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[ARTICLE] Why Do Bullies Bully?
Filed Under: Wellness | Published: May 10, 2011 | Author: Mark Dworkin LCSW, P.C. and Robyn Goldberg

We're all familiar with bullying - those deliberate, aggressive behaviors intended to cause harm to others.  Chances are, if you haven't been the recipient or the doer of these hostile acts, you've at least seen bullying occur at some point in your childhood.  Although bullying is an unfortunately common and widely recognized occurrence, most people don't know much about what makes bullies bully.  Are they born this way?  If not, why do they become bullies? What can be done to change their behavior?  Let's take a look at some information about bullies.

Are people born as bullies?

Bullying behaviors are learned over time - they are not present at birth.  However, certain characteristics do make a child more likely to become a bully.  Here are some examples of common traits in bullies:

  • Lack of empathy
  • Lack of compassion
  • Domineering
  • Impulsive
  • Attention-craving

What's self-esteem got to do with it?

For a long time, experts thought that bullies tend to have low self-esteem, which causes them to bring others down in an attempt to feel better about themselves.  While this may be the case for some bullies, research has shown that the opposite is often true; in fact, lots of bullies have very high self-esteem.  This gives them a feeling of superiority, and they believe they have the right to act cruelly to those who are inferior.

Do people bully for different reasons?

Researchers have found that there are various types of bullies, with different motives and actions.  Here are some common ones:

  • Some bullies have trouble interpreting social cues and wrongly assume others are acting with hostility, so they react in inappropriately aggressive ways.
  • Some bullies are more intentional in their actions. They consciously prepare their attacks.  This type of bully is usually quite charming to those he/she does not victimize, and is likely to be considered popular.  (These particular bullies have self-esteem levels too high for their own good.)
  • Some bullies have poor self-image, and they use tactics such as gossiping and excluding to give themselves a sense of importance.
  • Some bullies are actually victims of aggression themselves.  They direct the anger they feel over being bullied at others, and try to compensate for feeling helpless by gaining power over others.

Are bullies typically male?

Bullying occurs in both genders, but the types of behaviors are often different.  Generally, boys use more overt tactics, such as pushing, verbally insulting, and threatening.  Girls are more likely to bully indirectly, such as by starting rumors or leaving others out of social plans.  This indirect bullying is still vicious and harmful.

Do parents and families play a role?

In many cases, bullies have quite lenient parents, who either don't discipline them or do so erratically.  Children who grow up without a proper understanding of actions and their consequences often don't learn to respect rules or authority figures.  This makes them more likely to become bullies. 

Also, some children learn aggression through 'modeling.'  This means that an influential person in their lives, such as a parent or older sibling, is acting a certain way, which teaches the child these behaviors.  If you or someone in your family is acting hostily, your child may be learning this interaction pattern.

Additionally, some parents (intentionally or unintentionally) promote bullying behaviors because they want their child to be "cool."  If your desire for your child to be popular overrides your desire for them to be compassionate and respectful towards others, your child might be picking up on that and taking on the bully role to seek your approval.

How can parents tell if their child is bullying?

While signs may differ, there are some common indications that your child may be bullying others.  Here is a non-scientific guide to determine whether your child might be a bully.  For each line, select the # that indicates how well it describes your child.

1 = Does not describe my child at all.

2 = Describes my child somewhat.

3 = Describes my child very well.

1  -  2  -  3            Likes feeling powerful and in control

1  -  2  -  3            Has poor anger management skills

1  -  2  -  3            Is a bigheaded winner and a sore loser

1  -  2  -  3            Derives pleasure from others' fears, problems, conflicts, etc.

1  -  2  -  3            Tries to manipulate, intimidate, or frighten others

1  -  2  -  3            Tries to 'get away' with doing bad things when adults aren't looking

If you have circled #2 or #3 for some of these descriptions, then there is a strong possibility your child is bullying.

What can parents do if their child is bullying?

Parents must realize that bullying is NOT acceptable.  It is extremely harmful to the victims.  Think about the recent tragedy of the Rutgers University freshman who committed suicide when his roommate posted a video online of his sexual encounter.  Do you want your child to be the cause of someone else's anguish and potentially untimely death? Bullying is serious business, and as the parent, it is your job to get your child the help he/she needs to change!

Here are some ways you can help if you suspect or know that your child is bullying:

  • Establish clear rules about bullying, and repercussions for breaking these rules. Make sure to follow through.
  • Encourage your child to participate in constructive social activities, such as music lessons or non-contact sports.
  • Make an effort to get to know your child's friends and how they interact.  If you think his or her friends are a negative influence, talk to your child about hanging out with a more appropriate crowd.
  • Praise your child when he or she behaves in a socially positive way, such as doing something kind for a friend or helping out a younger sibling.  This may help increase the occurrence of such behaviors.
  • Openly discuss types of bullying, and ask your child to imagine how the victims of bullying might feel.  Let your child know that you absolutely do not approve of bullying.
  • Explore positive ways that your child can cope with his or her anger, such as exercising, writing, or venting to you.
  • Talk to teachers and administrators at your child's school about your concerns about your child's actions.  Request that they enforce the rules with your child that you've established about bullying, and ask them to inform you if they notice your child behaving aggressively.

Bullying is a terrible, and unfortunately common, issue in schools everywhere.  It is crucial that we don't brush off these deliberate, hostile actions as normal phases children go through.  Instead, it is up to adults to be vigilant and work with children so that they 'unlearn' these behavior patterns that they've learned over time.

This advice is a guide, and may not help in all situations.  If your child has a bullying problem, it may be useful for you and your child to speak with a mental health professional to resolve this problem.  Psychotherapy techniques such as cognitive-behavioral therapy and EMDR can be effective in working through issues that may be contributing to your child's behavior.   You are welcome to contact Mark Dworkin, LCSW at (516) 731-7611,


This information is for informational and educational purposes only, and should not take the place of a thorough evaluation and treatment by a licensed mental health professional

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