The Mind Behind the Bully: The Psychology of Bullying

There’s a lot of information out there dedicated to protecting our kids from bullying and enforcing policies to ensure it doesn’t happen, but the real key to stopping this problem is understanding it. Bullies are …

There’s a lot of information out there dedicated to protecting our kids from bullying and enforcing policies to ensure it doesn’t happen, but the real key to stopping this problem is understanding it. Bullies are definitely people like the rest of us, so what’s so different about them that their social skills are so drastically different?

It’s easy to just lump these kids into the “bad eggs” category, but the reality goes years back, all the way into a child’s upbringing and their years in preschool. Here we’ll explore some of the basic parallels that psychologists have drawn between bullying behaviors and the kids that exhibit them.

It Starts Early

More and more research is showing that bullying behaviors are developed between toddler and preschool years, and further engrained into a child’s communication style as they continue to progress through elementary school with the behavior unchecked.

Kids are a product of their upbringing, and many parents unknowing expose them to interactions that shape the way their children will communicate with others one day. It’s been shown that there’s a link between disciplinary parenting styles that use threats and spanking to control behavior and the children that in turn use the same methods to get their peers to cooperate with them.

As a child enters the typical turmoil that are the toddler years, emotional volatility is the bane of a parent’s existence. However, it’s crucial to teach our children how to manage these feelings, encouraging them to talk. It’s likely to be slow going at first, but eventually they’ll come to practice these methods without even thinking about it.

From there, developmental psychologists that unsupervised free play is crucial in furthering these communication skills, and allowing children to solve disputes on their own, without parental intervention. This not only shows kids how to interact and coexist with one another, but pushes other children to assert and stand up for themselves.

They lack personal awareness

Interestingly enough, it appears that most bullies are completely unaware of how they are perceived. Often they find ways to justify their behavior, and have no concept of how their peers actually see them. For the most part, they consider themselves well-liked, though this is usually just a result of fear-based manipulation, and people being too afraid to speak up.

They have low self esteem

Bullies are made, not born, and as I said before, this behavior is typically fostered at a very young age. A difficult upbringing can result in low self esteem, which coupled with aggressive behavior can create a child who not only lacks communication skills, but feels the need to defend themselves constantly.

It’s due to this that so many bullies are able to make peace with what they do – they see threats and insults everywhere they look, and in their eyes, everyone else is asking for it. They lash out as a defense mechanism, and then often seek out ‘weaker’ victims to bolster their own sense of superiority.

They need to feel in charge of someone

This lack of self esteem can also foster a need to be in control of something. If they’ve had a tumultuous upbringing with a lot of big changes that were completely out of their control, they might lash out and assert their dominance over others as a means of coping.

Major changes and volatile circumstances can make a child feel vulnerable, and if the ability to be aggressive is there, they turn to others to victimize in an effort to protect themselves. By having a say in someone else’s day, it helps them cope with not having a say in their own.

Rewriting Bullying Behavior

The trouble is, bullying behavior is something that is developed over years and years of difficult circumstances, threatening parenting styles, and a lack of healthy social interactions – it could take years to correct, and indeed, there may be no rehabilitating a bully.

Once these patterns of behavior in play, it’s difficult to reach the sensitive, vulnerable child underneath.. However, one key point that’s worth mentioning is the power of suggestion. In many instances, people tend to become what society perceives them as.

If society perceives you as a bully, you’re more likely to become more like that person, and dig in your heels even further. While it’s important to show our kids that this behavior is completely unacceptable, it’s also important to offer them the opportunity for a clean slate, and the chance to redeem themselves.

If an aggressive child is shown that he can be treated with respect without having to push for it, he may be more inclined to alter his behavior. If he can learn to depend on and trust others without having to threaten for results, he may consider that it’s not actually necessary to manipulate others.

It all starts with setting the right example for our kids, and giving them the space they need to exercise crucial social skills. If we can show kids that have taken to bullying as a means of coping that there’s no need to act big and tough to get their way, we may be able to show them the world in a different light, and one that they can actively be a part of, instead of being a shadow in it.

22 thoughts on “The Mind Behind the Bully: The Psychology of Bullying”

  1. Thank you, this article was very helpful in trying to understand the psychology aspect of bullies. My daughter and I were recently cyber bullied by a teacher/coach on social media. I’m also seeking legal advice and hope you can help us obtain a good lawyer because the school seems to be taking this lightly but my daughter is very hurt and still has to play under this teacher’s coaching. HELP!

  2. Hi, I am writing a cross- examination debate case for my high school and I would love to use this article as evidence in my case. However, I really need the date that the article was published and the author.

