Bullying can have a significant impact on a person’s mental health and lead to anxiety, depression, and persistent low confidence.

Bullying can present itself in many types (verbal, physical, and social) and different spaces (school, workplace, and online). All can be harmful in the short and long term.

Bullying is a common problem affecting nearly 1 in 5 high school students on school property in the United States, and 1 in 6 high school students are bullied electronically (cyberbullying). For adults, bullying can be experienced in the workplace. A 2021 report says 30% of workers have direct experience with bullying.

According to research, the most frequent form of abuse children encounter is bullying by their peers. Studies also show that bullying has significant effects on children’s mental health and brain development.

What causes this behavior? What are its effects on mental health? And what can we do to prevent it?

Bullying is a type of aggressive behavior where one person or a group of people persistently aim to hurt someone emotionally or physically.

Bullying can take numerous forms, including physical contact, verbal insults, or more subtle behavior — all to inflict pain.

“Unfortunately, bullying will affect all youth at some point, whether they are the target, witness, or perpetrator,” says Dr. Anisha Patel-Dunn, the chief medical officer at LifeStance Health.

There are three types of bullying:

  • verbal
  • social
  • physical

Verbal bullying

Verbal bullying is saying or writing something hurtful. This includes:

  • teasing
  • taunting someone
  • saying inappropriate remarks
  • making threats to hurt the other person

“Verbal bullying is name-calling, especially about physical appearance or some perceived weakness,” says Gabrielle A. Carlson, MD, professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Stony Brook University’s Renaissance School of Medicine in New York. “Also, making comments about race or ethnicity or background or where the kid lives. Anything to humiliate the kid.”

Sometimes, this kind of bullying aims to get the child to react, and then the bullied child gets into trouble. It’s sometimes hard to distinguish bullying from teasing, however. Sometimes kids consider themselves bullied if another kid doesn’t agree with them or do what they want.

Some children have a “hostile attributional bias” and see ambiguous situations as bullying, Carlson explains. It’s important to make the distinction.

Social bullying

Social bullying is damaging another person’s reputation or relationships. This includes:

  • gossiping about someone
  • embarrassing someone in front of others
  • excluding someone from the group

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more female high school students in the United States experience bullying than their male counterparts: 30% of female students experienced bullying at school or cyberbullying compared to 19% of male students.

“Relational aggression or social bullying is often the domain of girls, especially adolescent girls,” Carlson says. “Getting other girls to isolate the one who is the object of bullying is especially troubling. Or damaging their reputation and spreading false rumors about them.”

Cyberbullying also falls under this category (verbal and social bullying using social media).

“It’s important to note that cyberbullying can be just as detrimental to youths’ self-esteem as physical manifestations of bullying,” Patel-Dunn says.

“Given that many children and young adults are spending more time online as a result of the pandemic, they’re more likely to encounter cyberbullying and the negative mental health implications that come with that,” she adds.

A 2019 survey shows that 16% of children from grades 9 to 12 experience cyberbullying.

“What is particularly toxic about it is that it is often anonymous, and a whole system of constant insults and threats can be perpetrated that goes on and on, and you don’t know who the perpetrators are,” Carlson adds. “If someone trips you, you at least know who it is.”

Physical bullying

Physical bullying is causing harm to someone’s body or personal effects. This involves:

  • hitting
  • pushing
  • tripping
  • taking another person’s things without permission
  • breaking or causing harm to another person’s things

Bullying in the workplace

Bullying takes place among adults in the workplace as well.

According to a recent survey from the Workplace Bullying Institute, more than 79 million workers in the United States are affected by bullying. This figure includes those who are the targets of bullying and witnesses.

Bullying in the workplace can present as:

  • excessive performance monitoring
  • excessively harsh or unjust criticism
  • being purposely given incorrect deadlines and instructions
  • threats, humiliation, and other verbal abuse

“Kids who look, sound, and feel depressed are sometimes being bullied,” Carlson says. “Kids stop socializing and start avoiding social situations, including school. They become more irritable and/or anxious.”

Some specific warning signs to look for are:

  • The child comes home from school with torn, damaged, or missing clothing, books and belongings.
  • They have unexplained injuries, such as bruises, cuts, and scratches.
  • The child doesn’t bring friends homeafter school or spend time at their homes. They seem isolated from other kids and may not have good friends to share time with.
  • The child appears to be fearful about attending school, walking to and from school, or riding the bus.
  • They choose a longer or unusual route for going to and from school.
  • The child has poor appetite, headaches, and stomach aches especially before school.
  • They ask for or take extra money from their family members.
  • They appear anxious, distressed, unhappy, depressed, or tearful when they come home from school.
  • They show unexpected mood shifts, irritability, or sudden outbursts of temper.
  • The child has problems sleeping.
  • They lose interest in school workand show a decline in academic performance.
  • They talk about or attempt suicide.

“Warning signs that your child may be the victim of bullying can be varied, but a few examples are difficulty sleeping, low self-esteem, and changes in mood,” Patel-Dunn says.

“Children may also want to skip school if that is where the bullying is occurring, so any indication that they’re trying to avoid going to class can be another sign,” she adds.

If you notice a change in your child’s behavior and suspect they’re being bullied, it’s important to initiate a compassionate and nonjudgmental conversation.

Bullying can have severe implications on a person’s mental health while it’s occurring and the trauma that comes later.

Research confirms the negative effects of bullying, which can cause:

Whether the bullying is verbal, physical, or social, it can cause deep-seated trauma and mental scars that could take years to heal. More specifically, the consequences depend on how long the bullying goes on and what’s done about it.

“Stopping the bullying or getting the child out of the circumstances is important. Otherwise, they just give up,” Carlson states. “Depression and social anxiety are […] consequences. So are suicide attempts and suicide.”

To address bullying effectively requires a community approach.

“One of the most important things parents and educators can do is have open and honest conversations about bullying and the implications,” Patel-Dunn says. “Helping kids understand the various manifestations of bullying and generating that awareness is a key step.”

It’s also helpful to remind kids that they can turn to a support system.

“They don’t have to navigate these challenges alone — they should never feel embarrassed or ashamed to reach out to a parent, trusted adult, teacher, or counselor if they are experiencing bullying,” Patel-Dunn says.

A culture of respect at home and school is key.

“If bullies know they don’t have traction, they don’t bully,” Carlson says. “This needs to start at the top in schools. The administrators set the tone. If teachers set up the classroom so that they promote prosocial behavior, bullying is far less likely. What I hear over and over is that adults stood by and did nothing.”

Similarly, teaching kids how to respond to bullying is important – not just the kid being bullied but their peers.

“Other kids stand by for two reasons,” Carlson says. “They are terrified they’ll be next, or they are vicariously enjoying the bullying.”

Peer responsibility to intervene or to get an adult to intervene is critical, Carlson says. “One of the most effective suicide preventions is teaching kids to report any hint of suicidal thinking to adults. The same is true for bullying.”

Suicide prevention

If you or someone you know is in crisis, help is available right now. You can:

If you’re outside the U.S., you can reach out to Befrienders Worldwide.

Bullying is a form of aggressive behavior in which one person or a group of people intentionally and repeatedly aim to hurt someone emotionally or physically.

There are several types of bullying (verbal, social, and physical) and can take place in different spaces (school, workplace, and online).

Bullying can affect mental health and lead to anxiety, depression, and sleep disorders.

But there are ways to spot the signs of bullying, foster a culture of respect among kids and peers, and properly and effectively respond to bullying.

If you or your child is experiencing bullying, there are resources you may find helpful.

Looking for a therapist but not sure where to start? Psych Central’s How to Find Mental Health Support resource can help.