Tag Archives: Bullying

The mental toll of adult bullying

By Lisa R. Rhodes May 25, 2023

A woman being bullied at work. Two coworkers are pointing and laughing at her. She has her hands on her hand, looking down, appears stressed.

Antonio Guillem/Shutterstock.com

Adult bullying is a social and mental health issue. Regardless of the reasons why a person is targeted by a bully, research shows that its impact can be disastrous to a person’s health and well-being.

According to a survey of 2,000 U.S. adults conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of the American Osteopathic Association in 2017, 31% of Americans have been bullied as an adult. Of those adults who are targets of bullying, 71% report that they suffer from stress, 70% struggle with anxiety and depression, 39% experience loss of sleep, 26% experience headaches and 55% deal with a loss of confidence.

Characteristics of bullying behavior

Sometimes the more exemplary a person’s character, the more likely they are to be bullied at home or in the workplace. Melissa Spino, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) in Michigan, says although anyone can be demeaned by a bully, a person who is highly skilled in the workplace or socially authentic and admired by others can often (unknowingly) arouse feelings of inadequacy and jealousy in a bully that can fuel their harmful behavior.

“Someone that is respected and popular often infuriates a bully into action because it brings to the forefront that the adult bully is lacking in these areas and it’s a hit to their self-worth,” says Spino, who has counseled people who bully or those affected by bullying for more than a decade. “To feel better about themselves, the adult bully may target the person, [which results in] a short-term ego boost, helping them feel superior. It’s a short-term fix that has to be repeated often and becomes a vicious pattern.”

Jessi Eden Brown, a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in Lake Forest Park, Washington, says having a positive personality, a strong ethical code and a committed work ethic can often make “good employees” susceptible to bullying by their supervisor or manager, who may view their noteworthy character as a vulnerability or weakness.

If an employee is “nice and goes along with the rules,” then the bully may view them as “someone they can mess with,” Brown notes. In addition, people who are more susceptible to bullying behavior tend to be nonconfrontational and value professionalism and diligence over office politics and “game playing,” she adds.

“Aggressors detect these traits and seize the opportunity to break the target’s spirit, knowing the target will take the criticism to heart and will be unlikely to confront the bully’s behavior, especially when the bully outranks them,” Brown explains.

In addition, someone who is engaging in bullying behavior in the workplace may attempt to belittle or put down a subordinate or co-worker to make themselves look better to the company’s leadership or their other colleagues, says Brown, who is also an LPC in Colorado. These bullies “need to be the most respected, honored person in the room,” she notes. “They tend to be driven by status, opportunity and power; in myopic pursuit of these goals, bullies consistently rank their needs and desires above others’ merit and rights.”

Brown says with an identity so tied to self-importance, “many workplace bullies feel injured by criticism or defeat, which gives rise to the defiance, anger and sabotage we see them unleash onto their targets.”

Tony Grace, an LPC with a private practice in Portland, Oregon, says a person’s vulnerabilities can also attract the ire of a bully. Bullies often look for people who “tend not to fight back, exercise their ability to say no and are under-resourced in some way,” Grace says. For example, people who don’t have many social connections, have trouble setting personal boundaries or recognizing personal boundary violations, have low self-esteem or self-worth, are too trusting or are emotionally wounded may be more susceptible to being the target of bullying behavior, he notes.

“Bullies are looking to take the least amount of risk for the maximum amount of benefit. The benefit, of course, is a sense of power and control,” Grace notes.

Natalia Tague, a licensed professional counselor and director of clinical operations at the Western Tidewater Community Services in Suffolk, Virginia, stresses that while it is important for counselors to keep in mind that bullies are hurt people who have not learned healthy ways to handle their pain, a bully’s behavior is their sole responsibility — and never the responsibility of the person they are targeting.

The personal strain of workplace bullying

In addition to the health impacts of bullying, an adult may also experience struggles in their personal life as a result of the harmful behavior of bullying in the workplace. Brown, who works as the professional coach for the Workplace Bullying Institute, says some of her clients report that being bullied at work added significant strain to their lives.

“Coping with bullying at work consumes valuable resources in terms of energy, compassion, motivation and time. Many targets invest additional time and effort into their work, with the hope that an improvement in performance or output will solve the problem” Brown explains. “This approach rarely works — remember bullies target high performers — and it saps reserves the target would normally have allocated to other life pursuits.”

As a result, a target’s family, friends and community ties may also experience strain and stress that originates from the workplace bully’s conduct, Brown adds. “Numerous clients have reported the ripple effects of being targeted by a workplace bully eventually damaged their personal relationships to the point of divorce, dissolved friendship and other painful estrangements,” she notes.

Workplace bullying can also affect a person’s finances and career. The person being bullied may be forced to quit their job as a result of a bully’s actions, or they may choose to leave a harmful work environment that is affecting their mental health and well-being.

Grace and Brown both say they decided to become entrepreneurs after being bullied in the workplace.

