Bullying: Why it happens and what to do.

Bullying is something you might think only relates to the realm of children and school. Unfortunately, it’s so much more widespread than that. This article will talk about how to recognise it, why it happens and what you can do about it.

Every single day there are instances of bullying – at school, yes – but also at work, home, in social situations, anywhere where humans interact.


What is it?

Bullying involves the use of power to dominate or intimidate others in some way. It often uses force or threat (physical or otherwise) and hurtful teasing or threatening. Bullying is more than a one-off action, it involves a pattern of damaging behaviour, and results in the person feeling embarrassed, powerless, or hurt.


What to look for:

Do you know how to recognise bullying?

Firstly – if you feel you are being bullied, you are probably right. If someone else’s treatment of you seems unfair, unkind, and repeated, and it is causing you distress – it is bullying. It can be hard to recognise when it is happening to you, and you may have thoughts of ‘it’s not too bad’, or ‘perhaps I did something to deserve this’. Speak to someone you trust, and try to understand what resources are available to you. There are some links at the end of this article.


What might you see in victims?

- Changes in their behaviour: this is the most major one. Have you noticed someone becoming more withdrawn? A change in personality?

- More emotional reactions: Are they down or anxious more often, nervous about things like going to work or school, do they have more explosive emotional responses?

- Deteriorating health: physical health is linked with mental health so you might notice things like hair loss, skin picking, frequent absences at work/school or low energy.

Simple things like interacting online only with camera turned off, not going to things they’ve been invited to, doing less well at school or work, speaking negatively about themselves or not being excited about the things they once were, are all things to look out for.

Of course – sometimes people will tell you directly. Listen to what someone is trying to tell you and believe them. If your child, colleague/employee, friend or someone you care about has mentioned something, no matter how casually, try to understand more, and make sure they know you are a safe person to talk to and can be trusted.

A final note – people often think they’ll be able to notice bullying as it’s happening, and that may be true for more obvious interactions. But some forms are much more subtle. For example - something called a ‘micro-aggression’ (a repeated hostile slight) is an example of a smaller and more subtle version of bullying that can be just as harmful over time.


Why does it happen?

There is no one clear answer on this, but there are a number of different factors that play a part:

- Anyone can fall victim to it, but some people are especially vulnerable – generally those who are different from their peers in some way. This can be because they behave or look differently

- People who bully sometimes have problems and are unhappy in some way. They might be trying to get attention or power they feel are lacking. Sometimes bullies are jealous, or feeling scared and trying to cover this up.

- Some bullies genuinely seem to enjoy harming other people. Others seem to be completely unaware of their own effect.

- Sometimes, bullies are created at home. If they have been mistreated by family members, they might pass this behaviour along and be aggressive with others.

- Similarly if there is someone bullying others, sometimes people copy them or join in – maybe out of fear of becoming a victim, or sometimes just because they imitate what they have seen.

- Research has shown that many bullies believe their behaviour to be acceptable. They aren’t aware of their own impact, and think what they are doing is ‘not that bad’.

- This is where the environment comes in. Bullying is much worse when surrounding people (the community) don’t take any actions to prevent bullying.


Cost of bullying

Regardless of the reason or way it develops, this much is clear: Experiencing bullying is distressing and can have incredibly long reaching effects. Adults who were bullied as children often carry the emotional scars well into adulthood.

Research has shown that the social and financial cost of workplace bullying for example, is astronomical. People being less productive at work, not showing up for work, becoming physically or mentally unwell, and even resigning – are all risks that can stem from bullying going unnoticed. We can’t emphasise enough – if you’re in a position to help stop it from happening, do everything you can.


What types of bullies exist?

There are many different types of bullies, and some are obvious to spot, while some are more subtle. They can belong to these major categories:

- Physical bullying – involves things like hitting or kicking, resulting physical injury or pain, or damaging of property.

- Verbal bullying - includes name calling, insults, teasing, intimidation, discrimination. Sometimes it starts out with humour and then gets worse.

- Social bullying – this is often harder to recognise and is mostly done behind someone’s back. It’s meant to harm someone socially in terms of their reputation. Examples of this are spreading rumours, mimicking, excluding someone.

- Cyber bullying – any kind of bullying using digital technologies. Examples are abusive messages, gossip about others online, posting photos of the victim, imitating others or using their login.


How to stop it

The single best thing anyone can do about bullying, is to develop a culture that prevents it from happening, or identifies and squashes it if it does.

You may be a boss or manager that is able to do this in a workplace, or simply a family member/friend who can help set the tone and expectations of how people treat one another. You can do this by modelling treating others well, by clearing stating rules and expectations, and by calling out any unkind behaviours as it arises.

Evidence shows that diversity work is extremely helpful (teaching others, including children, about how people can be from all walks of life, cultures, religions, outward appearances and so on) and learn to appreciate and value all members of community.

Spend time looking out for all of the more subtle signs of bullying, and don’t wait to intervene. If you have a hunch – you are probably right.

Develop close relationships with people (your children, employees, friends) and schedule regular check ins (formally at work, informally with your children or friends) so that ideally they will communicate with you if something has gone wrong. If they don’t come to you – ensure there is someone they can go to.

As a bystander - make it clear you don’t agree with hurtful behavior. A simple statement like ‘that isn’t a kind way to speak about x’ or ‘actually it’s pretty unfair to x’ can go a long way to showing the bully that not everyone agrees – and helps the victim see they have support.

Demonstrate support in as many ways as you can – for example if there is someone who is often excluded, invite them to join activities or just sit with them at break times. If someone is always being talked over, say ‘we didn’t get to hear the end of what x was saying’.

Gather community – if your child is experiencing bullying, get to know parents and other children in the area. If it’s happening socially, make an effort to build a supportive group of friends around the person. At work – develop social groups, ask about each others lives, see where it is possible to connect.


Need more resources/somewhere to turn?



Netsafe Cyberbullying

Umbrella Wellbeing


About the Author

Nadine Isler

Nadine Isler is a Registered Psychologist who specialises in treating anxiety and related conditions. She finds the human brain fascinating and loves working with people from all walks of life. She was born in Switzerland and is now based in Auckland and has two children.