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Understanding the Bully

Understanding the Bully

By Dr. Kenneth Shore

Bullies are typically bigger and stronger than their classmates. They are generally of average intelligence although their school performance is often below average. They often have a history of aggressive behavior dating back to early elementary school. Their quickness to anger may be fueled by their social misperceptions. They may view the world as a threatening place and often perceive hostility where none is present. They can be very reactive to social slights and may lash out at classmates with little provocation, sometimes because they see no alternative to aggression. They often feel no sense of remorse at hurting other children and show them little sympathy.

Children may bully for a variety of reasons. Some may torment their classmates to gain a sense of power and control over them. Some may bully in an effort to gain recognition and status from peers that they may not be able to get in other ways. Others may bully in an effort to compensate for their feelings of inadequacy. Still others may target their classmates as a way of venting frustration with problems at home or problems in school (for example, learning problems or peer rejection). And some may bully as a result of having been bullied themselves.

Bullies usually choose as targets peers who are weak, unpopular and unlikely to resist. They may zero in on children who stand out in some way such as the teacher’s pet, a child with a speech defect, a slow learner, a child with big ears, a child who wears the “wrong” clothes or an English as a Second Language student.

Children are not born bullies. Bullies are made, which means they can be unmade. They are often taught from an early age that the way to get what they want is through force. They may learn to respond to challenges with confrontation and to express themselves with their fists rather than words. As they get older, they are at risk for further acts of violence, including frequent fighting.

Bullies’ education in aggression usually begins at home. They often come from households where there is little parental supervision and a lack of warmth and attention. Their parents may model aggressive behavior as a way of solving problems. They may discipline through a combination of angry outbursts and corporal punishment. The message their children receive is that might makes right. The parents may support their child’s bullying behavior towards peers by their failure to disapprove of it or their outright endorsement of it. In addition, the parents may fail to model non-violent ways of dealing with social problems so that their children may not learn the social skills needed to resolve conflicts through cooperative means.

Children also learn aggressive behavior from the media, notably television. The amount of violence they are exposed to on television is simply astounding. By the age of 14, a child will have seen as many as 11,000 murders on television. Even the average cartoon has 26 violent incidents. Children may see television characters who get their way, settle disputes and acquire things by using force without suffering any consequences. The lesson they learn is that aggression pays off. Research indicates that children who see violence frequently on television may become less sensitive to the pain and suffering of others and may view aggression as an acceptable way of solving problems.

School bullies often face problems as adults. They are more likely than their peers to drop out of school, have difficulty holding jobs, have problems sustaining relationships, be abusive of their spouses, and have aggressive children. And they are more prone to criminal behavior. One study which followed individuals over a 22-year period found that children who were aggressive to their peers at age eight were five times more likely than their non-aggressive peers to have a criminal record (usually antisocial offenses) by the age of 30.

A particularly alarming pattern is that aggressive children often grow up to be harsh, punitive parents who have children who become bullies themselves. In short, children of bullies often become bullies. The challenge for those working with aggressive children and their families is to try to disrupt this cycle of violence.

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