“I took a job that I thought was my dream job [eight years ago] and it quickly became a living nightmare because I was being bullied by a colleague and eventually by my boss,” Grace recalls. “I had to repeatedly set boundaries with both staff members, but eventually I left the job and went into private practice. It was one of the best decisions I have made as it provided me a sense of professional freedom I had not experienced before.”

Brown says she was bullied out of two jobs over the course of her career and went into private practice in 2009. “Like most targets, I was a dedicated, skilled, high-performing employee. I poured my heart into these jobs,” she notes. However, Brown says she was “driven out” for “adhering to strong ethical principles and pushback on business practices that consistently placed profit over the well-being of clients.”

Helping clients recover from bullying

The counselors interviewed for this article recommend a variety of therapeutic approaches to help clients who have been bullied heal, including person-centered and trauma-informed therapy, cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), dialectic behavioral therapy, acceptance and commitment therapy, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing.

It can take a while for people who have been bullied to build rapport and trust, especially those who have been bullied for a long time, Grace says. “Building trust will require the counselor to not only be patient but also transparent,” he explains. “Creating a secure attachment may require the counselor to model vulnerability and self-disclose their own humanity.”

For example, Grace says a counselor could disclose their own experiences with bullying, how they learned to set boundaries, how they became their own advocate or how they now give themselves permission to have their own wants or needs.

Many of Brown’s clients report having been bullied throughout their lives — at school, at home and within their larger community. People who have been continuously bullied often present with complex trauma, which is compounded if they also experience workplace bullying as an adult, she says.

Brown uses psychoeducation to help clients who have been bullied realize they are not to blame for the bully’s maltreatment. She also uses CBT techniques to help clients set goals for their recovery, which can include journaling to explore ideas for bolstering self-care, reframing their thoughts to find a sense of optimism in their lives and forming a robust support network.

“I teach targets how to compartmentalize their stress so that their time away from work can be less affected by the bullying and more intentionally directed toward self-care, spending quality time with family and friends, and engaging in other meaningful, restorative activities,” Brown says.

She also helps clients identify successful coping strategies that have worked in the past, acquire new coping tools and establish self-care routines. This process, Brown says, often leads to her helping clients develop an exit strategy, which includes exploring their interests, professional strengths and accomplishments, so they will be prepared to leave their job if necessary.

“Not only does this help to rebuild eroded self-confidence, but it also frames the client’s next steps, which could involve job seeking, obtaining specialized training, retirement planning, relocating, etc.,” Brown says. “Every exit plan is tailored to the client’s unique situation. The plan is intended to remind the client that they have choices and to weave the beginnings of a safety net so exercising that choice becomes less daunting.”

Brown also advises employees of workplace bullying to document the harmful behavior in case they decide to approach higher management or human resources to file a complaint or pursue alternative avenues for redress (e.g., involve a union representative, hire an attorney, negotiate a severance package).

Moving forward

Although every person’s experience is unique, it is possible for clients who have been bullied to learn to heal through counseling. Tague advises clients who have been bullied to remind themselves that “bullying is about the bully” and not about them.

“Bullies bully [others] to relive their own inner turmoil, not because the target of the bullying has done something to invite or deserve the behavior,” she explains. It can be helpful to reframe bullying behavior in this way, Tague says, because externalizing it allows the target to place the blame where it belongs — with the bully.

“Externalizing also allows the target to view the bullying behavior as separate from themselves, allowing them to feel compassion for the bully and reduce the power the bully wields over them,” she adds.

It’s normal to experience aftereffects from harmful bullying behavior, Tague notes. But sometimes people who have been bullied have a hard time moving past the hurt, and this, she stresses, is when they definitely need to seek help through counseling.

“Significant events such as bullying can change an individual. They will never be the same person they were before,” Spino says. But she adds that she’s seen that clients’ wounds can heal with time and work.

Just working through the negative effects of bullying can be “an indicator of their inner strength and resilience, which is something we focus on in therapy and it’s also a positive reminder of who they are at their core,” Spino says. “They need this reassurance that the person bullying them didn’t win and that they are not permanently damaged.”

Brown also recommends that people who have been bullied channel any unresolved feelings into becoming an advocate for others who have been abused or who cannot speak for themselves. For example, clients could volunteer on behalf of the survivors of domestic violence or another meaningful cause where they can help others. And over time, she says people who are targets of bullying can learn to “take back” some of what was taken from them.


 Read more about working with adults with bullying behaviors in Counseling Today’s May cover story. 


Lisa R. Rhodes is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lrhodes@counseling.org.

Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Working with adults who bully

By Lisa R. Rhodes May 12, 2023

Man standing over a woman at a work desk reprimanding her.


Everyone can remember being bullied. Maybe someone teased you relentlessly about your name because it “sounded funny” or they made fun of your physical appearance. Maybe someone pushed you around in the schoolyard, gossiped about you behind your back or made sure you were never invited to a birthday party.

