Once a bully, always a bully? Tips to address adult bullying behavior

In an age where the world is literally at our fingertips, it’s easy to take our daily, face-to-face interactions for granted. When social or workplace relationships turn sour because of hostile behavior, it can be a recipe for confusion, isolation and discomfort.

“Bullying among adults is common,” said Dr. Eric Storch, professor in the Menninger Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Baylor College of Medicine. “While it isn’t as frequently physical as it might be among children, it can be incredibly distressing for those who are affected.”

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Can you grow out of bullying behavior?

A study by the National Center for Education Statistics found about 21 percent of students ages 12 through 18 report being a victim of bullying at school. Storch says this could be a precursor to aggressive or bullying behavior as an adult.

“Childhood bullies have a higher tendency to become adult bullies,” he said. “Most people who were childhood bullies can grow out of it as they mature, but some individuals continue to engage in those types of behaviors through college and adulthood.”

Storch says instability and dysfunction in the home can play a role in whether a childhood bully becomes an adult bully.

“Being in a conflict-ridden household where aggression was the norm can be a risk factor for bullying. A lack of presence of caregivers can also be a problem and is associated with later bullying behaviors.”

Childhood vs. adulthood bullying behaviors

Childhood bullying usually consists of two types: overt and relational.

“Overt includes any behavior that is overtly aggressive, such as physical altercations, punching, or saying something really mean,” he said. “Relational is more about behavior that damages relationships, such as spreading rumors and gossiping.”

Storch notes that as people get older, the frequency of physical aggression tends to decrease, whereas rates of relational aggression stay stable.

“Bullies engage in relational bullying to advance their goals. Whether it is to promote themselves or get back at someone they don’t see eye-to-eye with, this seems to be the most common manifestation of bullying behavior among adults,” he said. “Being a victim of workplace or social bullying is associated with worsening work performance, increased sadness, exclusion and avoiding social situations.”

How to deal with bullying

If you’re dealing with aggressive workplace behavior, Storch says it’s best to talk it out directly with the person involved first before seeking other solutions.

“If you are unable, for any reason, to confront the individual and let them know how their behavior is making you feel, consult with your supervisor or human resources department on how to best alleviate the problem.”

Social bullying outside of the workplace is also common. Storch says there are fewer controls in these scenarios, but talking to a close friend about how to navigate the situation can be useful.

If you’re coping with emotional distress from bullying, talking to a mental health professional can also be helpful. Storch stresses the importance of applying these strategies to daily life.

“As helpful as therapy can be, it’s just as important to learn how to effectively deal with the situation and be able to practice these tools so you can live the life you really want to live.”

Addressing bullying behavior

Are you concerned that your behavior might be negatively affecting others? Storch suggests talking to colleagues or friends for more insight.

“One way to address potential bullying behavior in one’s own self is to try to receive feedback from peers about how you can change your behavior,” he said. “You might also work with a mental health professional to figure out how to deal with inappropriate or aggressive social behaviors.”

“Being on the receiving end of bullying is, unfortunately, a common experience for many people, regardless of age – but it’s not something you have to accept as the norm.”

Learn more about the Baylor Psychiatry Clinic or call 713-798-4857.

-By Nicole Blanton

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