Being a victim of bullying can take a toll on a person’s self-worth and mental health. Read on to learn how to spot the signs of bullying and take action to stop it. Anyone who has experienced bullying knows the daily impact it can have, like trouble sleeping, being on edge, feeling anxious and not like your best self. Research, however, suggests bullying may actually have a lifelong impact on our mental health.
What is Bullying?
Bullying is best described as a pattern of repeatedly harming peers, typically those who appear weaker or more vulnerable. Bullying distinguishes itself from aggression in its intentional targeting of people with less perceived power. At its core, bullying is a process of victimization that the bully uses to assert their dominance, feel more in control, and gain social validation.
What makes a bully?
On average, people who bully share distinct psychological features, including paranoia and a trend towards misreading others’ intentions and perceiving hostility in neutral situations. At the heart of it, bullying behaviour seems to lack the self-regulation, emotional regulation, communication skills or social skills to get what they want (attention, validation, status) without fear or hurting others.
Bullying can be reinforced from an early age if early childhood aggression (i.e. before the age of 6) isn’t managed or changed in a way that supports better behaviour. And if humiliation, power, and shame are modelled at home, the child may not learn the communication and social skills necessary to meet their needs in a more healthy way.
How do bullies choose victims?
Until approximately the age of seven, it can seem that bullies pick on anyone that crosses their path. But after age seven, they often become more strategic, looking for targets who seem vulnerable and likely they won’t fight back. Victims may be younger, physically smaller and weaker, have few friends, and appear to be more submissive or “easier targets”. Bullies seem to be inclined towards victims who become visibly upset, cry, or quickly and easily respond to the bullies’ demands.
These identifying features should serve as a guide to look out for bullying, rather than putting the responsibility on victims to better protect themselves against bullying. In fact, most bullies only back down when bystanders intervene, not when confronted by the victim themself.
How does Bullying Affect Us?
Bullying isn’t just something we outgrow. Research suggests the effects of bullying follow us well into adulthood, affecting not just psychological health, but physical health as well.
A cornerstone study exploring childhood bullying in 7,771 children across the UK found that individuals who experienced bullying in childhood were still receiving the effects of bullying 40 years later. They found roughly 28% of children reported being occasionally bullied, with 15% reporting being bullied frequently.
Across the board, being a victim of bullying at any point in childhood contributes to:
- Poorer psychological health
- Poorer physical health
- Poorer cognitive functioning after age 50
- Lower education levels
- Poorer social relationships
- Lower life satisfaction
Frequent incidences of being bullied in childhood were associated with a lifelong increase in the risk for:
- Anxiety disorders
- Suicidal thoughts
Bullying doesn’t always end in childhood. Bullying can occur at work among peers and in families and can lead to many of the same mental, emotional, and physical effects as bullying in childhood.
How to Recognize the Signs of Bullying in a Loved One
Bullying can be nuanced, and many—kids and adults alike—may feel embarrassed or take on guilt about being the victim of bullying and choose not to speak about it. Bystander intervention is critical for shifting the balance of power in bullying, so being able to spot the emotional and behavioural signs is critical.
Signs your loved one is being bullied
- They show increased irritation and unhappiness
- They appear increasingly fearful or anxious
- They lose interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Their performance at school, work, or in relationships suffers
- They appear scared to go to school, work, or other activities
- They make negative comments and express low self-esteem
- They felt unwell more often, experiencing stomach aches and headaches
- They threaten to hurt themselves or others
- They appear with injuries or bruises
- They begin ‘losing’ things and clothing or property is damaged
Most Common Types of Bullying
A common misconception about bullying is that most of it is physical. In reality, bullying takes on many forms, some more obvious and others more subtle. Research suggests bullying tactics and styles will change through the ages. Those who bully in adulthood adapt to meet the more complex social dynamics at play.
Physical bullying occurs more frequently in elementary school years. It involves physical acts of harm, including spitting, shoving, hitting, kicking, beating up, and damaging or stealing property.
Verbal bullying is a type of psychological bullying that can include hurtful teasing, name-calling, insults, threats, humiliation, sexual harassment, and racist comments.
Emotional bullying is a nuanced yet debilitating type of social bullying. It can include excluding people from the group, turning your back to someone, deliberately ignoring them, getting others to ignore or exclude an individual, spreading rumours and gossip, damaging social status and reputations, and setting others up to be embarrassed.
Many of us are familiar with cyberbullying, one of the most widely discussed forms of bullying out there. Cyberbullying is so particularly insidious because it gives bullies an added layer of anonymity alongside perpetual access to their victims. It involves the use of technology and the internet, via messages, emails, and social media to embarrass, threaten, damage relationships, harass, and socially exclude victims.
Prejudicial bullying can include treating people poorly because of their race, gender identity, sexual identity, or religious beliefs. It can also include disability bullying. Prejudicial bullying can include name-calling, making derogatory comments about identity or beliefs, and hurtful jokes.
This can involve exclusion, making a person feel uncomfortable because of their sex, touching or grabbing someone in a sexual manner, making sexist jokes or derogatory comments, and spreading a sexual rumour.
What to Do if You (or a Loved One) is Being Bullied
If you or a loved one are being bullied, there are several ways you can help defuse the situation.
If you’re being bullied:
- Don’t engage in the fight. Fighting back with aggression can force the bully to raise the stakes and escalate their aggression in order to maintain the balance of power. Focus on standing up for yourself and removing yourself from the situation in the moment.
- Get help. If you’re a child, talking with parents, teachers, or other adults who can intervene and help shift the balance of power is critical. If you’re an adult, talk to a supervisor or peers who are now aware and can calmly intervene if they see a situation arise.
If you’re a bystander:
- Speak up! Especially with younger kids, speaking up helps disrupt the social validation and positive attention bullies feel they get when they target someone. When even just a few bystanders voice their disagreement, bullies may see their target as less vulnerable.
- Check-in with the bully in private. This can create an environment with less immediate pressure, so you can really communicate with the bully to talk about what they did and better ways to go about it.