Bullying isn’t just a childhood phenomenon, confined to playgrounds and school hallways. Whether you’re the bully, or the unfortunate recipient of the bully’s attention, the behavioral and mental health issues bullying generates can follow you into adulthood. “People who’ve been bullied often struggle with depression and anxiety and/or intimacy issues as adults,” says Gail Saltz, M.D., a Clinical Associate Professor of Psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital.
The hair-pulling and fisticuffs that define childhood bullying eventually give way to something Saltz calls “more sophisticated behavior.” When they’re older, “People do get more emotionally intelligent,” she tells Life Reimagined. “The bullying tends to be a little more covert, less physical and more emotional.” Still, being a bully as a kid doesn’t always mean you’ll be a bully when you’re grown up. Adults may find that bullying behavior only surfaces during certain times, like when insecurity is an issue or there’s a loss of self-esteem. “It’s an attempt at a more primitive means of grabbing power and getting more confidence, or for holding on to things they think are important.”
Because bullying is so often thought of as physical, we tend not to label it when we see it manifest in adulthood when people are cruel, or use techniques like shunning and exclusion, or passive-aggressive maneuvering, says Saltz. Interestingly, it’s unlikely that a person will recognize him or herself as a bully. That’s because adult bullying often happens in a high-anxiety setting. “That’s what drives the defensive behavior which makes it hard to have insight,” Saltz says. Telling your sibling he/she is a bully isn’t recommended. “History has shown that the person you’re bullying is not in a position to point it out to you, you’re not likely to be receptive.” Saltz recommends that a bystander deliver the news—another sibling, a co-worker, partner or even a parent—someone who’s around the behavior enough to see what’s going on.
Avoid the word bully. Instead, Saltz suggests, use conciliatory language such as, “When you say X, I feel Y,” and be very specific about both the behavior and the consequences because you’re trying to help the person gain some insight. “Bullying often comes out of an old pattern that tends to be reverted back to at high-stress times like holidays, when everyone regresses,” says Saltz. In those environments, the insecurity and sibling rivalry tend to revive any bullying behavior that’s lain fallow. Sometimes parents unknowingly set the stage by feeding the competition for attention—comparing one sibling to another, for example. In this case, pointing to the parent’s behavior as a trigger could be helpful in changing the dynamic.
Saltz suggests avoiding the circumstances that promote bullying between siblings. This could mean gathering on different turf, getting together one-on-one, sans parents or other siblings. Saltz doesn’t recommend just sucking it up, because that can have negative long-term effects on mental health and relationships.
Bullying between siblings can be “particularly insidious because those are primary, important relationships and you base your identity off your sibling. It can be a model for later intimate relationships,” says Saltz. “I think parents need to be more actively involved in discouraging sibling bullying and not simply say, ‘Oh, that’s what everyone does.’ Parents need to be more active about intervening, about setting limits with children and grandchildren.” That can be hard to do, Saltz says, if the parents were victims of bullying themselves.
If you can’t help your sibling change his/her ways through the use of a bystander, there’s also forgiveness, which can admittedly be hard to muster. “That is part of the process of getting past bullying. By keeping them on the hook, you’re keeping that dynamic alive. On the flip side, if your sibling steps forward and says I’m sorry, I think you really do have to try and forgive.” Life Reimagined’s program Zero Negativity, can help you put things in perspective.