  3. But wouldn’t giving the bully a dose of his own medicine another and perhaps the best way of dealing with a bully.

    • It just reinforces the behaviour, since they’re the victims of their world and in their mind that entitles them to be abusive… I’m healing from an emotionally and psychologically abusive relationship, and I’m reflecting a LOT in order to make sense of things… . I can see now that the pattern became more complex and effective as I got more and more reactive and it’s how they eventually break you – as emotions run high, reason fades. They’re masters at it, and even if their morals are twisted, to a certain degree they know what they’re doing. I remember mine convincing me of not saying a word of what was happening between us to anyone because if the word came out she ‘could lose her job’. To me, this thought was surreal (from my inner circle to work taking action to her being fired!?) but she would panic so much of just the thought that I’d feel responsible and went with it! ‍♂️ And this is just an example. Anyway, my two cents

  4. More adults are bullies than children with far worse weapons of choice to tear down and break others with adult to adult bullying or adult to child bullying. Some of my worse bullies have been adults twice my age…

    • So true Danny,
      I have suffered bullying by both children and adults, mostly adults. They are very cruel and ruthless. I believe it mostly has to do with dealing drugs and taking over territory. Moving house will make no difference as this is widespread. I have moved house three times now. They have information on computer about me and my family and I wonder about how many others?.
      This is very serious. Yet governments take no action. Don’t abuse them or do anything to esculate the bullying. Record everything. It is your only evidence.

  5. One of the best articles about Bullying I’ve ever read. It’s so finely written and it changes the way I think about bullying.

  6. Sociologicaly bullying is the groups way of dealing with those who refuse or are unable to conform to group norms. Bullies should be confronted by an assertive person who refuses to be bullied and asserts their individuality.

  7. This perpetuates the long refuted myth that low-self esteem leads to aggression.
    It has been irrefutably established that the root of aggression is threatened narcissism.

    “Threatened Egotism, Narcissism, Self-Esteem, and Direct and Displaced Aggression: Does Self-love or Self-hate Lead to Violence?”. Bushman B and Baumeister R. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 75(1):219-229, 1998

    Please get the facts straight and avoid perpetuating urban legends.

  8. I have delt with being bullied and in all of my experiance, they KNEW what they are doing so i am not sure if that part of the article is correct. The rest of the article is great.

  9. Sorry but this is just not true of ALL bullies.
    My older sister, like myself and my 2 other siblings, was brought up in a kind, caring, loving home. It could not have been more idyllic.
    My parent’s kindness gene went missing during conception. My sister’s personality was hardened to be narcissistic, controlling, without any ability to empathise and feel pity for her many victims.
    Sometimes bullies are just born and the best thing you can do is to get away from them – move class, move jobs.
    Don’t, whatever you do, try to ignore them or reason with them.
    This article offers the worst advice ever !
    They feel no pity or remorse, they thrive on squashing others -like a relentless steam-roller. Get out of their path.

    • Hi there, I was reading over this article and your post really stood out to me. I think the thing to remember is there are different types of bullies. Their behavior can steam from many different factors, situational, environmental, personality, biologically…many different things can effect our psyche and how we respond to things, or what built the defense mechanisms we use to respond to different stimuli. What works for one type of bully may very well not work for another type of bully. Some may never be rehabilitated. The important thing is to put your own well being first. Some do not want to fight bullies but just escape the abuse and your own personal health is far more important than breaking down a bully for a battle that just may not be meaningful to you at all.

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  11. I have an individual that I have allowed in my family’s life. She has always been saying hurtful things to me. I just can’t do it anymore. She has become a wedge between me and my girls. I have read up on bullying and I would classify her as one. What do I do!?

  12. I am very grateful for this article, I had an abusive upbringing by my adoptive parents with untreated mental health problems who had used threats, blackmail and violence to get their way, and would rather drink together and argue violently than care of their bio kids who have learning disabilities. The abuse and neglect changed my “natural” behaviour of being a cheerful social kid into someone angry and withdrawn. I took care of my siblings as a child and had no role model all my life until I found my biological family (my step parents didn’t even care to tell me I came from another family and that my features were “different” because I am mixed race so I was always made to feel like an outcast).

    I always wanted to have many great friends and to have that excitement about what the future holds, but I just felt like I didn’t deserve anything good due to the environment I spent the most of my life living in and had no other place to go. I perceived everything as a challenge and felt I had to be dominant to feel at peace but would often take it too far because it still didn’t feel like enough.

    I am very protective of my siblings and had reduced their bullies to tears with words alone, I had only targeted people who bully because they reminded me of my step parents, but had never been physical because I still have my limits and know that words alone can cause alot of damage.

    I ran away a few times and the most recent time I ran away became my last time, I now have my own home, a beautiful family who only know love and a growing social life. Life is good but I still feel that anger and withdrawal because I don’t have enough of a support network – if there was more mental health support and services that can understand and protect children, people like me wouldn’t have to carry these issues around any longer.


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