Unfortunately, some children don’t outgrow these bullying behaviors, and the tendency to bully others can continue into adulthood. “Children who bully other children are more likely to bully as an adult,” says Tony Grace, a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and co-owner of Second Growth Counseling in Portland, Oregon. “They are five times more likely to have a criminal record, 10 times more likely to deceive others, six times more likely to fight other adults and three times more likely to harass.”

Research shows that adult bullying is common and many people are affected by it. A survey of 2,000 U.S. adults, conducted by the Harris Poll on behalf of the American Osteopathic Association in 2017, found that 31% of Americans have been bullied as an adult. And approximately 48.6 million Americans were bullied at work in 2021, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute (WBI).

“Adult bullying behavior can take many forms and it can happen in any social arena where there are two or more people involved,” Grace says. “That means bullying can not only happen in the workplace, but also in places of worship [and] spiritual settings, mission-driven organizations, PTA committees, parent-child playgroups and the home.”

The impact of adult bullying

Since most adults don’t usually physically threaten or attack other adults, adult bullying is often covert, Grace says, but it is no less violent in its effect on a target’s psyche and well-being. For example, a spouse in a marriage may require that only their needs are met, resulting in a relationship that is not authentic or equitable for the other spouse, he says. The bullying spouse may insist on having an open marriage — but only for themselves — or they may refuse to pay any bills and make extravagant purchases for themselves, leaving the other spouse to handle a constrained budget.

“The negative impact of bullying can be overwhelming and long-lasting,” Grace adds. “Bullying can cause anxiety, depression, panic attacks and/or disorders, suicidal ideation and somatic disorders, among other issues,” for the person who is the target of the bully. It can also have a negative impact on the person with bullying behaviors; for example, bullying may lead to recurrent loss of meaningful relationships, a sense of loneliness and a feeling of always being on edge.

Jessi Eden Brown, a licensed mental health counselor and LPC in Lake Forest Park, Washington, who works as the professional coach for WBI, says bullying is “truly a global problem.” It affects people of all races, ethnic groups, socioeconomic backgrounds and religions, and workplace bullying can be experienced at any time during a person’s career.

“The lingering effects from a bullying experience can be remarkable,” Brown says. “It may take years to recover from an experience like this.”

Adult bullying can be so detrimental that it can unhinge the self-esteem of the person who is being bullied and ruin their close relationships. Bullying in the workplace can also lead to absenteeism and poor performance. For example, Brown says a supervisor may transfer an employee to another department to isolate them from the rest of the team or to remove the resources they need to do their job. A supervisor may also unfairly criticize an employee’s work performance or hold the employee to a different professional standard than others on the team.

Melissa Spino, an LPC at Life Transitions Therapy in Lowell, Michigan, says clients who bully others in the workplace may engage in aggressive, passive-aggressive and hostile communication, or they may use personal attacks, false and hurtful rumors, and insults to target employees of a specific gender, race, religion or sexual orientation.

Adults who bully others may have also been negatively affected by bullying. Spino says these individuals have often experienced trauma in childhood and have been bullied by others. They may have learned their harmful behavior from their family of origin, where they used the behavior as a coping mechanism and it became a behavioral norm.

Research shows that children who were not only targeted by bullies but who also bullied others, also known as “bully-victims,” have negative experiences as adults. In an article published in Psychological Science in 2013, Dieter Wolke and colleagues stated that victims of childhood bullying, particularly chronic victims and bully-victims “are at increased risk for adverse health, wealth and social functioning in adulthood.”

Spino has also found that adults who bully others sometimes struggle with mental health issues such as narcissism, oppositional defiant disorder, anxiety, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, bipolar disorder, substance use disorder, impulse control issues or depression. They may also exhibit low self-esteem or self-worth or even be on the autism spectrum. Some of her clients have also presented with suicidal ideation.

Adults who engage in bullying behavior often feel powerless in their personal lives, Spino adds. “They may be living with someone that is very controlling, have a mental health disorder or [are being bullied by someone they know],” she says. “Some engage in displacement and take this out on co-workers or those they supervise in the form of bullying behaviors.”

Whether in the workplace or at home, bullying always involves an unequal power dynamic between the bully and the person being targeted. “All bullying involves a person with power,” Brown notes. An adult bully “demeans, humiliates or harms someone they feel may be vulnerable. Whether you’re a kid or an adult, there is harm.”

Reluctance to seek help

The counselors interviewed for this article acknowledge that although adult bullies engage in unhealthy behaviors and can experience unhealthy thinking patterns, they rarely, if ever, seek treatment for these mental health issues. Spino says that most of the clients who come to her practice for help with bullying describe being “forced” to come.

“Most often adult bullies seek treatment because a spouse threatens to leave them or their employer mandates it as a remedy for problem work behaviors,” she explains. “For employers, it’s often a final attempt to avoid terminating a valuable employee.” Some of Spino’s clients have also been mandated by the court to be treated for anger management because of their aggressive bullying behavior.

