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What Makes a Bully a Bully?

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There is no genetic trait for bullying – bullying is a learned behavior. Bullies repeatedly and intentionally harm individuals they perceive as weak and helpless. They dominate and blame their actions on others. Bullying is a widespread problem that has been noted in children as young as three. Victims of bullying suffer from a range of problems including low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, school absenteeism, and many even attempt or commit suicide. Bullies tend to continue bullying in adulthood and to model negative behaviors for their own children. Many engage in criminal behavior and become the Gordon Gekkos of the world. We need to understand what motivates these individuals in order to stop bullying from happening.

Not all parents are the cause of their child’s bullying, but certain household attitudes and behaviors increase the chance of having a bullying child. For instance, research shows that children who are bullied at home are more likely to bully others at school. Parents of bullies also tend to perpetuate prejudiced attitudes about gender, race, sexual orientation, and wealth status. They are more likely to discipline inconsistently or to be neglectful, turning a blind eye towards their child’s behaviors.

Bullies are not always easy to identify. Perpetrators may not be physically violent but may spread rumors that humiliate and shame their targets. Bullies tend to have a need for both power and affiliation. Some have learned that tormenting a person makes others laugh, thus raising the social status of the bully. But not all bullies are the same. Some studies show that bullies have low self-esteem and poor social skills, while other studies clearly state that bullies are socially adept, popular, “captain of the football team” types of kids. They may do very well academically and receive praise from parents and teachers. These kinds of bullies have learned to manipulate effectively and are feared by other students. Many manage to get others to bully on their behalf.

Nation-wide efforts to understand and reduce bullying were reviewed in this month’s Monitor on Psychology (the American Psychological Association’s monthly magazine). Dr. Catherine Bradshaw, director of the John Hopkins Center for the Prevention of Youth Violence, reported that bullying even affects students who are not directly involved because it impacts the overall learning environment. Successful anti-bullying programs aim to improve the environment by educating teachers and students on prevention, reporting, and intervention. Prevention strategies include rewarding pro-social behaviors and teaching emotion regulation skills rather than instituting only punishment-based plans, such as suspending students for bullying instances. Anonymous surveys have proven to be a good reporting method, helping school counselors identify both victims and perpetrators. Interventions are not only for teachers and counselors, students are encouraged to diffuse a situation when possible, for example by distracting a bully with a joke.

In order to reduce bullying and its deleterious effects, the whole community needs to be on board. Parents need to recognize the signs of bullying and victimization in their children as well as others. If you hear your child tell a story about another child being bullied, report it. Encourage your children to console a bullied peer. A simple smile or encouraging comment can go a long way. Teachers need to be aware of the subtle indicators of bullying and to intervene. As a parent, if you ever think that bullying isn’t a problem because your child is neither a bully nor a victim, remember this: 75% of school shootings were committed by students reacting violently to being bullied by their peers (Interim Report on the Prevention of Targeted Violence in Schools, www.ed.gov/offices/oese/sdfs). We all stand to benefit from supporting an environment free of prejudice, violence, and bullying.

Jaime Black earned her Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from Yeshiva University. She works in a private practice doing psychotherapy and evaluations. Jaime’s specialty is in working with individuals of all ages on the autism spectrum. www.spectrumservicesnyc.com. JaimeBlackPsyD@gmail.com. (914) 712-8208.


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