When parents, educators and mental health professionals talk about bullying, there is understandably a lot of emphasis on the victims. But in focusing solely on victims in anti-bullying efforts, an important part of the equation gets forgotten: the kids who do the bullying.
“Bullying is not a one-time event or a random act of mean behavior but rather a pervasive, ongoing pattern of aggression targeted toward another child who in some way has less power in the relationship,” explained school psychologist Rebecca Branstetter, noting that it’s important to distinguish it from other forms of aggressive behavior or typical childhood conflicts.
Obviously every child who bullies comes from different circumstances and has different reasons for this behavior. There is no one profile of a bully, as each child who engages in this conduct has a unique set of challenges. But there are many common traits and experiences among bullies, and examining them can be beneficial.
“When we identify common threads, such as being shame-prone and having trouble with social-thinking and social-communication skills, we can intervene early and in a proactive way,” Branstetter told HuffPost.
“Children’s personalities, integrity and inner-self are still developing ― they are not ‘finished’ yet,” said child psychologist Jillian Roberts. “The earlier we address these issues in both the aggressor and victim, the more opportunities we create for growth and healing on both sides.”
HuffPost spoke to Branstetter, Roberts and other experts to identify some of these commonalities. Here are 10 things many kids who bully have in common.
Lack Of Empathy
Children who bully often tend to be stunted when it comes to self-awareness and emotional intelligence, particularly with regard to empathy.
“A lack of empathy means that they aren’t able to put themselves in another person’s shoes and think, ‘I wonder how I would feel if someone teased me,’” said mental health counselor Kathleen Goodman.
Though it may seem like empathy and compassion are just natural personality traits, the truth is these are also skills that can be taught. Parents and educators can play a role in prevention by continuously teaching, modeling and practicing these skills.
“The trait that all bullies have in common is insecurity,” said family therapist Tom Kersting. “Intimidation and harassment is the wall they use to prevent others from seeing through them, seeing their insecurity.”
Tearing others down can be a dysfunctional coping mechanism to help kids with low self-esteem feel more secure. Sometimes bullies are even jealous of their victims.
Still, as Branstetter noted, while the common belief is that kids bully because they have low self-esteem, research paints a more complex picture.
“A lack of empathy means that they aren’t able to put themselves in another person’s shoes and think, ‘I wonder how I would feel if someone teased me.’”
– Kathleen Goodman, mental health counselor
“Actually, kids who bully are often seen as popular and self-report average to high self-esteem. However, kids who bully have been found to have high levels of shame and vulnerability ― meaning they are afraid that their shortcomings will be exposed,” said Branstetter. “So bullying behavior serves to puts the spotlight on others’ shortcomings and deflect what they feel ashamed about. It’s a subtle but important distinction: Bullies may actually be protecting their self-esteem by taking their shame out on others.”
Need For Control
“Many bullies seek to control everything and everyone because they feel that their lives are out of control, or they feel that someone can hurt them if they don’t have complete control of a situation,” said neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez. “They seek to dominate others in order to make sure that no one can rise up and hurt them.”
Licensed educational psychologist Reena B. Patel echoed these sentiments, noting that kids who feel disliked or unsupported by peers often turn to bullying to gain some social control.
“Their irrational thoughts lead them to believe that controlling other kids equals having friends,” she said.
According to Hafeez, kids who bully often have poor impulse control. “They don’t think through what the consequences of their actions will be on another person’s physical or emotional state,” she explained.
Goodman noted that this impulsivity is not an indelible part of the child’s being.
“For example, a child’s impulsivity might be the result of not having a good set of problem-solving skills and thinking, ‘I don’t know how to get what I want,’” she said.
Desire For Power And Status
“Many bullies often feel a need for power and status in the social group,” said clinical psychologist John Mayer. “They have a deficit or ignorance in social skills and use bullying to gain status and power because they don’t have other means to do this.”
Bullying may help kids feel more powerful than their peers, particularly if they feel inferior in other ways. Patel noted that poor academic performance can cause kids to engage in this behavior. “Some kids bully in response to academic stress. They might be jealous of kids who do well,” she said.
Still, some recent studies have challenged conventional wisdom about the social experience and status of kids who bully. Licensed clinical psychologist Scott Symington pointed to research out of the University of California, Los Angeles, that found “cool” middle schoolers were more likely to be bullies than their less-popular peers.
“For a subsection of students who bully others, there is truth to the adage that ‘Hurt people hurt people.’”