Grace says about 10% of his caseload is made up of clients who present bullying behavior, but he has found that these clients don’t self-identify as bullies or see their behaviors as bullying. “They may see their relationships as problematic, but I have never had someone come in saying, ‘Please help me, I am a bully,’” he notes.

In fact, he finds that these clients are often reluctant to take responsibility for their actions or notice how their actions have negatively affected others or themselves. He says adult bullies can see themselves as victims, tend to have an external locus of control and often justify their behaviors or actions.

“In many cases, the client will want to focus on changing the behavior of others, whether it’s partners, parents, siblings or co-workers,” Grace adds. “This desire to change others is the same emotional posture of bullying. [They want to] control others’ behaviors in order to gain something from them.”

Grace says counselors can encourage this clientele to participate in therapy by advising them that a change in their behavior can help to protect their professional reputation and save the relationships that they profess are meaningful to them, such as ones with a romantic partner or their children.

Counselors can also help adults who bully recognize the importance of their existential growth, Grace says. “Bullying clients can benefit from being reminded that everyone has something to process, evolve into or grow from,” he explains. “Anyone who claims they have life figured out and that they don’t have anything to work on is going to be a red flag for others in both personal and professional settings.”

When adult bullies do come in for treatment, Grace recommends that they watch Kathryn Schulz’s TED Talk “On being wrong” because, he says, it helps clients “recognize that being fallible is part of being human and bullying is often an attempt to never be wrong or wronged.”

Changing unhealthy thinking

Grace says clients who display bullying behaviors may also present with cognitive disorders. He has found that these clients usually demonstrate one of several distorted thought processes, which can include:

  • Dichotomous thinking: “Bullies tend to view the world with black-and-white thinking. They tend to have polarized thinking, for example, right versus wrong, good versus evil, strong versus weak and power versus helpless,” Grace explains. “Because of this polarized thinking, they tend to view themselves as good and anyone who opposes or disagrees with them as bad.”
  • Projection: “Bullies tend to project themselves onto others and attribute their own intentions, thought distortions, belief systems or values to others, and then respond accordingly,” Grace says. “For example, they tend to take criticism as a personal attack on their worth, value and competency because they often dispense criticism as a means to judge or attack others.”
  • Biased thinking: “Bullies also tend to overemphasize their target’s vulnerabilities, weaknesses, mistakes and human characteristics while minimizing or ignoring the target’s strengths, power and other positive attributes,” Grace says. “They also tend to minimize their own faults or negative attitudes while highlighting their strengths and/or good intentions.”

Adults who bully often feel a greater sense of safety and security when they are in control and have power over others, Grace adds. Therefore, counseling work often involves helping these clients challenge their worldview and their beliefs about themselves. He often uses cognitive behavioral techniques to reframe clients’ thinking and negative distortions. A few examples of the thought patterns that Grace and his clients work to reframe include:

  • “I am more than the sum of my mistakes” versus “My mistakes reveal an internal weakness or defectiveness”
  • “Not every interaction is a competition” versus “Only the best, smartest and most keen survive”
  • “I don’t need to win every conflict to be safe” versus “My safety is conditional”

Grace tries to help clients see that intimacy, vulnerability and fallibility are a part of being human. “Their worth, power and reputation are not tarnished by having these characteristics,” he says.

Spino acknowledges that although the ideal treatment for adult bullies would be to stop their unhealthy behaviors and replace them with healthy ones, this isn’t always realistic. “Especially when the majority don’t want help, won’t acknowledge they are the problem or accept any responsibility for their actions,” she adds.

Spino says she uses schema-focused cognitive therapy with these clients because “it integrates cognitive therapy with other psychological treatment approaches.” She finds it is especially helpful for clients with personality disorders or deeply ingrained patterns, which she says is often the case with adults who display bullying behavior. During the intake process, Spino also uses counseling assessment software to learn about her clients’ personality, home of origin, and thinking and anger patterns.

Spino once worked with a client who was engaging in bullying behavior in the workplace. Through assessment, she learned that this client had experienced parental neglect during childhood and had a high propensity for antisocial and narcissistic traits. This client had been bullying one co-worker because he felt this colleague was more popular than he was and was advancing at a faster pace in the company, Spino recalls. The client tried to sabotage this co-worker’s career by using aggressive behaviors and spreading untrue rumors about them at work.

During one session, she also discovered that the client had negative thoughts underlying his bullying behavior. He told her he felt that he was more intelligent than his co-worker and that he should be “the one to bring this person down” because “everyone else was too stupid” to see that this colleague really was “a nobody.”

The client, however, refused to explore any underlying issues and would often shut down when Spino brought up his bullying behavior. He refused to accept that he could be terminated for his behavior because he believed he was “irreplaceable,” she says.

