Understanding the Bully: Learned Behavior and How to Intervene
Bullying. It’s an idea that strikes anger in parents’ hearts and exasperation in the minds of teachers and others who work with kids.
If you’re a parent and your child tells you they’re being bullied, your immediate response is likely to defend your kid. Perhaps you even thought—or said—the bully is a “bad kid.” That’s a totally reasonable reaction. You don’t want your child to hurt.
If you work in a school, chances are you’ve sat through countless professional development sessions being told about the effects of bullying and learning about your school’s “zero-tolerance policy.”
But in both cases, it’s possible you still felt a bit helpless. If you work with kids, you may know zero-tolerance policies don’t work, posters saying “be a friend, not a bully!” do nothing, and punishments are often disproportionately used against students with special needs and who identify as BIPOC and LGBTQ+. If you’re a parent, you aren’t there to help at school, and you can’t hover over a smartphone 24/7.
Often, the talk about bullying focuses on “victims.” But what if some of the focus was shifted to the “bullies” themselves? When we talk about other dangerous situations, like criminality, we care about the victims’ welfare—but we know interventions are needed for the perpetrators. Only they can truly stop their own behaviors.
This article explores the nature of bullying, why kids engage in bullying behaviors, the long-term consequences if the underlying issues aren’t addressed, and steps you can take to help those who bully before it’s too late.
What Is Bullying?
Bullying is often misunderstood and misapplied to situations. Dan Olweus, often considered the “founding father” of research on bully/victim problems, created the widely-accepted definition of bullying:
“A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself.”
For a behavior to be called bullying, it needs to include:
While other negative interactions should be addressed, bullying needs to be handled differently from interactions that don’t meet these standards.
What Bullying Is Not
It’s very easy to fall into the trap of using “bullying” as an all-encompassing term. According to Olweus and verywellfamily, some common negative behaviors that aren’t generally bullying include:
Behaviors That Are Not Bullying
Of course, all these situations can escalate into bullying behavior. Keep an eye out for an imbalance of power and a pattern emerging.
Other situations that aren’t bullying are those dangerous to life and limb. This includes sexual harassment or assault, battery, stalking, any type of partner abuse, and more.
Who Gets Bullied?
Anyone can be bullied, but some kids are more likely to be bullied than others. There’s always an imbalance of power trending in favor of the one who bullies. Still, the power imbalance may not be obvious—the one who bullies isn’t necessarily bigger or stronger, for example. They’ve just found a way to assert themselves over others.
Kids most at risk for bullying include:
It’s worth remembering teachers can be bullied by kids as well. This may seem odd because the imbalance of power should lean in the teacher’s favor, but this isn’t always the case. If a kid knows their parents will back them up over a teacher no matter what or if they’ve noticed administrators are especially hard on teachers, they may realize the teacher has no recourse.
When on the lookout for bullying behavior, it’s important to keep an eye on anyone who might fit into a “high risk” category and watch how others interact with them. Don’t hover; just be aware.
Remember: Being bullied is never a person’s fault, no matter the “reason” they were chosen.
Why Kids Engage in Bullying Behavior
It would be wonderful if we could divide people into categories, à la Janice in Mean Girls. However, as the movie showed us, people can’t be easily categorized. Even “The Plastics”—the apparent bullies of the film—have insecurities and are hurting. And those struggles weren’t too different from those of “The Greatest People You Will Ever Meet,” i.e., the should-be heroes, who also engaged in bullying behavior.
The differences between the two groups came down to what needs were (or weren’t) being met. People whose mental or physical needs aren’t being met may use bullying to meet those needs.
Lack of Security and Safety at Home
Many children who bully come from unstable or restrictive home environments. This can range from uncertain situations, like recent divorces, to abuse or neglect, to having overly strict parents. These don’t necessarily need to be recent issues—the ViolenceFree Coalition says the event or situation could have occurred anytime in the last five years.
If a child’s parents bully them or others—like store employees or other family members—the kids may learn this behavior and assume it’s acceptable. They may also have older siblings who bully them, and they adopt the behavior—especially if the older child doesn’t seem to suffer consequences.
Other parental behaviors may also contribute. If a parent abuses drugs or alcohol, a child may be more likely to engage in bullying. However, parents who monitor their child’s every movement and significantly restrict what they can do could also find themselves with a child accused of bullying. Both situations can make kids feel like they have little control over their lives.
