You might think that bullying only happens to kids — and that adults grow out of bullying. As a result, when adults get bullied by other adults, they may not recognize it as bullying. 

“Because adult bullying is often sneakier and more masked, the person being bullied carries shame and self-doubt — wondering if it’s all ‘in their head’ and they are misinterpreting what is happening,” says Psychology Today’s Dr. Leah Katz. 

“Furthermore, the person getting bullied may likely be worried about real-life outcomes that can have long-ranging and devastating effects — loss of their job, relationships or reputation. Because of this, adult bullying feels taboo and carries more weight.”

Katz also cites survey research by Harris Poll that revealed adults are bullied at similar levels to adolescents. Specifically, 31% of the 2,000 U.S. adult participants indicated that they had been bullied as an adult. The definition of bullying used by the survey was subjection to “repeated, negative behavior intended to harm or intimidate.” 

Another, perhaps more popular, term to describe bullying among women is relational aggression. Acts of relational aggression include gossiping, cyberbullying and ostracizing. 

According to VeryWell, “Adult women who bully others do so for the same reasons that teens bully others. They want power, especially social power. And they often use relational aggression as their weapon of choice. This covert type of bullying is both subtle and hurtful. And it’s effective.”

Mean girls aren’t just in high school

In 2019, Kristen Kingsbury relayed her experiences with adult bullying with Today.

In 2017, Kingsbury, her husband and her seven children moved to a new neighborhood. Everything seemed fine — at first. Her 9-year-old daughter, Pascal, even made a new friend down the street. 

Things quickly changed after Kingsbury received a visit from the mother of Pascal’s new friend. Immediately after entering the house, the woman told Kingsbury that their daughters could no longer play together. 

“The woman ticked off a laundry list of reasons, including Pascal’s taste in music, which she deemed inappropriate,” Kingsbury told Today. “She was playing it off like her daughter was innocent and her innocence was being ruined because of us. She said, ‘You’re not our people. You will never be anything like us and the whole neighborhood knows it.’” 

“It was almost like she was sent over as a representative,” Kingsbury continued.

The aggression did not end there. Kingsbury was ostracized by other school moms who never gave her any information about the PTA. They also ignored all of her comments during chaperoned field trips. 

Kingsbury finally realized that nothing she could say would change the action of the mean mothers around her. Fortunately, she was able to make a new start when her daughter started a new school. She even found herself elected as the president of the new PTA. 

When it comes to adult bullying, Kingsbury’s advice is to “do your best to rise above it. Don’t get caught up in making nasty remarks back because that never works. Focusing on my family helps me to stay strong. I refuse to let them win by changing who I am.”

How to prevent adult bullying

  1. If you are the victim of bullying, act now. Confide in someone you trust. Like Katz said, many women experience feelings of shame when they are bullied. Remember that you are not alone. Almost everyone has experienced bullying. Shame dissipates as you share your experiences with others who have also experienced bullying. Friends can also help you set boundaries and rebuild your self-esteem. 
  2. If you are the perpetrator, resolve your past. Relational aggressive acts are often used as a survival method to protect against a personal lack of esteem. Those with low self-esteem have often experienced bullying themselves as children. Take steps to heal past wounds. This will prevent you from perpetuating the bullying you have experienced. Remember, you are always capable of being a bully, but you can choose to be something different. 
  3. If you witness bullying, speak up. Elementary schools preach bullying prevention. Part of prevention is calling out a bully. This gets harder to do as an adult, but it’s still necessary. Allowing bullying to continue is akin to bullying itself.