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Bullying: It's Not Just for Kids!

Part 3 of 4: Taking a closer look at adult bullying.

Key points

  • Adult bullies may be using a "defense mechanism" learned in their youth. Adult victims of bullies may also have been victims in childhood.
  • Adult bullying can often go undetected. Part of this is that unlike children, who are supervised, adult interaction is often not supervised.
  • Also, many adults tend to bully only intermittently, while under stress. Gaslighting is a form of bullying.
  • Adult bullies may count on "fear of retribution" leading their victims to give up.

In Bullying Part 1 and Part 2, I described psychological and social aspects of childhood bullying and floated the idea this could lead to a better understanding of adult bullying. Today’s post and the next (Bullying Part 4) are the promised pay-off.

How is adult bullying related to childhood bullying?

Earlier in this space, I wrote about psychological defense mechanisms.1 One of the features of defense mechanisms (which are internal and psychological) and coping strategies (which are external and behavioral) is that while they mature as individuals mature, under stress adults often “regress” and use more immature defenses and coping strategies. In plain English, people behave better when they are well-rested and relaxed on a beach than when they are sleep-deprived and pressed by work, financial, family, and social challenges.

We’ve all known people (including ourselves) who “acted like a child” under stress. But each individual does not regress in the same way: When I’m under stress, I tend to resort to the defense mechanisms and coping strategies I favored as a child; when you’re under stress, you do the same. While both of us behave more immaturely when we’re “stressed out,” you do it your way, and I do it mine. In short, although we all grow up (to a greater or lesser degree), our cognitive and behavioral patterns tend to run true and die hard.

This is one reason why adult bullying is closely related to childhood bullying: Someone who was prone to bullying as a child is likely to bully as an adult, especially when under stress. Similarly, former lieutenants and toadies are more likely to engage in bullying as adults since they share the same underlying psychological motivations as other childhood bullies (see Bullying Part 2). For their own part, childhood bullying victims are more likely to fall into and stay in victimized roles as adults.

In my experience, although most of us can easily spot childhood bullying, adult bullying is a frequently overlooked component of employee disputes, romantic squabbles, divorce, domestic violence, civil suits, other interpersonal disagreements, and cultish behavior.

Why adult bullying may go undetected

The daily lives of children and adults are different. Children spend most of their time interacting in groups or under the supervision of adults. Even on playdates, children can usually call upon a nearby adult to intervene quickly in a dispute.

In contrast, the adult world consists of many unsupervised one-on-one interactions. In this world, even if a superior (let alone a peer) is nearby and available, they are less likely to consider it their role to intervene in a conflict between two other adults. This gives adults greater leeway than children to engage in undetected bullying behavior.

ra2 studio/Shutterstock
Bullying: Not Just for Children
Source: ra2 studio/Shutterstock

Another reason why adult bullies often go undetected has already been mentioned: Many adult bullies only engage in bullying intermittently, under stress. When relaxed and feeling on top of things, they may be friendly, kind, generous, etc.; they become bullies when feeling fatigued, oppressed, depressed, or in the throes of an exacerbation of mental illness. So, compared to bullying in children, bullying in adults is more likely to be sporadic and difficult to reconcile with other (sometimes quite admirable) aspects of a bully’s personality. When the bullying starts, those around the bully may even excuse the behavior on this basis: “Never mind him; he’s just stressed out.”

Moreover, although an individual who bullied as a kid may resort to bullying again as an adult, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t matured at all—his mind has become more complex with age. Not only is he likely to bully more intermittently and selectively, but when he does engage in bullying, he will use more complicated defense mechanisms and coping strategies to disguise it from himself and others. An example is “gaslighting”—a fairly common coping strategy of adult bullies that is a bit too complex for most young children to use. When gaslighting, a bully (or another abuser) distorts facts to convince the victim (and others) that their perception of aggression was incorrect. The bully may even turn the tables: i.e., not only claim the victim misunderstood events but that they should apologize for accusing the bully unjustly. The bully may then “play the bigger man” by offering to forgive and forget, etc.

Children learn through experience that “telling on a bully” can often lead to an even worse outcome for the victim. The bully has allies: His gang of lieutenants and toadies will take his side in a dispute and challenge claims the victim makes to an authority figure (see Bullying Part 2). And regardless of the outcome of the victim’s complaint, the bully and his allies may seek retribution given the opportunity to do so.

Adults remember this from childhood. As remarked by Ted Lasso2: “I learned two pretty big lessons on the rough-and-tumble playgrounds of Brookridge Elementary School… (one is that if) teacher tells a bully not to pick on someone, it’s just gonna make it worse.” Most adults realize that if they complain (for example, to HR) about being bullied, the situation is likely to devolve into an unresolvable: “I said vs. he said” dispute. The bully may tap allies to certify his blamelessness and charge the victim with being the bad apple. This is unlikely to lead to a desirable resolution for the victim, who may suffer additional negative consequences down the road. So even when an adult realizes they are a victim of bullying, they often choose to put up with it—or quietly move on, if they can.

In Bullying Part 4 we willl explore sexually frustrated and ethnically/racially motivated bullying, two common adult forms. I will finish with some thoughts about the importance of recognizing adult bullying, both as individuals and as a society.


1. Psychology Today, Healthy Prescriptions, “Pathology Is in the Eye of the Beholder”…

2. Ted Lasso, Season 1, Episode 3, “Trent Crimm: The Independent”, Universal/Warner Bros/Apple TV, 2020.