What Makes a Child Bully?

What makes a bully, and how should your child respond to one?Many kids are subject to bullying behavior — at their schools, in their daycare centers, at summer camps. As many zero-tolerance anti-bullying policies have been enacted in children’s environments, there continue to be challenges.

I was bullied as a child. It went beyond the whispers-behind-the-back from fellow girls in my class. It was emotionally abusive, and often left me feeling worthless. But I realized at some point that to move forward, I had two choices:

  1. Continue to harbor hurt and anger, and eventually turn into a bully myself; or
  2. Forgive my bullies, and learn to find compassion for them.

I chose option 2. Even as a child, I subconsciously understood that bullying is rooted in self-shame and the need to express that. Learning this not only freed me to forgive and heal, but also how to navigate an adult life of unlikable coworkers, rude drivers, and other people who behave similar to my childhood bullies.

Understanding the emotional realm of bullies has also helped me in raising my own children, to be able to assert themselves and to find compassion for others — yes, even the bully. Probably the biggest lesson I’ve tried to pass along to my children is: the hardest to love are those who need it most.

It is not uncommon that one of my children will come home from school to tell me a story involving a classmate not being nice to another child. Often, the story doesn’t directly involve them, but something they witnessed. An example is a child taunting another child until the victim cries or it gets the attention of a teacher.

It is tempting for my children — as it is for us all — to refer to the bully as “bad,” but I maintain that no child is bad. Every child is good, though we may not always make the best choices. Take this a step further, and I talk to my children about how bullies behave the way they do because their home life is less than ideal. We can only love if we are first loved.

This doesn’t mean that I expect my kids to try to be best friends with a bully, or to give in to their whims. I want them to assert themselves, and to stand up for the children who are targeted by bullies. And I want them to feel compassion when thinking about a bully, rather than to feel condemnation.

What Makes a Bully?

According to Stomp Out Bullying, a bully learns his or her bullying behavior.

Typically, a bully learns his or her behavior at home. Children who are bullies may receive little attention at home. A bully’s parents may be overtly neglectful, struggle with addictions, or otherwise preoccupied such as with a pending divorce. Sometimes, older siblings may be bullied at school and then bring home that behavior in how they relate to their younger siblings. Other times, a bully learns his or her behavior from a parent, teacher, or coach who has difficulty with anger management or as an immature way to attempt to motivate children.

The common thread for the development of a bully is that the child has never learned unconditional love, kindness, compassion, and respect. In essence, we should view bullying behavior as a cry for help — a bright red flag that something is amiss in that child’s life. And because bullying behavior is learned — not inborn — it can also be unlearned.

Why Does a Bully Act-out Toward Others?

Bullying behavior — name-calling, spreading rumors, physically hurting another, stealing from another, forcing another to do something, shutting another out of a group, posting mean messages or pictures about someone online — feels good to a bully. It fulfills a need for a sense of control in their lives, giving them a likeness for the security and boost to their self-worth that they lack. Bullies tend to struggle with empathy and insight. They instead behave according to whatever behavior will help them relieve their uncomfortable feelings of powerlessness.

Related: Parents Fear Cyber Bullying As Children Go Back To School

Stomp Out Bullying describes 4 types of bullies:

  • Bullied bullies gain relief from feeling helpless by bullying others
  • Social bullies boost their poor self-esteem by manipulating others through gossip
  • Detached bullies plan their attacks and appear very likable to everyone, but their specific victims
  • Hyperactive bullies have difficulty with all social situations, tending to act inappropriately in general, and are sometimes physical in their bullying tactics.

How Should a Child Respond to a Bully?

Depending on your child’s comfort level and the severity of the bullying behavior, your child may be able to put an end to the behavior themselves. This is most ideal, because it empowers the victim to learn to stand up for themselves. This doesn’t mean that your child needs to become a bully themselves, just take a chance that if they tell the bully to stop, it just may happen.

It’s important to realize that what fuels bullying behavior is the victim’s reaction. As a child, I cried about everything. What can I say, I’m a sensitive person! But that made me an easy target for bullies. My self-esteem was tied too closely to how my peers viewed me, and a bully’s words and actions really affected me.

This was one of my goals with raising my children with attachment parenting — I want their self-esteem to arise from the secure attachment found with me, not with what their classmates think of them. And I’ve seen that when it comes to them encountering a bully, their strong senses of self-worth kicks in and they’re not affected by another’s words and actions. They simply tell the person to stop, move away from them, and ignore what the bully said, because what a bully feels about them doesn’t at all match what they feel about themselves.

Related: Top 10 Attachment Parenting Myths

At the same time, if a friend or peer is being bullied, I hope — and have witnessed it a few times — that they come to that person’s aid. It’s not usually dramatic, but my daughter has no problem in telling another child’s bully to stop and then to get a teacher’s attention if that doesn’t work. I don’t worry about my children being labeled as tattle-tales because this is exactly what they’re taught to do — and what we all should be doing.

Gone are the days where everyone minded their own business. We all have to be observant and ready to report if something seems amiss, and we do our children a great disservice by advising them to mind their own business.

Helping our children stand up for others not only empowers the victim to stand up for him/herself, but also sends a strong message to the bully that his or her behavior will not be tolerated. And this sends an equally strong message to the bully’s siblings, parents, teachers, coaches or whoever taught the behavior in the first place — times are changing, and the bully can also change.


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