Bullying causes harm, and can destabilise one's sense of self. It impacts how relationships are formed in family, social and work contexts.
Bullying is a common concern in schools, youth groups and young friendships, and now on social media platforms. Use of anonymity makes it harder to hold bullies to account, expose them and stop the cycle of abuse. While the law catches up, therapists are helping deal with the fall-out from the stalking, harassment and disruption to education that cyberbullying causes.
As children learn about friendships, relationships, and their own identity, they can be vulnerable to mistakes – others, and their own. But bullying is a separate distinct behaviour that has little to do with friendship or self-expression. Child therapists are experts in working with children who have been bullied at school, and talking about what happened can help children return to education and friendships with a sense of validation about what happened.
Bullying persists in adulthood, and power imbalances at work can make a fertile environment for abusers to exploit the people around them. Academia, law, medicine, and education all face systemic problems of bullying, but no industry is immune. Therapists are well-placed to talk about bullying at work, whether in the past or ongoing, and can help people find the strength to better respond to the abuse they face.
The definition of bullying is harm, intimidation or coercion of someone who appears vulnerable. Bullying is often repeated over a period of time, and the bully usually relies on a power imbalance (whether real or imaginary) to keep exploiting a person’s vulnerability.
Bullying has traditionally been treated as a slippery or subtle subject, but often this approach is simply an attempt to ignore or accept a dynamic that exploits others.
Even if you decide your situation does not amount to bullying, to question it suggests that there is something painful, difficult or stressful happening. Talking to a therapist can help you confirm whether or not your situation classes as bullying, and if not, what else might be happening.
Bullying can resolve of its own accord, but in other cases it can last for months or years.
People who have been bullied in the past sometimes report that bullying seems to ‘follow’ them or that they feel people can ‘see’ their vulnerability. Therapy can help a person explore memories of bullying, and question why it might feel easier to blame themselves for what other people did or didn’t do to prevent what happened.
A study in 2019 found that a fifth of under-21s in the UK had been a victim of bullying within the previous year. Research in 2015 found that nearly a third of adults had experienced workplace bullying.
Bullying flourishes in environments where a person is free to target somebody. This might be because the bullying occurs in private (for example, only during one-to-one meetings at work, or in a private online space) or because people who witness the bullying fail to act.
Failure to act might be down to:
Bullying is never caused by the person being bullied.
Bullying is not a mental health problem in itself, although it can increase a person’s risk of depression of anxiety. But many people find that therapy breaks through the isolation of being bullied, and can help people recover their confidence after bullying. Therapy might also support someone who wants to take formal action against a bully, school or workplace.
A phoneline for adults and children provides support and practical advice about bullying at school and work.