When the Bullies are the Grown-Ups

IMPORTANT: This blog is not a substitute for therapy, but provides evidenced-based education for the purposes of self-help, or to compliment the therapeutic process. ​ ​This blog is non-monetized.

Episode 32: When the bullies are the grown-ups

We pay a lot of attention to peer-to-peer bullying around our kids, but we don’t talk enough about abuse felt by kids and adults alike, from other adults.

When a child is subtly but repeatedly rejected by teachers and staff at, for example say due to ADHD or language differences, we unknowingly collude with the bullies when we aren’t sure how to stand up to this harmful behaviour. Every day, there are examples of personal insults, ridiculing jokes, threats, public shaming, invasion of others personal space, or unwanted personal contact; do you say something when you see something? 

Reports of bullying by coaches, teachers or school administrators are alarmingly common among teens and parents, and of course, we therapists hear a lot about it as well. Kid bullies can grow up to be the adult bullies we deal with – in the workplace for example.

ADULT BULLYING

Adult bullying is an aggressive and repetitive behaviour. An adult bully repeatedly and intentionally causes another person (an adult) discomfort and hurt. It could be through words, subtle actions or manipulative strategies. The why is not always obvious. 

It could be a result of revengeful behaviour, or purely to assert one’s authority and show his dominance. Bullying others is one of many horrific ways in which unresolved trauma can manifest. Adult bullying is difficult to notice at first because it is more subtle than it’s with kids. Rather than using physical force or threatening someone outright, an adult may be deeply affected by political tactics at workplace, social media outrage, humiliation or embarrassment in public or belittling his presence and contribution.

Where do we come across adult bullies today?

  • an intimidating boss or colleague
  • a controlling romantic partner
  • an unruly neighbor
  • a high-pressure sports coach, or teacher at school
  • a condescending family member
  • a shaming social acquaintance, or another child’s parent
  • your own siblings

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

Sibling bullying can take many forms, but it is always done with the intention of shaming, belittling or excluding their victim. It can include name calling, threats, constant teasing and enlisting other siblings to join them in the bullying. Bullying among siblings can worsen when parents don’t take it seriously, assuming it is just a phase or that it is natural for siblings to fight and squabble among themselves. More often than not, though, bullying takes root within families where abuse and bullying tactics are practiced by the parents.

Workplace 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. You might encounter a verbal bully at work as well; someone who 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.

​Social Bullying – We tend to associate this more with adolescents and teenagers: mobbing, scapegoating, excluding others from a group, humiliating others with public gestures or graffiti intended to put others down. But very often we see grown adults participating in this behaviour, especially in online forums or within communities. These people tend to target timid, vulnerable individuals. You might even notice that their significant other has those traits of an emotional abuse victim. They play the victim or guilt-trip people.

Cyberbully: using the internet or text messaging to intimidate, put-down, spread rumours or make fun of someone. Anyone can be a victim of harassing emails, text messages, and social media. 

Physical bully: hitting, poking, pinching, chasing, shoving, coercing, destroying or stealing belongings, unwanted sexual touching. 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.
 
Controlling. They like to strong-arm” people into siding with them or making decisions in their favor. They want everything to be “their way or the highway” and if something doesn’t go that way – you’ll instantly see that bully come out to play. You’ll find this individual always badmouthing others or spreading rumors. Adult bullies overreact and are extremely dramatic – especially if they feel slighted.

THE HEALTH IMPACTS OF BULLYING

​Bullying can have long-term physical and psychological consequences. In young people, we know some of these include:

  • Withdrawal from family and school activities, wanting to be left alone.
  • Shyness
  • Stomach aches
  • Headaches
  • Panic Attacks
  • Not being able to sleep
  • Sleeping too much
  • Being exhausted
  • Nightmares

And for people who have experienced truly toxic workplaces, we know the effects of workplace bullying don’t end when you leave the office. Experiencing bullying can cause physical and psychological health problems, including high blood pressure, mood changes, panic attacks, stress, ulcers, headaches, muscle tension, and changes in appetite. Bullying can impact sleep quality and duration as well.

One study examining mental health in college students found experiencing bullying to be the strongest predictor of developing PTSD symptoms. This surpassed physical abuse, neglect, and exposure to community violence.  Another literature review examining 29 relevant studies on bullying and harassment found that 57% of victims scored above the threshold for meeting PTSD criteria.

WHAT ABOUT THE BYSTANDERS? 

If bullying isn’t stopped, it also hurts the bystanders, as well as the person who bullies others. Bystanders are usually afraid they could be the next victim. Even if they feel badly for the person being bullied, they avoid getting involved in order to protect themselves or because they aren’t sure what to do.

Bystanders have much more power than they might think. We know from Canadian research that in the majority of cases, bullying stops within 10 seconds when peers intervene, or do not support the bullying behaviour.

There are several things that bystanders to bullying can do:

  • Question the behaviour of the bully to shift the focus of the interaction.
  • Utilize humour 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.

STRATEGIES TO STOP BULLYING AT HOME

We cannot expect kids to do what the adults aren’t able to do. Modelling the behaviour you want to see is the foundation. Paying attention to this as a parent or caregiver, is the most important first step to prevent or stop bullying behaviour between your kids or family members.

​The following tips might help:

Supervise

It’s difficult to intervene in a bullying situation between your children if you don’t see it happen. Increasing adult supervision whenever possible can increase the likelihood of you noticing and putting a stop to bullying behaviors, since they’re usually repeated over time. 