Kids with unstable home lives often feel helpless, and bullying behaviors are a way to seek power. In fact, bullying behaviors could be an unconscious cry for help. While kids may act like they don’t care about what they did or understand it’s wrong, it doesn’t mean they aren’t hurting.
Lack of Safety and Security at School
It’s difficult to learn or interact appropriately if you feel unsafe or uncertain, especially in a place where you can’t hide—like a school.
Children who are bullied often begin to bully others to reclaim their power or send a message to the kids who are being mean.
But it can go much deeper than that. If school feels inherently unsafe, this may also increase negative behaviors.
For instance, metal detectors at schools often make students feel less safe—even if there isn’t a high rate of negative behaviors occurring. According to Jim Higgins, CEO and principal of Multicultural Academy Charter School, metal detectors make it seem like schools assume kids are up to no good from the moment they walk in—so why shouldn’t they act accordingly?
Further, as hard as it is to admit, kids are sometimes bullied by the adults in their lives. This is bad enough on its own, but it becomes especially dangerous because other kids see how the teacher behaves and may assume it’s allowed. When a child feels like there’s no one to turn to, they may try to find power in other ways—or find a way out of the classroom through suspension.
Lack of Connection
Kids who feel like they’re lacking connection with peers or adults in their lives may be more likely to engage in bullying behaviors. Connection is an essential part of functioning socially and academically—feeling left out or like no one cares can hinder self-esteem.
Sometimes, kids engage in bullying to feel connected with their friends. This could be picking on someone from a different group or choosing a member of their own circle to focus on negatively. Even if a child knows they’re not doing the right thing, they may go along out of fear of being ousted from the friendships or becoming the new target.
Another situation related to a lack of peer connection is feeling like an outsider to begin with. This could be a child at a new school, who doesn’t have the same home life as others, or just doesn’t quite fit in. Kids in this group are often blamed for being bullied—”Why don’t you just try harder to fit in?” If being themselves hasn’t created connection, they may lash out to gain power, seem cool, or because it’s what they see others doing, and this is the only way to “try harder” they can see.
To understand the drive for attention, it may be easier for adults to look back at their own childhoods or their children’s younger years. Babies and toddlers often scream and cry or throw tantrums when they aren’t getting enough attention. Though people generally grow out of these behaviors, who hasn’t wanted to scream “pay attention to me!” at someone, regardless of age? If kids have tried – and failed – to gain the attention they crave, they may turn to negative behaviors like bullying. Even negative attention can feel better than no attention at all.
Un- or Under-Addressed Mental and Physical Health Needs
Anyone can engage in bullying, regardless of mental or physical disabilities. Though kids with disabilities may be at a higher risk of being the target of bullying, this doesn’t mean they can’t take on the other role.
Conduct disorders often appear in childhood or teenage years and can result in aggressive, destructive, or deceitful behaviors, as well as a penchant for rule-breaking. These can be caused by genetic or environmental factors, and if left unaddressed, they can lead to lifelong issues.
Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) often involves frequent eruptions of anger. These behaviors are often directed at adults—remember, teachers and parents can be bullied as much as they can engage in bullying, even when the other party is a child.
Some learning disabilities can cause or correlate with bullying behaviors as well. Children who have disabilities affecting learning or engaging in socially acceptable behaviors may simply not know they’re engaging in bullying.
Further, students who are feeling bullied by students with mental or health needs may be less likely to report it, potentially continuing the cycle. Former teacher Sarah Mattie clarified this: “When I had students come to me to report being physically or emotionally hurt by students with special needs, they would literally shake. I didn’t get the idea that they were embarrassed by feeling hurt by a child with needs—they felt they were doing something wrong by telling me. But, it’s just as important to report this as it is with any other peer, so we can intervene quickly and effectively. Everyone deserves to feel safe.”
Signs a Child is Bullying Other People
The most obvious sign a child is bullying others is when children report the behavior, but that’s not the only sign of bullying. According to StopBullying.org, the Child Mind Institute, and Just Say Yes, kids who bully may be observed:
What Happens When Kids Who Bully Aren’t Reached?
It would be easy to write off kids who bully as “lost causes” or “not worth the time.” But, they’re still human beings who are learning and growing—and capable of change. If they aren’t reached in a timely manner, there can be lifelong consequences.
Those who bully are more likely to develop substance abuse problems, engage in sexual activity very young, be charged with crimes, drop out of school, and become abusers.
