In June 2012, a video clip went viral. The clip only lasted about 10 minutes. Yet it grabbed the attention of people all over the world.

The YouTube video showed a group of teenagers relentlessly taunting and verbally abusing their elderly bus monitor on a school bus in Greece, N.Y.

The victim, then 68-year-old Karen Klein, immediately received a flood of support from outraged people. Through the website, more than 30,000 donors from around the globe sent Klein over $700,000.

Nearly one year later and now retired, Klein attempts to promote a positive message from the painful event. Using some of the donated funds, she has launched a foundation, the Karen Klein Anti-Bullying Foundation, to raise awareness and support for other victims of bullying.

The incident with Klein brought a rarely discussed aspect of bullying to worldwide attention: children bullying adults, or adult bullying. It's not often addressed. But it does occur. Adults, however, tend to feel embarrassed to admit that they have been bullied by a child or group of children.

And as for the bullying behavior of children, too often adults will make excuses for their behavior, chalking it up to childish pranks or "kids being kids."

But when do you draw the line between immature fun and harmful bullying? And what is the toll that bullying takes on your health?

About Bullying: When Kids Bully Adults

When we think of bullies, most of us think of children as the victims. But adults can be bullied too, and not only by fellow adults. Children can be a victim, a bully, or both.

And, unfortunately, senior citizens become easy targets of bullies, since they can be viewed as weak or vulnerable. Seniors may be treated harshly, or be the targets of scare tactics and verbal intimidation. Often, these instances go unreported because the senior victim may be too ashamed to admit being in such a situation.

Most of us think about bullying as physical. However, bullying can take on different forms, including:

  • physical - hitting, punching
  • verbal - name calling, teasing
  • cyber bullying - occurring online, via email, chat room, instant messaging, posted videos, social media, or even via cell phone texting
  • emotional - through rumors, social exclusion, humiliation

In any of its forms, bullying aims to attack or intimidate another person, with the intention of causing fear, distress, or harm — either physical, verbal, or psychological.

With verbal abuse, the bully's goal is still to degrade and demean the victim, while making the aggressor look dominant and powerful. However, verbal bullying can be equally as harmful as physical bullying.

Girls typically use verbal bullying to dominate others and show their superiority and power. Girls are generally more subtle than boys, relying on gossip and social exclusion to bully their victims. However, many boys use verbal bullying techniques, as in the case with Klein, relying on words, rather than physical harm, to bully someone else.

Physical and Mental Effects of Bullying

Bullying affects your health in many ways. Verbal bullying can affect your self-image and create emotional and psychological damage, including low self-esteem and depression.

In some cases, the effects of verbal bullying can reach a point where the victim is so depressed and wants to escape so badly that the victim may turn to substance abuse or, in extreme cases, suicide. Words can have a significant power and the realities of verbal bullying can have very strong physical and emotional consequences, even if the aggressor never touches the victim.

The physical and emotional effects of bullying may include:

  • higher risk of depression and anxiety
  • increased feelings of sadness and loneliness
  • changes in sleep patterns
  • changes in eating patterns
  • loss of interest in activities
  • increased thoughts of suicide
  • more health complaints, including physical health

How to Deal with Bullying

  • Document what's happening. Record the words and/or behaviors of the bully, including where and when the event took place. If e-mail or texts were sent, print them for documentation.
  • Take action. Anger and withdrawal will only cloud your judgment or lead you to suffer in silence. This only ensures that the cycle of bullying continues. If possible, put distance between yourself and the bully.
  • Seek support. Confide in someone, such as a family member or mental health professional. It is important to effectively handle the harmful effects of bullying, which can result in anger, shame, anxiety, and depression. Know that the bully's behavior has nothing to do with you and everything to do with them.

Ways to Prevent Bullying

  • Supervision and intervention. If you witness bullying, help stop it by intervening the behavior.
  • Teaching assertiveness to targets or potential targets of bullying.
  • Staff training. Training can help make sure that the school (and state, if applicable) bullying policies are understood.

Source: Copeland WE, Wolke D, Angold A, Costello EJ. Adult psychiatric outcomes of bullying and being bullied by peers in childhood and adolescence. JAMA Psychiatry. 2013.