Teen girl tuning out bullies and other people's opinions.

Verbal Bullying in Teens - What to Do When It Impacts You

Verbal bullying can cause great pain for victims and is an important time to seek support from a therapist experienced with teens. This article will cover what verbal bullying is, why it happens, the impacts of verbal bullying, and what to do if you or your teen is a victim of verbal bullying, or engaging in verbal bullying themselves. 

What is Verbal Bullying?

Verbal bullying is when one individual or group targets another with insulting and harmful language. Bullying vs. teasing or jokes is differentiated by reception and persistence

Reception

The intention of the person doing the joking or teasing doesn’t matter as much as how the “jokes” are received. If you feel hurt by someone’s language, that language should stop. Jokes and teasing are only fun if both parties are enjoying it.

Persistence

A one-time mistake of hurt feelings is part of life and can be resolved in healthy relationships. But language is considered bullying if you’ve been asked to stop and don’t. Similarly, if you see that your language has caused hurt, or someone else tells you it’s wrong, that language should stop. When you repeatedly hurt someone with words, this is bullying.

Why does verbal bullying occur?

Bullying can occur between children, teens, or adults, and anyone can be responsible for bullying or become a victim. Sometimes one person can be both a victim and a person responsible for bullying others. Bullying can happen at school, in friend groups, and even within families. It can be very difficult for people who are bullied to tell others this is happening because they worry it’s their fault, that the bullying could become worse, or that they won’t receive help. 

If you are being bullied, the most important thing to remember is that it’s not your fault, and you should tell someone.

Some common reasons bullying happens:

Power 

The most common reason someone engages in bullying is to gain power over others. The word “power” may feel strange to understand in the context of teasing, but insulting or demeaning someone else is ultimately about having more control and influence. 

Protection

A person may choose to bully others because they feel scared of being hurt themselves. Maybe they have been bullied by others in the past. It may feel like hurting someone else deflects from their own insecurities and worries.

Attention

People who bully may savor being the center of attention, even negative attention. “Getting in trouble” or having a reputation as the “tough” person in a group may feel safe, exciting, or relieving.

Imitation

Children and teens who bully often learn that language from adults in their lives. It may be that powerful people in their world have used hurtful or demeaning language, and they imitate this.

Distress

We’ve all heard the saying “hurt people, hurt people.” Meaning, that people who have been hurt can turn that hurt around on others. Research has shown that bullies are often in as much distress as the people they target.

It’s essential to emphasize that understanding why bullying happens does not excuse it. Knowing that a person who is bullying is likely also in pain does not make their behavior acceptable. Similarly, if you realize that you have been bullying someone, it’s important to take responsibility and seek help to change your behavior. There is support available for victims of bullying and people who bully others.

Effects of Verbal Bullying

The impacts of verbal bullying can last for years and even be lifelong. The teen years are an essential time of identity development and self-esteem, and enduring bullying during this time period can impact someone’s life trajectory significantly. Bullying can lead to:

Verbal bullying also has an impact on the environment it’s happening in, and can affect an entire school, family, or workplace. When others observe bullying happening it can make them feel unsafe, even if they are not the target. Victims may become increasingly isolated as others may not know how and when to intervene. Research has shown that bullying is usually best addressed with a combination of environment-wide and targeted intervention that promotes a positive culture, encourages victims and bystanders to speak up, and offers support to both victims and bullies. 

Whether you or your child have been a victim or are engaging in bullying others, there are support and solutions available. Mental health support, like therapy, can mitigate the negative effects of verbal bullying and help you remember you are not alone.

If you’re a teen or a parent impacted by verbal bullying, read the section below personalized to you with advice from a psychologist at Joon:

Parents: What to do if you think your teen is being verbally bullied

Verbal bullying can be harder to see since the overt aggression of physical bullying often draws more attention. Those who are bullying others will usually wait until the victim is on their own, or for when other adults or leaders are absent. As described above, victims of verbal bullying are sometimes reluctant to reveal what’s happening to them for fear of the bullying becoming worse, or because they blame themselves. 

A few signs that your teen may be experiencing bullying: 

  • Sudden drop in grades 
  • New aversion to going to school or other activities
  • Sleep problems
  • Sudden shift in or fixation with appearance
  • Unexplained illness symptoms
  • New anger or aggression

It’s important to note that all of these things can be elements of normal changes teens experience, or symptoms of other problems, but if you suspect they are related to bullying and social isolation, you should try to address it right away. 

The best approach is gentle but direct. Reassure them that it’s not their fault, and that the bravest thing they can do is come forward about what’s happening so the bullies can be held accountable and also receive help. Simply telling your teen to “ignore” the bullies is not effective and may increase their isolation. While removing attention from bullying behavior can be beneficial, this should occur in a larger context of support.

