What Is Bullying? A Look at Its Psychological Impact

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Bullying is certainly an unusual yet interesting phenomenon.

If you ask most people, they are likely to say that they have been the victim of a bully. They may even admit to being the bully. Others will tell you they have been a bully–victim. This is the dual experience of being the bully and the victim at different time points.

Bullying is a type of intimidation and verbal or physical harm to another (Juvonen & Graham, 2014), with an imbalance of power between the bully and the victim (Burger, Strohmeier, Spröber, Bauman, & Rigby, 2015). There are several idiosyncrasies about this concept that we will describe below.

This article is packed with valuable information about bullying, with all the interesting things you wanted to know. We hope the knowledge you gain from this post will allow you to support your clients in their sessions, whether they have been the victim, bully, or both.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free. These detailed, science-based exercises will help you or your clients build healthy, life-enriching relationships once they have overcome the trauma of bullying.

What Is Bullying? 3 Facts

What does psychology say about bullying and why does it happen? We answer your questions with a few interesting facts.

1. When does bullying most often occur?

Bullying persists at epidemic levels among children and adolescents (Harris, Lieberman, & Marans, 2007). It has been described as an adverse childhood experience (Stopbullying.gov, 2017).

Bullying is most common in childhood and adolescence (Aalsma & Brown, 2008). Up to three-quarters of young adolescents experience bullying (e.g., name-calling, embarrassment, or ridicule), and up to a third report coercion and even inappropriate touching (Juvonen, Nishina, & Graham, 2001).

2. Does bullying affect only the victim? How long do the effects last?

Bullying has been found to affect the bullied person as well as the bully. Both are at greater risk of mental and behavioral problems, including a higher risk of depression (Smokowski & Kopasz, 2005).

The poor physical and emotional outcomes of bullying can affect an individual, both in the short and long term (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2021).

A plethora of research shows that bullying experienced in childhood can go on to cause anxiety and depression (Stapinski et al., 2014) in young and middle adulthood (Copeland, Wolke, Angold, & Costello, 2013).

Adult suicidal attempts (Stapinski et al., 2014), poor financial management (Wolke, Copeland, Angold, & Costello, 2013), and poor career success as an adult are all negative outcomes (Takizawa, Maughan, & Arseneault, 2014).

3. What type of profile does a bully or a victim possess?

There is not one single profile of a bully or someone affected by bullying. Bullies and victims can be socially included or marginally excluded (Stopbullying.gov, 2021). Either the bully or victim may have been in the role of a perpetrator and victim of bullying at some point in life (Leiner et al., 2014).

One interesting study found that bullies, victims, and those who have experienced both have a plethora of emotional, psychosocial, and behavioral problems (Leiner et al., 2014). This highlights that interventions are equally important for all groups, not only the victims.

3 Real-Life Examples of Bullying

Although you can probably think of bullying examples from your own life, we share three examples that might surprise you.

1. Bullying in politics: Female minority bully and white male victim

Bullies do not always fit into the stereotypical image of the large, muscular male.

They come in all shapes and sizes. One recent high-profile story in politics about bullying is a clear example of a bully not fitting the stereotypical norm.

A senior civil servant for the UK government, Sir Philip Putnam, accused Priti Patel, the Home Secretary of the UK Home Office and a small woman of Indian ethnicity and Hindu faith, of bullying him. He also alleged that Priti Patel shouted, swore, and belittled other members of staff.

Sir Putnam placed a claim in court for unfair dismissal. This was settled out of court for £340,000, plus legal costs. This is an example of how bullies can cut across gender, race, faith, and size.

Read an overview of the story in this news article (Cahal, 2020).

2. Wrestling star John Cena bullied as a child

The powerful and strong World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) wrestler John Cena might be the most unlikely victim of a bully you could imagine. Unfortunately, he was bullied as a child, and this led to him wrestling as an adult.

As a scrawny kid, he was bullied for wearing different clothes and having an unusual taste in music. He never fought back. Instead, he channeled this into a passion for strength. He began to work out and became more confident. His inner strength and determination to overcome the bullies led him to become more successful in life than the bullies themselves.

The story about the WWE star being bullied can be read at Movieweb (Sebren, 2021).

3. Being bullied for being different

It is a sad fact, but true. Bullies look for tiny differences and then target their victims by ridiculing their uniqueness (Thornberg & Delby, 2019).

One such story of bullying comes from Rosie, who was bullied for being on the autism spectrum. As she struggled with social communication, Rosie found it hard to make friends at school. When someone made friends with her, this person bullied Rosie and made her do things she did not want to. This went on for several years.