Some of this may seem like “not my problem,” which is a natural response to being hurt. But remember, they’re still part of society. Early sexual activity could result in children who end up continuing the cycle of bullying or being abused. Children who bully could grow up to be your coworkers, parents to your children’s peers (or even friends), or community leaders.
For their sake and for the sake of those around them, it’s essential to help them before problems escalate.
How to Help a Child Who Bullies Stop the Behaviors
The knee-jerk reaction to bullying behavior is punishment—but that doesn’t reach the root of the problem. As we’ve seen, many factors contribute to bullying. A swift consequence may work for a one-time incident, but this approach typically won’t work for bullying. The underlying issues must be addressed to see meaningful change.
If You’re a Teacher or Other School Staff Member
When a child reports bullying or if a staff member witnesses it, school employees should investigate beyond the behavior itself.
First, it’s essential to have conversations with the child who bullied and the one who was bullied. Find out exactly what happened, how long it’s been going on, and what they both believe caused the situation. Get help for both children.
For the child who is bullying, dig into what’s going on at home. Talk with the child to understand what home is like, then determine the best course of action—possibly calling the parents or involving child protective services, depending on the situation.
If home life doesn’t seem to be the issue—or not the only issue—other factors need to be considered. Is the classroom being managed well? Is there something in the school that’s triggering these behaviors? Are they being bullied themselves? Take steps to rectify these issues.
When an external cause can’t be ascertained or the problem seems to go deeper, a counselor should be involved. There could be an undiagnosed or inadequately addressed learning disability or mental illness. Half of all mental illnesses begin by 14, and three-fourths appear by 24—meaning there could be an issue that simply didn’t exist before. Kids often hide signs of learning disabilities, so later diagnoses aren’t unusual—and frustrations stemming from challenges can cause kids to act out.
If it’s safe to do so, get parents and the child on board with a plan. This could be a behavior plan with no legally binding paperwork, or you could fight for a 504 or IEP if warranted. Having both the child and parent on board will improve the chances of success.
If You’re a Parent
If you’re a parent who discovers your child is engaging in bullying behaviors, you need to figure out the cause before issuing consequences. Different triggers require different interventions.
As soon as you find out there’s an issue, address it without hesitation. Verywellfamily says, “Doing so demonstrates not only that you are aware of the situation, but also that bullying is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.” The conversation should be calm and full of concern rather than shame (e.g., avoid calling your child a “bully”), but with an understanding that consequences will occur.
It’s imperative to figure out why bullying occurs—and this may not be easy. Give your child room to talk. Make sure they know they can be candid, even if the trigger came from your home. And look for fibs. This doesn’t necessarily mean your kid wants to lie but may be afraid to tell you because they’re embarrassed, scared of your reaction, nervous about getting into further trouble, or worried about retaliation from a friend.
If you determine—or recognize, if your child isn’t coming out and saying it—the problem might be at home, it’s time to do some reflection. If you can’t find a specific trigger, like a divorce or death in the family, KidsHealth recommends you “Think about how you talk around your kids and how you handle conflict and problems. Kids who live with yelling, name-calling, putdowns, harsh criticism, or physical anger from a sibling or a parent/caregiver may act that out in other settings.” If you struggle with staying calm, there is no shame in seeking help from a counselor—both for you and your family.
When the issues come from friend groups and peer pressure, discuss the importance of developing healthy friendships, how to tell if someone is a good friend, and how to walk away from situations. However, be sure to not badmouth their friends or their friends’ parents in the process, as this could put them on the defensive or get back to the friends’ parents—causing more stress for you.
If your child is experiencing bullying that’s causing their own behavior, you must issue consequences for their behavior and help them find ways to deal with being bullied. Verywellfamily states, “…the lack of appropriate social skills is one of the biggest predictors of bullying victimization.” So, it’s essential to address social skills by helping them learn essential skills, like how to have appropriate conversations and greet the people they encounter. Other things to work on are self-esteem, assertiveness (which is different from bullying, of course), and the ability to form positive friendships.
It’s also important to contact the school to let them know what’s going on. Be sure to not excuse your child’s behavior, but make sure they know about the situation so all sides can be addressed in the classroom. Additionally, don’t speak ill of the school or the teacher in front of your child. While this may feel cathartic, it can undermine your child’s faith in the staff’s ability to intervene or may even increase bullying behavior.