When Spino suggested that they end therapy because the client wasn’t making any progress, his disposition changed. Then they were able to make some therapeutic gains by helping him to accept the company’s policies and procedures to prevent his sabotage against the co-worker. He also eventually managed to stop spreading rumors.

Bullying as a social norm

Part of the reason adults who display bullying behaviors don’t consider their behavior to be harmful or inappropriate is because society often views those same behaviors as socially acceptable, Grace says. For example, he says that it’s common practice for adults to spread gossip about others, which can be harmful or humiliating, and at work people in subordinate roles are often unable to review their managers or people in higher leadership positions.

“Our culture tends to elevate or promote people who have antisocial behaviors,” Grace says. “We call it professionalism, or we call it ambition. We call it something other than bullying behavior.”

Grace says society often has a fawn response to adult bullying behavior, and he believes more bullies would seek counseling if society did not hold them in high esteem, give them positions of power or minimize the consequences of their behavior.

“Unfortunately, instead of seeing adult bullying behavior as violent and antisocial, we tend to make them out to be heroes and thus shower them with fame, fortune and more power,” Grace says. “Why would a bully want to change their behaviors when they gain so much from it?”

Although therapy could help adult bullies increase a sense of empathy and respect for others, this can be a challenging task for therapists. “They [the clients] really don’t [want to] learn empathy and true respect but instead learn to fake it by accepting it as a social norm they need to adhere to in order to function in society,” Spino notes.

Brown says that some organizations and companies cultivate a culture of bullying. For example, organizational leaders may develop policies that place additional strain or pressure on employees (e.g., unforgiving attendance policies that allow for harsh, quick disciplinary actions) or that place a high value on competition among employees.

“Some managers see bullying as a valid form of motivation,” Brown says. They may not see anything wrong with mistreating an employee in a subordinate role, and they may excuse their own behavior by saying “that’s how we operate,” and that they are following the company’s rules, she adds.

Brown works with adult bullies through WBI’s Respectful Conduct Clinic, a service provided to companies that have identified a bully and want to give the person a chance to improve their professional skills before taking any steps for termination. WBI helps these companies develop new policies, trainings and enforcement protocols to prevent and stop bullying, while also defining a new standard of workplace behavior that applies to all employees, she explains.

As WBI’s professional coach, Brown helps employees who bully come to terms with their mistreatment of others and uses her counseling skills to help them gain insight into their unwelcome behavior. She says she usually begins session with a friendly, open statement such as “Your employer asked me to meet with you today. I’m guessing you might have some ideas or thoughts about why. What do you think is happening here?”

She then shares the employer’s concerns regarding the bullying behavior and outlines the consequences with the client, without disclosing the identity of the co-worker who is being bullied. She also uses psychoeducation about workplace bullying and mobbing (group bullying) to try to help the bully understand why their behavior is unacceptable. The bully is then presented with the company’s new workplace standards and is given the opportunity to remain with the employer and adhere to the new guidelines or voluntarily resign.

“It may sound harsh, but this method is quite effective in eradicating bullying from the workplace and restoring a culture of safety and respect,” Brown says.

Holding adults who bully accountable

The counselors interviewed for this article stress that although adults who bully can be challenging to treat, it is imperative that clinicians engage with this population to educate them and the public about the dangers of bullying across the life span.

Spino believes that knowledge is power, so she suggests counselors work to educate others about bullying through webinars, seminars, articles and social media. “Schools, employers and our legal system need to work together to come up with best practices for dealing with bullies and holding them accountable,” she says.

Grace says that clients who display bullying behaviors also need to be shown compassion. “If you look beyond the bullying surface, you will often find someone who has deep, long-lasting wounds and unfulfilled needs,” he says.

Although counseling can help some of these clients change their behavior, Grace also acknowledges that real change is a systemic effort. “Change cannot just happen on an individual level but must happen socially and with the societal structures we have built that actually reward bullying behavior,” he stresses.

Brown agrees that accountability is critical for adults who engage in bullying behaviors. “Regular counseling presents a unique opportunity to experiment with different behaviors, explore the outcomes and commit to demonstrable change,” she says. “It is a safe environment, without judgment, where the individual can develop a deeper understanding of their behavior and stumble through the difficult work of transforming how they relate to others.”


Read more about helping clients who have experienced adult bullying in the online exclusive “The mental toll of adult bullying.” 


Lisa R. Rhodes is a senior writer for Counseling Today. Contact her at lrhodes@counseling.org.

Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Voice of Experience: Social media and mental health

By Gregory K. Moffatt February 21, 2023

person sitting in front of a laptop with negative social media icons coming out of the screen indicating cyberbullying

Image by Htc Erl from Pixabay

Earlier this month, viewers across the country were stunned by a video showing the assault of 14-year-old Adriana Kuch in the hallway of her New Jersey high school and to learn that she took her own life the next evening. The cruel attack on the young woman by her high school peers was broadly shared on social media. Adriana’s father said the pain his daughter felt in being attacked paled in comparison to the humiliation she experienced online.

