Conventional wisdom holds that boy bullies are cruel, friendless boys, lacking in social skills. But often the opposite is true. Take the case of "Johnny," a seventh grader who lived in a small town just outside Chicago. His father was a doctor; his mother was involved in local politics. Johnny himself was greatly admired by his classmates. But his teachers and peers nominated him to be interviewed by Dorothy Espelage, PhD, who was researching school violence. And sure enough, after talking to him, she realized he was the classic portrait of a young bully.
"He was already smoking, drinking, and truant," says Espelage, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois. "Yet he was very popular and very good at getting other kids to bully certain targets. He admitted it. He said he basically 'ran' the seventh grade and liked having everyone pay attention to him."
For years, researchers theorized that boy bullies have low self-esteem, poor social skills, and few friends -- and that they often are victims of bullying themselves. But experts now believe the opposite can also be true. In many cases, "boy bullies are ringleaders supported by an entourage of other children," Espelage explains. "Their social skills are normal -- even better than normal. So we’re having to rethink our approach to them."
The roots of boy bullying
The problem for bullies is that social skills don’t always translate into good relationship skills. "These children can take another person’s perspective," Espelage says. "But they use that empathy to identify vulnerable targets, then establish dominance and maintain control. That’s not positive."
Where does the bully’s need for control come from? The primary sources, Espelage notes, are "anger, lack of parental attention, and domestic violence." If there’s abuse in the home because the parents don’t know how to regulate their emotions, Espelage says, "the children don’t learn how to either."
Without those relational skills, bully boys get into a lot of trouble. They’re more likely than other kids to be involved in fights, vandalize property, and perform poorly in school. And once they reach adulthood, studies show, they’re more apt to be jailed, abuse drugs and alcohol, and have trouble with jobs and relationships.
Helping boy bullies
One solution, Espelage says, is to have bully boys "work with a caring adult who can help them uncover the roots of their anger and find new ways to achieve the high status they’re getting from bullying."
"Johnny," Espelage notes with regret, "was lonely and angry at his parents. He needed someone to give him a different vision of power and leadership."
In the future, she hopes, other boy bullies will get just that kind of help.
If your own son is a bully, experts recommend that you:
*Make time (and lots of it) for him to do things with you or another caring adult;
*Teach your child to express anger in a socially acceptable way; and
*Create opportunities for him to be a positive leader, such as in scouting, faith-based groups, sports, and clubs.