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Why Bullies Bully

What you need to know about bullying, bullies, and how to stop the cycle of bullying.

Bystanders in Bullying

It's not unusual for kids to join in bullying. Some groups thrive on it.

A bully can run a group through a simple premise: If you want to join, you've got to participate in this behavior, which includes harassing another person. It's a socialization process kids go through as they enter adolescence, Espelage says.

Bullies also like having an audience for their aggressive behavior -- and they learn when to strike for maximum effect.

"Bullies, as they get older, get more clever at being able to choose places, as well as victims, that are under low surveillance by adults, but are often overseen by peer bystanders, who provide an audience that fuels the bullying," says Ron Slaby, PhD, a senior scientist at the Center on Media and Child Health (CMCH) at Children's Hospital-Harvard Medical School in Boston.


Cyberbullying: Silent Threat

Bullying isn't new. But it's been changed  by the Internet, which gives bullies a nonstop, worldwide stage.

Before cell phones and computers became part of kids' lives, they could leave school and escape bullying for the night at home. But now, they can be exposed to cyberbullying -- done online or by cell phone -- 24 hours a day.

"There's no way for a child to get away from it," Espelage says.

And cyberbullying often goes unreported.

"Cyberbullying is silent," Raffalli says. He estimates that "90% of kids won't say it's happening, and the bully thinks she can get away with it because she can delete her messages and an adult won't figure it out."


Turning Bullying Behavior Around

Bullying is obviously traumatic for the victims. It can wreck their school performance, sleep, mental health, and self-esteem. And in some cases, it can lead to suicide. 

The outlook for bullies isn't good, either. If they don't get help and change their ways, they're less likely to hold down a job, have a stable adult relationship, earn an advanced degree, and are more likely to go to prison for a violent crime.

In short, both need help.

"There is a lot of focus on the victim when it comes to bullying, and this is very appropriate," Raffalli says. "But by offering therapy on both sides of the equation, especially early on in grade school, and remembering that all the kids involved are children, we can start to reduce the incidence of bullying as kids get older."

6 Ways to Stop the Bullying Cycle

Here are six steps toward stopping a bullying situation:

  1. Believe the child. "If your child tells you about a bullying situation, don't dismiss it as, 'Kids will be kids,'" Raffalli says.         
  2. Set a positive example. Kids often mimic what they see. So live in a way that shows your kids the healthy social and emotional skills that will help them deal with bullying. 
  3. Watch for signs of bullying. "Bullying comes with a code of silence -- no one involved says anything about it, even the victims," says Espelage. So parents have to be extra vigilant. Watch for signs of bullying like a change in your child's grades, difficulty sleeping, and depression.
  4. If your child is the bully, take action quickly.  "Parents generally like to think the best of their kids," Sege says. But if you don't stop a budding bullying problem quickly, you may face a much worse situation later. "We need to nip it in the bud as it's emerging, when it's most effective and easier to turn around," Slaby tells WebMD.
  5. Teach kids what do to if they are bullied or see someone else being bullied. "Kids really should put a stop to bulling when they see it happening," Fonville says. "Don't be afraid to stand up for someone else." All it takes is one person standing up to a bully to help the situation, and the victim -- and empathy is key, Slaby says. Try a simple approach with the bully, like "How would you feel if someone did this to you?"
  6. Get help. Resources include parents, pediatricians, teachers, social workers, therapists/psychologists, guidance counselors, school administrators, and law enforcement, in cases of criminal behavior.


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