Bullying has always been a problem. I was bullied off and on through many of my years as a student. It was frightening and temporarily humiliating. But bullying has evolved with the advent of social media. Three major changes have escalated the impact of bullying.

The first major change involves increased exposure to embarrassment and humiliation. In 1968, the first year a bully picked on me at school, most of what he did to me was either just between us or witnessed only by a handful of people. Once it was over, it was over. I don’t remember ever carrying my humiliation into the next day, and each incident was known only by those who had witnessed it or those who heard about it during its short-lived “news” cycle.

Today, seemingly everyone has a device to document events, to share events and to view/experience these events as often as desired. That allows not only the “news” cycle to remain alive but for the entire world to witness one’s abasement. I can’t imagine the weight of that kind of ongoing embarrassment.

Recently, an Arizona man ran naked across the green at a Phoenix golf tournament. In one video, I saw hundreds of golf fans in the stands on their feet, nearly all of them with their phones in the air, capturing the event. This is our world.

Second, cyberbullying can take place no matter where the child is. When I was bullied, it was almost exclusively at school. Otherwise, bullies had no access to me or I had options for avoiding them. Today, a child can effectively be bullied while alone in the middle of a desert.

Finally, online bullying doesn’t require the bully to face the consequence of the mean thing said. I wrote a newspaper column for 30 years. Comments about my column were often kind and thoughtful, but people — many hiding behind the anonymity of screen names — said some of the meanest things on occasion. I couldn’t imagine anyone saying in person some of what they said online. In person, the speaker would have to defend themself and see the effects of their hurtful words firsthand.

Social media has allowed thoughtless people to quickly find one another. One mean comment or post can seemingly serve as a ready-made invitation for other equally thoughtless people to add mean posts of their own.

Online, a thoughtless or cruel post requires absolutely no thought and no exposure to the pain being caused. I would like to think that the bullies in the Adriana Kuch case felt remorse for their behavior following her suicide, but if she had not done that, they would never have known the tears she shed and the pain she bore in the privacy of her personal life.

A 2021 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) discovered that 30% of the teenage girls surveyed had considered suicide — a rate twice as high as among boys. That number was 50% for girls in the LGBTQ+ population. The study proposed that these rates were rising prior to the COVID-19 pandemic but that the isolation of the pandemic accentuated them.

Even before the pandemic, teens spent much of their time staring at their phones. For some teens during the pandemic, their devices were the only link they had to their social worlds. Like it or not, young people live much of their lives in a digital world. Bullying through text, video, Snapchat, Instagram or any of the other social media options is easy and quick — and the one doing the posting doesn’t have to face the hurt they are causing. What’s more, those hurtful words or images can be viewed over and over, not only by the rest of the world, but by the victim, leaving teens such Adriana feeling isolated, humiliated and hopeless.

These issues are not exclusive to teens, but the CDC study should ensure that those of us in the mental health community are alert to these frightening statistics for the teen female and LGBTQ+ populations in particular.

I encourage my clinicians and supervisees who work with these populations to include suicidal ideation as well as an overview of a client’s social media footprint in the intake process — something that was not even an issue 40 years ago when I started my practice.


Gregory K. Moffatt is a veteran counselor of more than 30 years and the dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Point University. His monthly Voice of Experience column for CT Online seeks to share theory, ethics and practice lessons learned from his diverse career, as well as inspiration for today’s counseling professionals, whether they are just starting out or have been practicing for many years. His experience includes three decades of work with children, trauma and abuse, as well as a variety of other experiences, including work with schools, businesses and law enforcement. Contact him at Greg.Moffatt@point.edu. 

Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.

Report: More than 1 in 5 children experience bullying

By Bethany Bray May 12, 2020

Bullying, a perennial issue for professional counselors who work with young clients both in and outside of school settings, remains prevalent among American youth. Researchers have found that more than one in five American youngsters experience bullying victimization from their peers – and prevalence is higher among children under age 12.

According to data from the National Survey of Children’s Health, parents of 22.4% of children ages 6 to 11 and 21% of adolescents ages 12 to 17 report their child “is being bullied, picked on, or excluded by other children.”

The data, compiled from the 2016-2017 National Survey, was published last month in the journal Public Health Reports by researchers from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration.

Researchers also parsed the data state-by-state in the journal article. The prevalence of bullying varied widely, from 16.5% of children in New York to 35.9% in Wyoming. Among adolescents, it ranged from 14.9% in Nevada to 31.6% in Montana.

Bullying among children or adolescents was greater than 30% in seven states: Arkansas, Kentucky, Maine, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming.


