An Introduction to Bullying

See also: Coping with Bullying

Bullying used to be thought of a playground hazard, perhaps even an essential rite of passage.

Mercifully times have changed and there is increasing recognition that bullying can affect anyone, of whatever age, from childhood to adulthood, and that it makes lives miserable and unpleasant.

Both schools and workplaces are much more aware of the potential for bullying, and usually have plans and policies in place to manage it.

This page is an introduction to some of the concepts around bullying.

Other pages in this series explain how to resolve bullying, whether as the person being bullied, or a colleague, parent or close friend.

Young Minds, the mental health charity, suggests that over 70% of young people have experienced bullying at one time or another.

In other words, even if you haven’t been bullied, you probably know quite a lot of people who have, or who have witnessed it. If you are being bullied, you are not alone.

What is Bullying?

There is no legal definition of bullying.

However, there is a general agreement that bullying is:

Behaviour that is designed to hurt someone else, or make them do something that they do not want to do.

This behaviour can be either verbal, for example, through name-calling, spreading lies about someone, or excluding them from the group, or physical, for example, kicking and punching someone.

Verbal or emotional bullying is probably much more common, and it is also harder to spot because bullies will often say that it was ‘only a joke’. Emotional bullying also leaves no obvious marks or bruising, but in fact the damage can be much more serious and longer-lasting.

Banter or Bullying?

The issue of banter or bullying has entered mainstream discussion recently, with many women complaining that men go too far with ‘banter’, and that they are subject to sexist, misogynist taunts during nights out.  So when does ‘banter’ become ‘bullying’?

There are two ways to consider the issue.

First, is the person on the receiving end comfortable with the situation? This might relate to whether they know the people dealing out the banter, or a ‘power imbalance’. For example, a group of friends may be quite happy exchanging sexual jokes about each other. Provided that everyone in the group is coming in for equal attention, this is probably OK, if a bit juvenile. If, however, the same group is focusing on one person, and making sexual jokes about that one person all evening, that would probably be a bit uncomfortable.

The golden rule is:

If they’re not comfortable, then it’s not banter, it’s bullying.

The second way to look at it is to consider how you would feel if the situation was reversed in some way, or if it was happening to your brother or sister. For example, if it is a group of men asking a woman about the size of her breasts, would it feel OK if they were saying the same things to a man they didn’t know about the size of his penis? Or if it was your sister on the receiving end?

No, probably not.

That’s not banter, it’s bullying.

Why Bullying Happens

Sometimes the reasons for bullying are obvious: the bully’s target looks or behaves ‘differently’: for example, they may be the opposite sex, a different race, a different sexual orientation, or a different size.

At other times, there is no obvious reason for that person being picked as a ‘target’, except perhaps that they look a bit vulnerable.

The reasons why bullies bully are complicated and varied. They may, for example, feel a bit vulnerable themselves, and are ‘hitting someone back before they can get hit first’. They may be trying to get attention, whether from their peers or from adults, or they may be angry about something that is happening in their own lives.

IMPORTANT: Nobody asks to be bullied. Nobody deserves it.

What’s more, whatever the problems of the bully, there is no excuse for bullying.


Cyberbullying is a relatively new phenomenon. The term is used to describe bullying online, often via social media, and generally consists of unpleasant comments and derogatory remarks posted publicly online.

Cyberbullying can, however, also include posting photos, whether real or photoshopped, or creating fake accounts in someone’s name, for example, to offer sexual favours.

Cyberbullying is a serious problem, and just as damaging as ‘real world’ bullying.

See our page on Cyberbullying for more.

Coping with Bullying: Some General Tips

  1. Tell Someone Else

    No matter what the bullies say, telling someone else will almost never make things worse. Tell a trusted friend, parent, or teacher if you are at school, and for workplace bullying, chat to a trusted colleague, or even consult your HR team in confidence.

    The chances are that you are not the only one affected.

  2. Ask the Bully to Stop

    Confidently and assertively, tell them that you don’t care for their behaviour, and you would appreciate it if they stopped calling you names (or whatever it is).

    You may find our pages on Assertiveness helpful in planning your approach.

    The bully may say something like ‘Can’t you take a joke?’, in which case, the answer is something like ‘No, clearly not, because I’m finding it quite unpleasant at the moment, and not funny at all’.

    You’ll need to be sure that this won’t lead to the situation getting worse, for example, the bully becoming aggressive, but it’s probably worth a try.

  3. Ignore it and walk away

    Bullies want a reaction. If you’re not bothered, they’ll probably leave you and find a more rewarding target.

    I used to be the sort of boy who had sand kicked in his face, now I'm the sort of boy who watches somebody else have it kicked in their face.”

    Sue Townsend’s Adrian Mole

  4. Look Confident

    Bullying makes people feel small and vulnerable, which in turn makes them look easier targets. If you walk along with your shoulders down, trying to become invisible, it often makes you more obvious.

    Instead, put your shoulders back, raise your head, and stride out. You will instantly look more confident and less of a target.

    See our page on Body Language for more about this.

There is more about how to cope with bullying on our page Coping with Bullying.

If you are being bullied at work, our page on Workplace Bullying may also help.

Friends, parents and colleagues may find our page Helping Someone Cope with Bullying and Confronting Bullying helpful.

More detailed advice is also available from anti-bullying charities and websites such as Family Lives and Young Minds.

Childline (0800 1111) is also available, in the UK, if you wish to talk in confidence to someone.

Nobody Should Be Bullied

Nobody asks to be bullied, and nobody should have to put up with it.

With the information and advice on these pages, those involved should be better able to manage and improve the situation, and hopefully help others to cope too.