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Three adult sitting at desk having intense conversation.We receive complaints from all over the world about adult bullying, where one or more people are misusing their power to bully an adult colleague, family member, or someone else. Here are just a few of countless examples:

  • “My colleague scowls when I come into our office and tries to sabotage any idea I come up with by making up stories about me.”
  • “My boss speaks to me in a sneering voice and makes nasty remarks about my competence instead of giving me feedback on how to improve my performance.”
  • “One family member is trying to ruin my credibility with the rest of our family and is shunning me from family events.”
  • “I’m on a board of directors of a community organization. One member disrupts our meetings by threatening to resign if he doesn’t get his way or shouting others down if he disagrees about something.”
  • “My girl friend will get upset and threaten to break up if I don’t buy her things I can’t afford.”
  • “I was part of an on-line community that was supposed to support parents but found myself being ganged up on and eventually shunned.”
  • “One person keeps targeting me for public ridicule online that in ways that are harming my reputation.”

In any relationship, people might make mistakes, lash out in hurtful ways, be rude, or be thoughtless. Child or adult bullying means that someone (or more than one person) is repeatedly and deliberately trying to hurt another person with less power.

Someone might have more power than another person:

  • Physically: By being stronger, bigger, louder, and/or more aggressive.
  • Economically: By having more money; by controlling money you need; and/or being your boss.
  • Emotionally: By being more willing than you are to damage your relationship; by knowing how to make you feel guilty; by knowing how to manipulate you into doing things that are not in your best interest such as lending money that won’t get paid back; and/or by knowing how to upset you.
  • Socially: By being in a position to control access to something you want or need, such as where you live or access to someone you love; by being able to get other people to think less of you; and/or by being more credible or believable than you are.

When someone misuses their power with an intention to be hurtful to you, it can feel miserable. Figuring out how to use the power you already have to protect yourself can be life-changing.

Nothing works in all adult bullying situations all the time, but here are some Kidpower People Safety skills that can often prevent and stop bullying.

1) Protect yourself emotionally.

Feeling helpless and persecuted and wishing that the bullying would stop are normal reactions.  However, feeling helpless, feeling victimized, and wishing will waste your time and energy, will most likely cause you a lot of pain, and will not make the situation better.  Here are a few Kidpower emotional safety techniques that can help to protect yourself from the emotional impact of adult bullying:

  • The Kidpower Trash Can. Imagine throwing hurting words away and saying something nice to yourself.
  • The Screen. Imagine a screen protecting you from the other person, sorting out insults from useful information.
  • The Emotional Raincoat. If someone is storming and you cannot just leave, imagine that you are in a real storm, wearing a warm waterproof raincoat. Make de-escalating statements, such as “I understand that this is upsetting to you.”
  • Getting Centered. Straighten your back. Feel where your hands and feet are. Take a breath and let it out slowly. Find something peaceful to focus on.

See: Emotional Triggers, Emotional Attacks, and Emotional Safety Techniques.

2) Assess your choices.

Most of the time, you can choose how you are going to respond to adult bullying behavior. Deciding to make a conscious choice instead of feeling like a helpless victim of someone’s behavior can be very empowering. Be strategic by taking actions that further your own goals rather than simply reacting to someone else’s hurtful behavior. Choices might include:

  • Leaving or Staying. You can disengage for a moment or end the relationship completely. You can set boundaries about what needs to change in order for you to stay. You can decide to stay but figure out how to stop the person’s behavior from upsetting you. You can pretend that someone who is acting mean is sick and walk calmly away saying something like, “I will talk with you when you are feeling better.”
  • Speaking up or letting things go. Pick your battles so that you use your energy, care, and time wisely. Is this relationship important enough to invest in?
  • Saying “No” or ‘Yes” or “Maybe or “Wait.” If someone is trying to pressure you into doing something you aren’t sure is right for you, remember that your time and space belong to you. You can say, “I’ll think about it.”

3) Set boundaries.

If you have a relationship with someone who is important to you, set boundaries sooner rather than later. Keep in mind:

  • Don’t use the Wishing Technique. Waiting until you are ready to explode is a recipe for failure.
  • HOW you set boundaries makes a big difference in how well they work. See our article on Assertive Advocacy.
  • Rehearse if setting boundaries is hard. Practice out loud what you want to say and do so that you are prepared to be powerful, respectful, and persistent in speaking up for yourself. See our article Fullpower Boundaries for People We Know.

4) Remember you can FEEL one way and ACT another.

Suppose the person who is bullying is your boss. You can choose to stay calm in the moment and decide how to address the problem later. Some bosses you might be able to speak up with away from the heat of the moment.  Others you might not. You might practice things to say that are respectful both to yourself and to your boss.

5) Get help.

Remember the Kidpower boundary principles that problems should not be secrets and to keep asking until you get help. Document the bullying behavior in as objective terms as you can. There are many different ways of getting help. Depending on the situation, you might:

  • Join forces with others if someone in a position of power is misusing their authority.
  • Go up the chain of command. Who in your situation has the power to do something to stop this behavior?
  • If someone is bullying at your place of work, talk with human resources. Bullying and harassment are often against the rules.
  • Talk problems over with people you trust, but remember that endlessly agonizing about someone’s upsetting behavior is not going to lead to change.
  • Educate people at your workplace or organization with the kinds of teamwork and leadership training that Kidpower provides. Having a positive culture of safety and respect helps to prevent adult bullying.
  • If you feel stuck, get professional help to support you in making needed changes and in taking care of yourself emotionally.

As adults, we have both more choices and more power than most children. Young people are going to learn more from what we do than from what we say. If children see their adults deciding that adult bullying behavior is unacceptable and stopping ourselves and others from doing it, they are better prepared to understand that this behavior is unsafe and unacceptable.

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Copyright © 2012 - present. All rights reserved.

Published: March 20, 2012   |   Last Updated: October 6, 2021

Kidpower Founder and Executive Irene van der Zande is a master at teaching safety through stories and practices and at inspiring others to do the same. Her child protection and personal safety expertise has been featured by USA Today, CNN, Today Moms, the LA Times, and The Wall Street Journal. Publications include: cartoon-illustrated Kidpower Safety Comics and Kidpower Teaching Books curriculum; Bullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safe; the Relationship Safety Skills Handbook for Teens and Adults; Earliest Teachable Moment: Personal Safety for Babies, Toddlers, and Preschoolers; The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young People, and the Amazon Best Seller Doing Right by Our Kids: Protecting Child Safety at All Levels.