Rosie changed schools, yet the bullying continued. She endured verbal threats of harm, but because of her autism, she believed the threats would come true. Eventually, Rosie was encouraged to log the bullying into a diary by her therapist and then to show her teacher. The school put many interventions in place to stop the bullying. Rosie makes a strong point of saying that bullying is never the victim’s fault.

Rosie did eventually make some nice friends at the school, who are still her friends now.

Rosie’s story can be read at YoungMinds (2017).

6 Types of Bullying According to Psychology

Bullying can come in many forms. Sometimes it can be very subtle and at other times much stronger. Recognizing these signs can help reduce the incidents of bullying.

1. Physical bullying

Physical bullying is more obvious, as it is overt and comes in the form of hitting, punching, kicking, slapping, pushing, breaking, and damaging property.

If the physical abuse is directed at a person, it can cause both short-term and long-term injury and even result in a fatality. The signs of physical bullying are often visible in the presentation of the victim through their traumatized behavior or physical appearance (Brank, Hoetger, & Hazen, 2012).

2. Verbal bullying

Teasing, name-calling, and making derogatory and disparaging remarks and insults are all varied forms of verbal bullying. It often starts at a mild level but can become more severe, leading to emotional abuse and impacts on mental health (Juvonen, Graham, & Schuster, 2003).

3. Cyberbullying

Cyberbullying is the new form of bullying in the era of technology. It has become a growing problem over recent years and has doubled in the past decade (Patchin & Hinduja, 2020). At least 59% of teenagers report being cyberbullied and harassed (Anderson, 2018).

Cyberbullying is intentional harm to another individual through the use of digital technology, such as via the internet or text messages (Cross, 2014). A primary channel for cyberbullying is the use of social media platforms (Stopbullying.gov, 2021).

4. Sexual bullying

Sexual bullying can happen to all age groups, but it is often most prevalent among young people (Spears, Jennifer, & Williams, 2011). This type of bullying can involve inappropriate sexual names, being sent images, jokes, spreading sexual rumors, touching, grabbing and pinching, and language that causes embarrassment and fear (Nemours Children’s Health, 2019).

At least 81% of women and 43% of men reported some form of sexual harassment or assault in their lifetime (Adams et al., 2019).

5. Racist bullying

Racist bullying is a type of bullying whereby people are bullied for their color or ethnic background (Rodriguez-Hidalgo, Yisela, Dios, & Daniel, 2020). Racist bullying sees people called names by their peers or excluded from groups because of hatred, fear, or just because they are misunderstood.

Racist bullying can often cause people to feel embarrassed about their ethnic background or the color of their skin (Gee, Hing, Mohammed, Tabor, & David, 2019).

6. LGBTQ+ bullying

When someone is verbally or physically harassed for their sexual orientation, this is referred to as LGBTQ+ bullying (Earnshaw et al., 2020).

This type of bullying can include physical, verbal, cyber, and sexual bullying. A person does not necessarily have to be LGBTQ+ to experience this type of bullying, and it may be directed at those merely perceived to be different and non-conforming.

3 Effects of Bullying on Mental Health

Bullying can have detrimental mental health effects, not only for the victim but also the bystanders who observe the bullying and the bullies themselves.

1. Psychosocial effects of bullying throughout adolescence and young adulthood

There are many psychosocial consequences for victims of bullying, including increased rates of depression, suicidal ideation, and loneliness (Nansel et al., 2001; van der Wal, de Wit, & Hirasing, 2003).

School-aged children who experience bullying often show lower grades, a dislike of school, and absenteeism (Juvonen et al., 2001). Young adults who were victimized as children or adolescents have increased rates of violence-related behaviors compared to those not involved in bullying (Nansel et al., 2001).

One study showed that young people who had been bullied repeatedly through school had lower self-esteem and higher depressive symptoms than those who had not been bullied, especially when they got older (Olweus, 2013).

2. Bullies at risk of poor mental health effects

It is not only the victims who suffer from bullying, it is also the bullies themselves. Evans et al. (2019) found that bullies experienced anti-social behaviors, such as school problem behaviors, substance misuse, and generally aggressive behaviors.

In another study, da Silva et al. (2016) found a strong association between bullying perpetration and mental health problems among a sample of 13,200 young people aged 12 to 17 years old. It also found that those who experienced a high level of internalizing problems were often the perpetrators of bullying. This highlighted a bi-directional association between bullying and internalizing problems.

3. Mental health effects of bystanders to bullying

Bystanders to bullying have also been found to experience poor mental health. When bullying occurs, bystanders are present at least 80% of the time (Polanin, Espelage, & Pigott, 2012).

Evans et al. (2019) showed that those people who witnessed bullying experienced increased anxiety and depression, regardless of whether they supported the bully or the person who was being bullied.

