The Shock of Your Life

One morning you receive a call from your son’s school principal. She tells you that your son has been involved in an incident and asks you to come in for a conference to speak with her, together with his teacher and the school counselor. As you race to the school, all kinds of scenarios flash through your brain. Is your son hurt? Was he bullied?

Once you arrive at the school you are given the shock of your life. You find out that your son is the bully and it has been going on for some time now.

Your child is the bully!

You didn’t see it coming.

How did this happen?

The Yale Study

In 2017 a team of researchers at Yale University conducted a study to find the answer to this question. Aside from confirming previously held notions, the study yielded some surprising insights.

First of all, bullies themselves often suffer from their behavior, and the effects are quite similar to those often experienced by the bully’s victims:

  • Low self-esteem

  • Social isolation

  • Anxiety

  • Embarrassment

  • Confusion

  • Depression

Furthermore, the study discovered that oftentimes there are striking similarities between the children targeted for bullying and the bullies themselves. Generally speaking, both exhibit social awkwardness, and cannot grasp the consequences of their actions nor the impact their behavior has on others.

So, the question is that if bullies don’t benefit from their behavior, and in fact, suffer because of it, why do they continue to bully others?

Reasons a Child Becomes a Bully

1. Isolation

Socially isolating children from one another creates the ideal environment for bullying to flourish. The antidote to this is for adults to encourage friendships and positive social interactions among children.

“As human beings, we are social animals,” says Michael Anthony-Nalepa, licensed psychotherapist and creator of The Psychology of Bullying course at Antioch University, the first such course in the country. “So, if children are feeling isolated, sometimes bullying is a way to connect to another person.”

2. Lack of Empathy

In their development, young children often go through a stage of egocentrism; autism and mental health challenges can make it difficult even for an older child to see past his or her own situation and empathize when another is in pain. Adults need to explain to children how their behavior is impacting the feelings of others. A simple way of doing this is by asking, “How would you feel if someone did the same thing to you?”

And it’s important to include yourself in the empathy lesson as well.

“It’s okay as a parent to tell kids how their actions make you feel,” says Anthony-Nalepa. “As a parent, we very rarely say, ‘When you said this to me, it made me feel hurt,’ or whatever the emotion may be.” Parents have feelings, too, and it’s good to remind your children of that from time to time.

3. Poor Modeling

Sometimes children bully because they are imitating the behavior they have learned at home from parents and/or older siblings. They may have been raised in a home where there was spousal abuse or dominance by one parent over another. Or the child herself may have been the victim of abuse or harsh, punitive behavior by a parent.

It can be extremely dangerous for a child when the environment at home is unhealthy. Children who have been abused by parents or other relatives are far more likely to bully than their peers. Or a child may become a bully because it affords him the sort of control that was nowhere to be found in his home.

Anthony-Nalepa includes societal influences under the category of poor modeling. “It’s not just taking after your parents, it’s more of a societal conversation,” he asserts. “They pick up cues on how to be powerful from the world around them so you see things like the Mean Girls narrative or the Tough Guys in the back of the bus who bully the smaller kids.”

4. Low Self-Esteem

Some children have a bad feeling about themselves, harboring feelings of jealousy, inadequacy, or low self-esteem. So they see putting others down as a way to lift themselves up. Often these children target their bullying toward peers who they perceive as better or more successful.  Bullying is an attempt to feel better.

Researchers suspect that the reason many kids aren’t aggressive and don’t resort to bullying others is that they simply don’t need to. They are socially comfortable. Those kids who behave aggressively are often displaying weakness. They are insecure about their place in the group, and respond by bullying to mask that insecurity.

5. The Forgotten Child

Sometimes it is those children who feel invisible in their home who become the bullies at school. Children need constant love and respectful attention from their mother and father. Nobody is more important than mom and dad; children will go to great lengths to gain approval from their parents, from the time they are born until the time they die.

When they do not get the love and attention they need at home, they may feel invisible and unimportant. This sense of being “invisible” can morph into anger, resentment, and bullying others at school.

Seeking attention can become a game in which a kid tries to get his parent’s attention and approval, but just doesn’t know exactly how to go about it in a healthy way. The forgotten child becomes a bully and, in that way, becomes visible and finally gets the attention that he so desperately craves.

Children Who Bully Are Still Children

It is important to remember that children who bully are still children. Their highly inappropriate behavior has an inner logic of its own. At least as much as other children do, and probably more so, they need help and guidance from adults. Because bullying is largely a learned behavior, the good news is that, with the proper intervention, it can be corrected.