It may take several conversations, but you should remain consistent, caring, and calm. As a teen is growing into their identity and independence, it’s a good step to involve them more in the decisions and plans for accountability for the bullies. With younger children, it’s usually more appropriate for parents to fully field the situation, but teens can and should be involved to a level that’s appropriate for their development. 

Parents: What to do if you think your teen is bullying others

Like outlined above, bullying others usually starts with being hurt first. If you suspect your teen is engaging in verbal bullying, the best approach contains an equal combination of accountability and caring. Be direct with your teen about the two factors that differentiate bullying: reception, not intention, and persistence. Now that it has been brought to their intention that their behavior has caused harm, it can’t continue. If it does, this clearly indicates malicious intent that will result in more severe consequences. A second step can involve repair, and this may include working with others to find resolution for the bullying.

Whether this behavior is a single instance of conflict-gone-wrong, or an ongoing pattern of troubling behavior, while you intervene to stop the bullying, your second essential task as a parent is to understand and address the issues that caused the behavior for your teen. If you’re able, try to talk with them about the motivations for bullying outlined above. If you feel in over your head, or your teen is unwilling to talk, a mental health professional with expertise in teens will be able to help. The most successful bullying interventions support both the victim and the person bullying. 

Teens: What to do if you are being bullied

It can feel difficult to talk about being verbally bullied for lots of reasons. Some teens feel like bullying is a childhood issue that it’s embarrassing to discuss, or that you should be “old enough” to handle it on your own. Maybe it feels like because the bullying is verbal that it shouldn't be taken as seriously, or you may also worry that adults won’t believe you or understand why you’re hurt. What if it gets worse? Or what if the adults overreact and don’t actually solve the problem? Or it has impacts on your friend group or family?

All of these fears are normal - and this is one time when speaking up takes courage even when it’s hard. Being verbally bullied has profound impacts on your mental health and wellbeing, and it is not your fault. No one deserves to be demeaned or isolated. 

If you are being verbally bullied, an adult needs to be made aware so that both you and the people bullying you can receive intervention and support. Because you’re a teen, and not a kid anymore, you can and should have a say in what happens. Pick an adult you trust, whether that’s a parent, teacher, older sibling, aunt, or coach. Your school counselor or another mental health professional is an excellent choice, too. You can let them know what kind of support you want. Experiencing verbal bullying can be extremely impactful, but finding support in therapy or with another supportive adult can help to repair. Advocate for your own wellbeing and remember that therapy can offer many benefits to teens in particular.

Teens: What to do if you realize you’re bullying others

It can be really difficult to realize or get feedback that your behavior has harmed someone else. You might feel really defensive about this. You may feel like you have good reasons to dislike someone else. Maybe you have also been hurt and you feel justified in your behavior. Verbal bullying may feel like a way that you protect yourself. Remember the two core pieces of what makes bullying different from joking or a regular conflict: reception and persistence. You might have an intention of being “funny” or irreverent - the provocative friend - but it matters much more how your jokes and comments are received. If the reception is bad, it doesn’t matter what the intention was. Second, if you become aware that your comments are hurting others and you stop - that’s not bullying, that’s just a mistake. If you’re aware your comments are hurtful and you continue, then that’s verbal bullying, and it’s time to make some changes, preferably with help.

You may feel worried that if you admit to verbal bullying that others will judge and reject you, or that you’ll get in trouble and compromise your future. But owning your actions and seeking help will become a show of strength that others will ultimately admire much more. A mental health professional like your school counselor or a therapist who specializes in teens is an expert at handling tough problems nonjudgmentally. If you think that you’ve been verbally bullying others, the first step should be to connect with someone who can support you and walk along with you to do the work of changing. You’re not alone in it.

Verbal bullying can have lifelong impacts, but seeking support can totally alter this trajectory. If you or your teen has been experiencing verbal bullying or bullying others, connecting to a mental health professional who specializes in teens can be a great start toward recovery and wellbeing.

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June 27, 2023
Katey Nicolai, PhD | VP of Clinical Services

Katey Nicolai, PhD | VP of Clinical Services

Katey Nicolai, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist who received her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Seattle Pacific University. Dr. Nicolai provides services to adolescents and adults using evidence-based treatment rooted in cognitive-behavioral and psychodynamic therapies, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy, interpersonal therapy, and family systems. Dr. Nicolai has specialized training in treating trauma and PTSD, personality disorders, self-harm and suicidailty, family problems, emotion dysregulation, and mood and anxiety disorders.

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