it and that you care.

What to Do If You're a Victim

If you’re the victim of an adult bully, there are a few things you can do to protect yourself:

  • Pick and choose your battles. Choosing how to react depends on the number and severity of the bullying behaviors. If the behavior is not excessive or harmful and you only see the bully once in a while (such as at work or the annoying relative during family gatherings), you may want to keep your distance. Because of the amount of time it can take to handle bullying behavior in many cases, consider picking your battles if it isn't directly harmful to you. 
  • Make eye contact. Eye contact can be significant, as bullies have less empathy when they can't see your face or your eyes.  
  • Escape if you can. Ask if you can move your desk far away from the bully or limit your interactions with them whenever possible. If that fails, try again. Can you switch to another position in the organization?
  • Document the offenses. Document every single offense and try to keep the records for as long as possible. You may need them if you want to file a complaint at work or, in some cases, a police report if the bully's actions become emotionally or physically damaging.

What to Do If You're a Perpetrator

Consider seeking emotional support or therapy. In many cases with bullies, you may have had a traumatic childhood and might have regularly endured domestic violence, physical abuse, or other forms of abuse. 

Mental Health Effects of Bullying

For bystanders, bullying can have harmful effects as well. Even if you're not on the receiving end, witnessing someone being bullied for long periods can have an emotional impact. Research has found that even witnessing workplace bullying is associated with an increased risk of developing depressive symptoms over the subsequent 18 months.

For victims, you may have trouble sleeping, feel paranoid, experience increased anxiety, and constantly feel on edge. 

A Word From Verywell

If you're dealing with a bully, you know that it can take a toll in various ways. If you have any physical symptoms, like sleep issues or pain conditions triggered by the stress of bullying, you may want to contact your primary care doctor.

To help you cope with the fallout of bullying, you may want to consider working with a mental health professional. They can help you cope with symptoms of depression and anxiety, help you strengthen your self-confidence, and help you learn how to handle bullies emotionally.

Regardless, the most important thing is to utilize your support network. If you're being bullied, find support, whether it's from co-workers, friends, or family. Sometimes the best way to buffer the impact a bully has on you is to try and get by with some help from other people in your life. 

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Stop Bullying. What Is Bullying.

  2. US Health News. What Are the Risk Factors for Depression?

By Arlin Cuncic
Arlin Cuncic, MA, is the author of "Therapy in Focus: What to Expect from CBT for Social Anxiety Disorder" and "7 Weeks to Reduce Anxiety."