Why Bullies Bully

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

Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on May 04, 2010

The Phoebe Prince bullying case in South Hadley, Mass., has put bullying in the national spotlight. After months of alleged bullying by classmates that reportedly included verbal assaults, online harassment, and social exclusion, Prince, a 15-year-old high school student, took her own life.

Although most cases aren't as extreme, bullying takes its toll on children across the U.S. every day. For every 100 kids in middle school, eight are bullied every day, seven are bullied every week, and 33 are bullied once in a while, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Jordon Fonville, a 17-year-old junior in Conway, Ark., knows firsthand what it feels like to be bullied. Six years ago when she was a new student in sixth grade, she was picked on and bullied for months by her classmates.

"The girls were so mean to me," says Fonville, who speaks out against bullying in her community. "They talked about me, made up rumors, picked on me… they even went to the principal's office and asked for advice on how to tell me they didn't want to be friends anymore -- and the principal didn't do anything about it."

For Fonville, being bullied by her peers was an extremely difficult experience -- making her feel bad about herself, depressed, and alone. Fortunately, her parents recognized the situation needed adult intervention and transferred their daughter to another school.

Why do bullies bully? And what can be done to stop to bullying? Here's what experts told WebMD.

Bullies seek power at someone else's expense. They harm that person over and over -- emotionally and/or physically -- to get it.

"It involves a more powerful person and a less powerful person, and is a form of aggression where one or more children repeatedly intimidate, harass, or harm a victim who cannot defend himself," says Robert Sege, MD, chief of ambulatory pediatrics at Boston Medical Center and a contributor to the American Academy of Pediatrics' updated policy on bullying.

Bullies are shaped, in part, by these factors:

  • Uncontrolled anger. "The No. 1 predictor of bullying behavior is anger, particularly in kids who have no way to manage it," says Dorothy Espelage, PhD, a professor and university scholar in the educational psychology department of the University of Illinois at Champaign. Angry kids, she says, are more likely to show bullying characteristics -- even if they have high self-esteem, and even toward their own siblings at home, which is often where bullying begins.
  • No consequences. If adults don't nip bullying behavior in the bud, it may worsen. "A lack of adult response early on in the bullying behavior emboldens bullies," says Peter Raffalli, MD, a child neurologist at Children's Hospital in Boston. "It fuels the bullies by basically saying to them that it's OK because the adults don't care, and aren't interjecting to put a stop to it."
  • Home life.Domestic violence, emotional and/or physical abuse, anger, and hostility at home -- directed at them or someone else -- can help build a bully.
  • Media and video games. Seeing bullying behavior in the media and video games can be a bad influence if it shows that behavior being rewarded.

Other factors include "low impulse control, a low frustration tolerance, a need to control or dominate, anger issues, an opposition toward authority, and aggressiveness, " Raffalli says.

No single factor guarantees that a child will turn to bullying. Any of many potential troubling traits can tip a young person over the edge.

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.

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."

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."

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.

Fonville's years as a bullying target are over. As a junior in high school, she's developed a healthy self-esteem, a strong sense of who she is and wants to be, and the unique ability and desire to help others who are being bullied.

"There's a kid in my school who has autism," Fonville says. "The other kids bully him all the time. They make fun of him, pick on him, make him do things. And once one of them starts, they all jump in and do it together."

But not when Fonville is around. She is an advocate for students who are the target of bullying, standing up for them and standing up against the bullies. She is also a vocal spokeswoman in her community and online, helping people to understand her simple message: Do not accept bullying or look the other way.

"Bullying is not a part of growing up," Fonville says. "No one deserves to be treated badly."

Fonville's advice to parents: "You need to know what goes on… and control the Internet [use]. Instill in your kids respect and how to treat others and do it at an early age."

Show Sources


Dorothy Espelage, PhD, professor and university scholar, educational psychology-child development division, University of Illinois, Champaign, Ill.

Peter Raffalli, MD, child neurologist, Children's Hospital; pediatric associate, Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State College, Boston.

Robert Sege, MD, chief ambulatory pediatrics, Boston Medical Center, Boston.

Ron Slaby, PhD, senior scientist, Center on Media and Child Health, Children's Hospital-Harvard Medical School, Boston; senior scientist, Education Development Center, Inc., Newton, Mass.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Bridgewater State University.

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