– Rebecca Branstetter, school psychologist
“It turns out that it’s most often the popular kids who are doing the bullying. And they perceive, which may or may not be true, bullying behaviors as a way of expressing and maintaining their high social status,” said Symington.
“Kids who become popular because of the way they dress, their appearance, a unique talent or parental wealth that yields them material goods that other kids admire secretly believe that no one would care about them if these things were gone,” said Kim Metcalfe, a retired professor of early childhood education and psychology. “Consequently, they bully to maintain status.”
This “cool” factor is why Symington believes it’s critical to address bullying on a community level. When kids start to look down on bullying and no longer see it as something “cool” kids do, this behavior won’t carry the same social rewards ― a phenomenon he compared to the anti-smoking campaign.
Painful Childhood Experiences
“For a subsection of students who bully others, there is truth to the adage that ‘Hurt people hurt people,’” said Branstetter. “As a school psychologist, I’ve worked with many children and adolescents who engage in bullying behavior. Oftentimes, these children tell me stories about their lives that would break your heart.”
She pointed to a recent University of South Florida study which found evidence that bullying behaviors were more prevalent in children who had adverse life experiences, such as child abuse, neglect, household dysfunction or economic hardships.
Indeed, many bullies have been victims of bullying themselves. They may have experienced physical or sexual abuse from a parent, guardian, older sibling or another child. They also may have witnessed this behavior between family members or others in their community.
“It is important to remember that if the child is bullying, they have likely learned this behavior from somewhere,” said Roberts. “If the child is putting someone else down to make themselves feel better, they may have grown up in an environment where their self-worth has been diminished over time.”
Early Exposure To Violence
Kids who engage in physical bullying have often been exposed to violence from a young age. This can include interactions between family members or even violent and aggressive TV shows and video games
“Many bullies view violence in a positive way, such as a form of entertainment or a good way to get needs met,” Hafeez explained, adding that many kids who bully may have also grown up with parents who use harsh, physical discipline. “Parents who use corporal punishment or those who instill consequences that border on abusive may raise children to bully others.”
Difficult Parental Relationships
Even in non-abusive households, children can have unhealthy parental relationships that have been linked to bullying behaviors. “Bullies often lack warm, caring and involved parents,” said Patel. Sometimes this is because the parents are inattentive to their children and their interests. Other times, it may be due to living with an overworked and exhausted single parent.
“Parents of bullies may also be highly competitive and place unreasonable demands on their children to be superior to other kids ― academically, socially, athletically,” added Patel.
“When children are given few rules and little guidance, they may try to control their peers. Permissive parents don’t set limits, and they often make children feel entitled.”
– Sanam Hafeez, neuropsychologist
Goodman noted that a lot of research looks at bullying from a few different perspectives. “Attachment theory talks about bullying as a result of having insecure attachments with a caregiver at a young age. Family systems theory looks at behavioral patterns and relationship dynamics within the family unit, noting that exposure to domestic violence is a risk factor for bullying. For example, aggression is often seen as a learned response for handling conflict.”
“Most children experiment with aggression growing up but let it go as language and social problem-solving skills develop. For the kids who end up bullying, this progression appears to be impeded,” said Symington. “In response to conflict, they rely more on aggressive behaviors than prosocial ones, such as verbal cooperation and problem-solving.”
These kids don’t know how to regulate anger and other emotions, which points to a lack of healthy coping strategies.
“Part of a bully’s fear of being out of control is that their own emotions are not completely in their control,” said Hafeez, adding that they may be more easily frustrated and annoyed. “They may be emotionally unbalanced or under a lot of emotional strain and lash out more frequently because of this.”
Many kids who bully lack consistent discipline at home. They may have parents who fail to set rules or boundaries or hold them accountable for bad behavior.
“When children are given few rules and little guidance, they may try to control their peers. Permissive parents don’t set limits, and they often make children feel entitled,” Hafeez explained. “Surprisingly, children want to be given rules and structure and feel like a parent cares when they are coming and going. Nonchalance can feel like lack of caring.”
In many cases, parents have trouble accepting that their kids are bullying. This is particularly true when this behavior materializes later and seemingly “good kids” morph into bullies.
Many parents and other adults also reinforce bullying behavior by being dismissive (“he’s just being a boy”) or flat-out ignoring it. By recognizing the reality, choosing to have conversations with their kids, refusing to tolerate bullying and modeling good behavior in their treatment of others, parents can make a difference.