Don’t Ignore—Intervene

If you notice unusually aggressive behaviour between your children, don’t write it off as a symptom of a harmless sibling rivalry. Intervening right away is typically the best course of action if you notice potential signs of bullying, especially if they’re persistent. Make it clear to all parties that physical and verbal abuse among them will not be tolerated. 

Introduce Healthy Conflict-Resolution Techniques

Children and adolescents may turn to forms of verbal or physical aggression to try and get what they want or otherwise handle a conflict. Teaching them that this is not acceptable is typically part one of a two-pronged solution, with the other part being to equip them with healthier methods. 

For example, some bullies may lash out because of stress or feelings of inadequacy. Helping kids learn to notice these feelings and find constructive rather than destructive ways to cope with them can help get to the root of bullying behavior and potentially shift their impulses over time. 

Build your child’s confidence. A strong self of self will prevent your child from becoming a bully and give them the courage they need to intervene when others are being bullied.

AND FOR THE EDUCATORS …

Be vigilant. Bullying generally happens in areas where supervision is limited – playgrounds, crowded hallways, lunchrooms, school buses, etc. Monitor these hot spots. If there is bullying amongst the teachers themselves, taking these concerns to empowered administrators and peers for support is better done sooner rather than later. 

Respond quickly and consistently to bullying. Always try to stop bullying on the spot, as it can stop bullying behavior over time. Do not ignore the situation and assume that the issue will resolve on its own. Avoid forcing the bully and victim to “work it out” on the spot. 

“A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME”: ADHD AND CONFLICT-SEEKING BEHAVIOUR

Sometimes when we see a lot of conflict within relationships or within one family in particular, there is a lot more going on than poor conflict management skills or unresolved trauma. Self-medicating with argument refers to the stimulation untreated ADHD brains can get by provoking a conflict—consciously or not. It can spell disaster for your life and relationships if left uninvestigated. 

How so people with ADHD self-medicate with argument

Quick science lesson!

Dopamine has lots of functions in the brain – being involved in everything from regulating movement to the control of attention. In great part, its effects depend on which of the brain’s pathways it is operating in at any particular moment. 

From a structural point of view, the frontal-limbic circuit is of the four executive networks of the brain that is associated with ADHD and with symptoms of emotional dysregulation, motivation deficits, hyperactivity-impulsivity, and aggressive tendencies.

When we anticipate something bad is about to happen, it activates our stress response, preparing us for action. Our brain releases adrenaline and cortisol as if we are actually in danger. These hormones, adaptive in short bursts when we must act, can be harmful when released chronically. 

Then cortisol, a hormone and neurotransmitter, floods our brain. Executive functions that help us with advanced thought processes like strategy, trust building, and compassion shut down. And the amygdala, our instinctive brain, takes over. The body makes a chemical choice about how best to protect itself — in this case from the shame and loss of power associated with being wrong — and as a result is unable to regulate its emotions or handle the gaps between expectations and reality. In this case (we are losing the fight), we default to one of four responses: fight (keep arguing), flight (run and hide), freeze (emotionally shut down) or appease (make nice with our opponent).

If we are winning the fight – our brain floods with different hormones: adrenaline and dopamine, which makes us feel good, dominant, even invincible. It’s pro-survival. It’s the feeling any of us would want to replicate. So, the next time we have an opportunity to be right, we take it. 

If we are deficient in dopamine, and a sibling or someone around who won’t fight back is easily accessible – well, we just found ourselves a helluva involuntary way to self-medicate!

SUMMARY

The reality is whether conflict is driven purposefully, manipulatively, or completely innocently and involuntarily, it doesn’t leave anybody feeling good. Being able to talk to people one on one and find out what kinds of supports they might need to manage themselves better might lead to more in-depth caring conversations, and the opportunity to let people know that you care. And even knowing that some of the behaviours described in this article are not behaviours you are supposed to have to deal with, regardless of how much you love someone, can help give you the confidence you need to move forward. 

Reach out and get the support you deserve, from any of your trusted friends, community members, a counsellor or therapist, or publicly funded programs, like Bullying Canada Now, or Kids Help Phone

RESOURCES

​Call BullyingCanada Now

A team of more than 350 highly trained volunteers are here just to help people like you. Simply pick up your phone and dial: (877) 352-4497 and follow the prompts.

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Simply send a SMS message to: (877) 352-4497

or you may email our Support Team 24/7/365 at:
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REFERENCES

  1. Johnson, B. (2019, September 27). Adult bullying: Survey finds 31% of Americans have been bullied as an adult – find a DO: Doctors of osteopathic medicine. Retrieved November 25, 2022, from https://findado.osteopathic.org/adult-bullying-survey-finds-31-americans-bullied-adult 
  2. Matthiesen, S. & Einarson, S. (2010). Psychiatric distress and symptoms of PTSD among victims of bullying at workBritish Journal of Guidance & Counselling, V. 32(3).
  3. Science Daily. (2016). Wounds from childhood bullying may persist into college years, study finds.
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Picture of ​Christina Crowe, H.BSc. MACP, RP, (S-Cert) OAMHP (she, her)

​Christina Crowe, H.BSc. MACP, RP, (S-Cert) OAMHP (she, her)

Registered Psychotherapist, Validated Clinical Supervisor, ADHD Therapist & Coach Podcast Host The Christina Crowe Podcast Christina is a Canadian Registered Psychotherapist, a member of CADDRA's Advocacy Committee and relentless mental health advocate. Christina believes great mental health information should be available to everyone, loves creating content that makes invisible things VISIBLE and finding new ways to bring healing experiences to as many people as possible.

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