This is most likely because bystanders experience stress and anxiety related to a fear of retaliation and being bullied themselves (Forsberg et al., 2018). They may experience guilt because they wanted to intervene but did not do so.

Why Does Bullying Happen? 3 Research Findings

Bullying really is an intriguing phenomenon and goes far beyond what it seems to be on the surface. So, let us look deeper into the reasons behind bullying and why it occurs.

1. Gaining power and popularity

Research has shown that bullies may behave in such a manner to gain popularity. Guy, Lee, and Dieter (2019) found that bullies scored higher for perceived popularity. It also appears from this study that bullies are socially rewarded by peers for their victimization.

There are many other ways of gaining popularity, so why would a person want to bully rather than use positive behaviors to gain popularity?

One reason could be that the bullies have been socially marginalized and rejected by their peers (Cook, Williams, Guerra, & Kim, 2010). In addition, bullying may be used to access resources and gain social dominance (Olthof, Goossens, Vermande, Aleva, & Van der Meulen, 2011). Overall, it is not positive in the long term to gain popularity this way. A more prosocial manner of gaining popularity should be promoted, rather than bullying.

2. Seeking revenge and retaliation

Bullying is significantly related to revenge and retaliation. Saricam and Cetinkaya (2017) investigated strategies for coping with bullying among 318 high school children and found that taking revenge was considered the best way to deal with bullying.

In fact, it appears from another study that students who have been victims of bullying often bully their former perpetrators through cyberbullying, given the ease and non-confrontational yet revengeful manner in which this type of bullying can be performed (König, Gollwitzer, & Steffgen, 2010).

3. Problematic home life

The home life of a bully is often problematic and fraught with difficulties. Lucas, Jernbro, Tindberg, and Janson (2016) found that bullies were often exposed to domestic violence at home and concluded that bullying experiences are clearly associated with abuse.

In this research, physical and emotional violence in the home was significantly associated with bullying among 24% of girls from the sample and 36% of boys. As the frequency and severity of abuse in the home rose, so did the prospects of bullying behavior.

A Look at Anti-Bullying Programs in Schools & the Workplace

In order to eradicate bullying in schools and workplaces, many programs and interventions have arisen over the years.

1. Anti-bullying programs for schools

A recent systematic and meta-analytical review of school-based anti-bullying programs found that programs were effective in reducing school bullying, perpetration, and victimization (Gaffney, Farrington, & Ttofi, 2019).

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has an abundance of anti-bullying resources for schools to implement into programs. Their website resources include a toolkit, podcast, online training materials, free anti-bully policy statements, activities for teachers and young people, and how to protect children from bullying and cyberbullying.

2. Anti-bullying programs for work

Dr. Joel Haber is a bullying expert who provides organizations with diagnostics, assessments, and training initiatives, which include workshops and master groups.

These are provided in trainings, by phone, and via videoconferencing, and include role-play and communication exercises. The training he provides can be swiftly adapted where workplace bullying is a concern.

Dr. Haber also analyzes the effectiveness of existing policies and procedures. More information on Dr. Haber’s workplace bullying programs can be found on his website.

Resources From PositivePsychology.com

There is no straightforward strategy to tackle bullying, whether it is in the school or in the workplace. However, we have several resources that can help your clients improve their coping skills and manage their emotions. This could help them avoid being either the bully or the victim.

1. Workplace Mindfulness

Adopting love and kindness in the workplace to ourselves and others can create a more positive organizational culture and potentially deter the possibility of bullying.

This worksheet helps clients focus on short-term goals and aspirations at work and incorporates the three elements of mindfulness: intention, attention, and attitude.

2. Self-Control Spotting

Bullying others may start from a loss of self-control. It is important that clients recognize behaviors that lead to self-control and those that do not. Such awareness could stop bullying behaviors before they have a chance to start.

3. Emotional Regulation Worksheet for Adults

This worksheet helps clients recognize and regulate their emotions. It walks clients through what happened, why it happened, how it made them feel, and how they reacted. It can be used for any bullying-related incidents at school or work and allows the client to reflect and make changes.

A Take-Home Message

Bullying can affect young and old alike. It occurs in interactions with others, often at school and work.

The victim and the perpetrator are not always clearly defined. The characteristics of both bully and victim can be wide ranging. Bullying can have short-lived consequences but also a long-term impact.

Bullying can range from brutal physical harm to more subtle psychological and indirect forms. We know that it affects the bully, victim, and bystander, so this game really has no winners.

Bullying interventions and support are required not only in the school and workplace, but also in the home and on an individual level. A holistic approach is required to deter bullying in society.

We hope this article has initiated more thought about how you can now support your clients in sessions if they have been bullied and help them rebuild with more positive relationships. Don’t forget to download our three Positive Relationships Exercises for free.


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