Read the full report in Public Health Reports:  journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0033354920912713



Related reading, from Counseling Today:

Five social, emotional and mental health supports that teens need to succeed

Leading an anti-bullying intervention for students with disabilities

When bias turns into bullying

Bullying: How counselors can intervene



ACA resources:

 Journal of Counseling & Development articles:

ACA practice briefs

  • Youth Bullying Prevention
  • Bullying Intervention


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Five social, emotional and mental health supports that teens need to succeed

By Dakota King-White, Sade Vega and Nicholas Petty September 9, 2019

Many teenagers have been exposed to traumatic events, and most experience regular life stressors. Exposure to violence and other traumatic experiences can have a lifelong effect on learning and may negatively impact academic achievement. Among examples of traumatic events that some teenagers experience are community violence, school shootings, the loss of a loved one due to death, parental incarceration, divorcing parents, a parent or caregiver with mental illness, and substance abuse in the home. Within the school setting, the negative influence of trauma on teens may lead to poor concentration, declining academic performance, school absenteeism, and the decision to drop out. These challenges create barriers for the success of teens in the academic setting.

Schools across the United States have recognized the importance of providing school-based mental health support because these services benefit students academically, socially and emotionally. However, questions regarding the issues facing teens and the types of mental health supports needed to deal with these issues require further examination. Implementing a needs assessment can assist schools in uncovering the answer to these questions. The findings can then help determine what programming should be implemented to improve students’ overall development, such as teaching them social skills to help them become productive members of their communities and school settings.

We wanted to learn more about the social, emotional and mental health needs of teenagers, so we conducted a needs assessment in which we surveyed 198 high school students in a Midwestern city. The teens in our study identified the types of emotionally stressful experiences they have faced since attending high school. They also described what schools could do to make them feel supported and better able to deal with the related challenges.

The following sections present the five top issues identified by the students we surveyed, along with recommendations on ways that schools can support teenagers socially, emotionally and mentally.




1) Social media makes peer pressure a 24/7 problem. Teens today are confronting certain pressures that teens in the past didn’t face. A prime example: Social media has become an indispensable part of teenagers’ lives. According to a 2018 report written for the Pew Research Center by Monica Anderson and Jingjing Jiang, YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat are the most popular online platforms among those ages 13-17, and most teens have access to these apps on their smartphones. Anderson and Jiang note in the report that 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, with 45% of teens acknowledging that they are online “almost constantly.”

This constant mobile connection creates the conditions for teenagers to consistently be exposed to peer pressure even outside of the school environment. Mina Park and colleagues in 2017, in a journal article in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking, noted that hyperconnectivity to social media can also lead to depression, negative body image and eating disorders.

What schools can do to help: Teens must be given an outlet to discuss their frustrations when it comes to dealing with peer pressure. Students should be directed to their school counselors or other trusted adults in the school with whom they can share their feelings and pressures and get supportive, confidential advice in return. It is also helpful to allow for genuine conversations in the classroom about the importance of students being confident in who they are and embracing their differences. Safe spaces in schools allow teens opportunities to feel supported in a neutral environment, to accept who they are, and to embrace differences among their peers.


2) Bullying is a significant issue. Peer pressure is not the only problem arising from constant social media access. The other, and even more troubling, issue is bullying. Teens may experience, witness or engage in bullying situations, including cyberbullying, which is more prevalent among teens.

The Bullying Statistics website (bullyingstatistics.org) notes that cyberbullying may consist of teens sending cruel messages, spreading gossip or posting threatening messages on social media platforms, pretending to be someone else on a social media account, or sexting. According to recent statistics from the website, more than 25% of teenagers have been exposed to cyberbullying situations that have had a negative impact on them. Bullying can have a significant effect on teens socially, emotionally and academically. Some of the negative impacts include depression, anxiety, attendance problems, and decrease in academic achievement. However, many teens who experience cyberbullying do not tell their parents or guardians about these painful experiences.

What schools can do to help: October is National Bullying Prevention Month, and many schools across the United States take time to develop effective strategies to raise awareness about bullying and to prevent bullying incidents on their campuses. It is important for schools to create an environment in which victims of bullying/cyberbullying, or teens who witness the bullying of a peer, can talk to trusted adults about bullying situations. Help your students by providing safe places in schools where teens can disclose when they or their peers are being bullied, or even create a hotline for students to report bullying situations.

Additionally, offer professional development to teachers and other staff members on identifying the warning signs of bullying, and provide them with effective strategies to help students who are being bullied. Likewise, many parents are unaware of how to support their teens when they are being bullied, so invite parents to on-campus workshops where they can learn ways to address these issues with their teens. During the parent and family sessions, discuss the various types of bullying that take place, the warning signs of bullying, and school and community resources for victims of bullying and cyberbullying. Workshops for parents and families can add another layer of support for young people who are affected by bullying.