If your child reports the teacher or a staff member is the problem, admittedly, this can get sticky. Still avoid saying bad things about the adult, no matter how much you may want to. Remember, you’re only getting one side of the story. Speak to the adult in question and find out what’s going on from their perspective. It could simply be a personality difference, a misinterpreted interaction (on either side), or any number of other misunderstandings. On the flip side, there could be a real issue needing to be addressed, in which case you should calmly talk to the teacher about it and tell them what you need to be changed. Use proactive language, like “How can we work together to fix this?” If problems persist, involve administration.
Finally, it’s crucial to ensure there isn’t an underlying mental, physical, or learning challenge causing or increasing bullying behaviors. As previously stated, mental illnesses often begin presenting by age 14, with the majority showing up before 24—meaning there could be a mental health issue, as hard as it may be to admit. Or, your child could have an undiagnosed learning disability needing to be addressed. Remember—kids are excellent at developing coping skills, and some become apparent or worsen as schoolwork becomes harder. A visit with a pediatrician or therapist couldn’t hurt when dealing with bullying behavior. If you’re dealing with a mental health issue or learning disability, early intervention is key.
No matter the reason, though, consequences must be issued, and your child must understand that while you empathize with their situation, their behavior is unacceptable. Ensure they know bullying is a choice, and they’re responsible for their behavior—no matter what they say, the person they’re bullying (child or adult) doesn’t deserve it any more than your own child would.
The consequences need to directly relate to the behavior. Some examples include:
No matter what consequence you issue, make sure a) to not give in and b) to set a time limit for the consequences.
When it comes to at-school consequences, verywellfamily says it’s vital to support the school’s disciplinary plan. This “shows them there are consequences for bad choices and Mom or Dad will not (and in some cases, cannot) rescue them. The worst decision you could make is to enable their bad decisions by attempting to rescue them from the pain of consequences.” In short, if you save them now, they may think you’ll save them if they get into real trouble later—like getting arrested—so it’s best to enforce these societal expectations and consequences while the stakes are relatively low.
If you feel a school’s disciplinary plan is discriminatory, you should approach the administration or consult a lawyer. But, ensure you have all the information first.
If You’re a School Social Worker or Counselor
School social workers and counselors play essential roles in combating bullying at school. As they’re often the most highly trained in the inner workings of children’s minds, they serve as vital resources for both staff and students.
When working with children—both those who bully and those who experience bullying—help them work on their socioemotional skills. This could involve one-on-one counseling sessions, group lunches with a variety of kids, and other supervised social interaction. You could also involve the whole community via assessments and surveys about their experiences.
However, it’s worth remembering that, according to StopBullying.gov, conflict resolution, peer mediation, and group sessions with those who bully that are focused on the behaviors aren’t generally successful in bullying situations. Conflict resolution and peer mediation are for everyday conflicts, like fights between friends, not bullying—especially as they involve both parties sharing responsibility. Group meetings, like the ones mentioned above, are often excellent tools for social skills. But, those involving strictly students who bully and are solely regarding those behaviors may encourage students who bully to support each other in their negative actions.
You can also provide resources and education to other staff members and families. Work with your administration to implement anti-bullying training focusing on interventions for both those who are bullied and those who engage in the behavior—many trainings currently focus on consequences, not how to meet unique needs to help hinder future behaviors. If you see your school has discriminatory or unrealistic policies, like zero-tolerance, share research about policies geared toward intervention, not punishment, and push for changes
Finally, connect children and their families with outside resources. This may include counseling services or other types of therapy, like music or art therapy. Help the children and their families find the support they need—at a cost they can afford.
Bullying Awareness Resources
This site provides resources for kids, teachers, and parents, including training options, law and policy information, and active instructions on handling bullying situations.
Edutopia—Resources to Fight Bullying and Harassment at School
This article provides a list of other resources, including curricula, student empowerment methods, and help for parents.
PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center
PACER is an organization focusing on children with disabilities. They offer a bullying prevention center that includes statistics, answers to FAQs, and actionable bullying prevention methods. They also have a straightforward resource dedicated to helping parents if their child is exhibiting bullying behavior.
Teaching Tolerance—Bullying Help: Resources and Partners
Teaching Tolerance is a resource for educators about ensuring an equitable school environment for students from all backgrounds, providing lesson plans and training about equality. They have a film kit called Bullied: A Student, a School, and a Case That Made History, and this list of resources exists to go along with that lesson—though the resources can be used independently.