Potential Causes Of Bullying

Medically reviewed by Andrea Brant, LMHC
Updated May 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.
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Are you worried about bullying?

No matter the cause of bullying, it may harm those affected. Even though it is typically thought of as something that kids go through in their youth or during their school years, bullying can occur at any age. If you’ve been bullied in the past or are currently being bullied, reaching out to someone you care about could be beneficial and help you feel comfortable. 

Often, severe underlying issues could cause a bully to target someone, which can result in the victim experiencing negative mental health effects like  PTSD from bullying. While these causes may not justify a bully’s actions, they could shed some light on why someone acts in unkind ways. Read more to find out about the psychology of bullying.

What can cause bullying?

Why do people bully? There are a few common potential reasons why people bully and display aggressive behavior. Those who partake in bullying may benefit from learning the reasons behind their urges or bad behavior and working with a professional to increase positive and empathetic behaviors.

Helplessness or a lack of control

People who feel helpless or out of control in their personal lives may search for other ways to express their frustration if they don’t have healthy coping mechanisms. For some, this may take the form of choosing to inflict physical or emotional harm on others to feel in control.

Violence at home

People who exhibit bullying behavior towards others may have experienced violence at home by parents or other adults. When they face abuse, some individuals may conclude that bullying someone else may be the only way to express their anger and pain.

Bullies might resort to violence against their victims because it could be what they were taught was acceptable in their household. To address this cause of bullying, the abuse happening at home may also need to be addressed. 

They view you as a threat

People who see you as a threat to any aspect of their life may try to go after your confidence or status with aggression. If you are successful, attractive, intelligent, or causing unwanted changes in someone’s life, they may bully you to “bring you down.” They may try to make you feel so bad about yourself that you can’t thrive around them.


Poor self-esteem

Feelings of inadequacy may be common in people who bully others. With low self-esteem, they may feel poorly about themselves compared to you. This feeling might cause them to lash out or try to bring others down. If this continues, it could create a toxic dynamic that may cause serious damage to both parties.

Feeling the need for negative attention 

People who want more attention from their peers or families might sometimes resort to negative behaviors to meet this need. In this case, bullying might be a “cry for help.” 

If someone is bullying another individual because they feel alone or unseen, they may need to be guided to safer alternatives. Counseling, self-help books, or support groups may be beneficial. 

The pack mentality

Some individuals may participate in bullying because they feel it’s an appropriate reaction based on the actions of those in their social circle. If they witnessed someone being bullied by a close friend or friends, they might be more liable to join in on the harassment. 

Some people may feel they’re joking or having fun, while others may worry about the bullies turning on them in their group if they speak up. Whatever the reason for people piling on, there may be a “mob mentality” in social situations. 

They don’t tolerate some parts of your personality

People who do not love themselves or feel pride in their identity may feel uncomfortable around others who do. If you have an aspect of your identity that you’re proud of, they may choose to bully you for it.

They may also target your identity because certain prejudices have been passed down through their family, social media, or a news source. This type of bullying which targets race, gender, physical disability, or sexual orientation, is often considered a “hate crime” and may be reported to the authorities.

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Are you worried about bullying?

They have an elevated idea of themselves (ego) 

People who believe they are more important than others or who have managed to achieve success and fame may be prone to bullying.

They might have learned from experience that others do not speak up if they act in unkind ways because they are popular or successful, which may lead to a low perceived risk while bullying. They may also enjoy a feeling of control or power over someone else. 

It may feel challenging to fight this type of bullying unless the bully realizes that treating others poorly may not help them have a happy or successful life

Stopping bullying 

You may have heard the expression, “hurt people hurt people.” Past trauma, violence, abuse, neglect, or many other factors may launch a cycle of recurring behavior that echoes down through the years. Medically reviewed research shows that the effects of bullying also has the potential to cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), along with other long term effects like anxiety or depression, in those who are a target of the behavior. 

If you are experiencing trauma, support is available. Please see our Get Help Now page for more resources.

For schools and school staff, bullying is a major problem, according to stopbullying.gov, roughly one in five young people between the ages of 12 and 18 experience bullying. In today’s digital culture, much of this takes place online through cyberbullying where the rules are often much more open than at school. This government organization recommends numerous steps to respond to and create a culture of bullying prevention. 

If specific supports do not adequately reach those being bullied, the organization recommends a more involved intervention, possibly involving counseling and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT practice has shown a high success rate in addressing numerous mental health issues. The success of this treatment has also been demonstrated with online counseling.

How therapy can help

Bullying is not your fault, regardless of what a bully may tell you. Studies show that bullying can have severe mental health consequences for the target of the abuse. Although bullying may often be a direct result of a troubled personal life, bullying still impacts survivors negatively.

Those who have been bullied, witnessed bullying, or would like to reduce unkind behaviors in their lives may find support from counseling. Many individuals prefer online counseling over driving to an in-person appointment. If you feel unsafe leaving your home or want to find support, online platforms may offer that opportunity to you.

A review of 17 studies found that online therapy is more affordable when compared to in-person therapy. Another study found that online therapy effectively reduces psychological distress among students. If you’re having any issues with bullying, online counseling can be a practical option. Consider an online platform such as BetterHelp to discuss your feelings and learn new coping mechanisms with a professional. 


If you’ve been bullied as a child or an adult, help is available. If you find yourself bullying others, you may be able to increase healthy relationships and behaviors in your life. Consider reaching out to a counselor to discuss coping strategies, seek medical advice for any potential mental health challenges, and move forward.
Is bullying impacting your life?
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