3) Students are concerned about their personal safety. In our study, the third top concern that students reported was anxiety about their personal safety. According to the National Institute of Justice, school safety is currently a common concern among educators and administrators across the United States. Teens may not feel safe in their schools because of gun violence on school campuses across the country or even violence in their own communities or neighborhoods. The National Institute of Justice has stated that more schools have increased their security measures to protect students. Many of these schools have instituted locked doors, security cameras, hallway supervision, controlled building access, metal detectors and locker checks.

More than half of the ninth- and 10th-graders and more than 70% of the 11th- and 12th-graders we surveyed reported that they had experienced a traumatic event while attending high school. These various traumatic events can cause students to feel concern about their overall safety in their schools and communities. This type of stressor can in turn affect how teens engage in their educational environments.

What schools can do to help: Trauma-informed methods must be put in place to support students and their overall safety. Trauma-informed approaches focus on ways to ensure that students feel supported, listened to, and safe. Among the trauma-informed approaches that counselors can create in their schools are to build trust and rapport with students and to collaborate with outside community resources to support students who have been exposed to traumatic events. By getting to know your students, you will notice when their behaviors change, and because you have built trust with them, you can approach them in a friendly way to address these changes.

In addition, provide training on trauma-informed methods for teachers, support staff and administrators at your school. This training will help them create resources aimed at the needs of teens. Additionally, educators can seek professional help for their own personal traumas so that they may better interact with students who are dealing with stressors. By ensuring that teachers and staff members have access to community resources and training about personal safety and trauma, schools are developing leaders who can help students socially, emotionally and academically.


4) Students need help coping with their emotions. Teens’ emotions run rampant during their high school years. Most experience a range of emotions, including anger, fear, frustration, disappointment and hurt. These emotions may mask some of the broader issues that students face and that ultimately affect their academic performance.

Some of the students in our study participated in a small group that focused on developing social skills. The single-gender support group addressed the students’ academic, social and emotional needs. The sessions offered teens a safe place to identify stressors in their lives and to discuss the emotions attached to those stressors. By talking about their emotions, students were able to identify yet other emotions that were hiding underneath their anger and aggression. Throughout this process, the teens learned how to effectively articulate their emotions and to identify the underlying factors that were fueling them.

What schools can do to help: Encourage a supportive environment and training for students, such as small support groups facilitated by school counselors, clinical counselors, school psychologists or social workers, as well as peer-to-peer support groups. Teach teens the proper social skills related to identifying their emotions, and explain that all emotions are OK to have.

Quite often, teenagers express only the basic emotions when talking to others, especially adults. However, challenging them to look deeper and to identify the true emotion can be effective. Teens need safe places at school where they can learn how to cope with their anger and the other uncomfortable emotions that they often face.


5) Dealing with grief is important. A final concern students reported centered on dealing with grief from the loss of a loved one. Those students in our study who had experienced the loss of a loved one or who had witnessed a friend going through such a loss reported needing a supportive outlet to deal with those losses. Students may experience various losses during their teen years, such as the death of a friend or family member, and they are often left to process their emotions about the loss on their own. If schools are unaware that students have experienced a loss, those students may go without the support that is needed to help them process their grief. A lack of support during this time can have a significant impact on teens succeeding within the academic setting.

What schools can do to help: Build rapport early in the year with students so that they will be comfortable sharing should they experience a loss. During times of loss, allow students to grieve. Provide additional assistance by forming support groups for students who have experienced loss. This type of support can be offered through collaboration with local counseling agencies, hospices or other entities that support families experiencing loss. It is also helpful to maintain a list of community resources that address grief and loss. This community resource guide can be shared with teens, parents or caregivers, and other stakeholders.

Transforming school into an emotionally responsive environment

Students who are well-equipped socially, emotionally and mentally at the beginning of their academic careers can better cope when hardships occur. As counselors, we can help our students succeed in school and in life by first learning to identify their social, emotional and mental health needs, and then providing resources such as social skills workshops and support groups for them. Additionally, we can lead by example by improving our own social, emotional and mental health through professional development workshops that emphasize social and emotional learning practices.

Remember, school is not just a place where students gain academic knowledge; it is where they prepare for life. By doing our part to create a safe and emotionally supportive environment, we can increase the odds that students will succeed beyond the walls of the classroom.




Dakota King-White is an assistant professor in counselor education at Cleveland State University. Prior to that, she worked in K-12 education as a school counselor, mental health therapist and administrator. Contact her at d.l.king19@csuohio.edu.

Sade Vega is a student in health science at Cleveland State University. In 2018, she received the university’s undergraduate student research award for her research on assessing the social, emotional and mental health needs of high school students. Contact her at s.m.vega@vikes.csuohio.edu.

Nicholas Petty is the director of undergraduate inclusive excellence at Cleveland State University. Prior to working at the university, he was an administrator in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, where he earned national attention for his innovative approaches to behavioral intervention and student motivation. Contact him at n.petty@csuohio.edu.


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Opinions expressed and statements made in articles appearing on CT Online should not be assumed to represent the opinions of the editors or policies of the American Counseling Association.