Bullying: How to Recognise the Signs



Bullying is a pervasive issue that affects many people across different age groups and settings. It refers to ongoing misuse of power in relationships through deliberate and repeated physical, verbal, or social behaviors that cause physical or psychological harm (Department of Education and Training, 2015).

Bullying can happen to an individual or a group. It can happen in person or online, and it can be obvious or hidden. The impacts of bullying can be devastating, and it’s important to take action to prevent it. In this blog, we will discuss how to recognize signs of bullying, how it affects someone as it is happening and the impacts of past bullying. We will also explore how speaking to a psychologist can help.

Recognizing signs of bullying

Signs of bullying can be challenging to spot, as people may not always share their experiences openly. Some signs of bullying in young people could include:

  • Changes in mood or behaviors e.g., frequent mood swings, tearing up easily, feeling anger more often, becoming aggressive or unreasonable – an example could be beginning to target others like siblings.
  • Changes in sleeping, eating, weight
  • Becomes withdrawn – from social situations or peers; or refuses to talk about what is wrong
  • Decreased self-esteem
  • Decline of interest, motivation, or performance
  • Lacking response or acts of defending themselves
  • Unexplained injuries

Adults who are bullied at work might also become less confident, active, or successful at work. Or want to stay away from work. They may feel stressed – this can be manifested in physical symptoms like aches, pain, sleep problems. Life outside of work might also be affected e.g., studies, relationships. They might also develop mistrust towards colleagues or employers (Conway et al., 2021).

It’s essential to keep an open line of communication with those close to you and be attentive to changes in their behaviors.

Effects of present and past bullying

The effects of bullying can differ across context and chronicity. Someone going through bullying can experience a wide range of mental health problems including anxiety, depression, burnout, psychological distress, and overall poor self-esteem. Ongoing bullying can lead to chronic stress and mental health issues, which can be detrimental to a person’s ability to function, and sense of emotional, physical, or psychologically stability. In severe cases, bullying can lead to suicide ideation or attempts (Losey, 2011). In those who have just experienced bullying, a persistent fear of being bullied again will no wonder be related to interpersonal distrust, which can contribute to difficulties forming healthy relationships.

Bullying can impact someone long after the bullying has stopped. Early exposure to bullying increases the risk of developing complex PTSD (Idsoe et al., 2021). This is because the essential factors that contribute to a person’s developmental processes will likely be impacted. Frequently, the relevant diagnosis that captures the aftermath of bullying relates to trauma or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). There is robust evidence for the association between bullying and PTSD symptoms, with between 25% to 57% of bullied individuals scoring above the clinical cutoff for PTSD symptoms (Idsoe et al., 2021; Nielsen et al., 2015).

Trauma can also contribute to an individual engaging in high-risk behaviors such as substance abuse, disordered eating, and risky sex. Additionally, survivors of trauma are at risk of becoming perpetrators themselves, but this might be complicated by other psychiatric correlates such as personality disorders, substance-use disorder, bipolar disorder, or conduct / antisocial / paranoid features (Vaughn et al., 2010).

Seeking help from a psychologist

It’s essential to recognize the signs of bullying and take action to prevent it from developing into long-lasting effects on a person’s mental and physical health. Speaking to a psychologist can be beneficial for those who have experienced bullying, whether it’s happening now or in the past. Psychologists can help individuals learn coping strategies to manage their emotions, build self-esteem, and develop social skills to form healthy relationships. They can also assist in processing the distress of past bullying and develop resilience. 

The Centre for Clinical Psychology in Melbourne offers a range of evidence-based treatments for individuals who have experienced bullying. To book an appointment, you can call 03 9077 0122 or visit https://ccp.net.au/booking/.


Conway, P. M., Høgh, A., Balducci, C., & Ebbesen, D. K. (2021). Workplace bullying and mental health. Pathways of job-related negative behaviour, 101-128. doi: 10.1007/978-981-13-0935-9_5.

Department of Education and Training. (2015). A review of literature (2010–2014) on student bullying by Australia’s Safe and Supportive School Communities Working Group.

Idsoe, T., Vaillancourt, T., Dyregrov, A., Hagen, K. A., Ogden, T., & Nærde, A. (2021). Bullying victimization and trauma. Frontiers in psychiatry, 11, 480353.

Losey, B. (2011). Bullying, suicide, and homicide: understanding, assessing, and preventing threats to self and others for victims of bullying. Routledge.

Nielsen, M. B., Tangen, T., Idsoe, T., Matthiesen, S. B., & Magerøy, N. (2015). Post-traumatic stress disorder as a consequence of bullying at work and at school. A literature review and meta-analysis. Aggression and violent behavior, 21, 17-24. doi: 10.1016/j.avb.2015.01.001 

Vaughn, M. G., Fu, Q., Bender, K., DeLisi, M., Beaver, K. M., Perron, B. E., & Howard, M. O. (2010). Psychiatric correlates of bullying in the United States: Findings from a national sample. Psychiatric Quarterly, 81, 183-195.