Understanding Bullying And Its Causes

Updated March 17, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Bullying is defined by the APA as “a form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort.” Although most people associate bullying with childhood, it’s important to understand that bullying can happen to anyone at any age. 

Bullying can take many forms, from verbal harassment to physical abuse and more. Bullying isn’t confined to the playground, either. Individuals can experience bullying online, in the office, at home, and in other places where people meet. 

Understanding why people bully others can be difficult, but it can also be helpful for those who have experienced bullying firsthand. Learning more about what motivates a bully and why they feel the need to cause others pain is sometimes the first step toward learning how to cope with it.

Bullying Can Cause Pain For All Involved

Types Of Bullying

Bullying comes in many forms, but bullies often change their M.O. depending on whom they’re targeting, where the abuse takes place, and how long it goes on. Some of the most recognized types of bullying include:

Direct Bullying

This is the most common bullying that comes to mind when we think of classic bullying behaviors. It can be done by a group or an individual and usually includes threats or blackmail, stealing others’ property for spite, or playing mean tricks on the victim. Forms of verbal direct bullying include insults and nasty name-calling, and verbal threats of violence. Physical direct bullying often includes hitting, shoving, pinching, and other behaviors that physically hurt others. 

Relational Bullying/Social Bullying

Social bullies target the victim’s relationships with the intent to damage or destroy. It usually occurs in groups and can be perpetrated by an individual or a group. Social bullies may spread nasty rumors, lies, and stories about their target. They may also ignore the victim and encourage others to do so as well. They usually make it a point to isolate and alienate their victims, ensuring they’re left out of social gatherings, trips, or parties. 


This is when a bully tries to harm another through electronic means such as phones and computers. This may be via text, instant messaging, social media, blogs, emails, and other online platforms. This type of bullying can be public, or a mixture of both, but is almost always intentional and repeated. 

Cyberbullies may spread lies and rumors about their victims online, post embarrassing pictures without permission, and send threatening or aggressive texts, emails, or instant messages.

Why People Bully

So why do bullies bully? One of the most common reasons that people bully is because it’s how they’ve learned to handle mental and emotional discomfort from others, such as a parent or other adult in their life. Some bully because it makes them feel stronger, smarter, or more powerful than others. 

What are the causes of bullying? Common reasons why children bully others include:

  • Acting out because of neglect from a parent, guardian, or role model.

  • Modeling the behaviors of those who are bigger, stronger, or more powerful.

  • Profound lack of self-esteem.

  • Difficulty understanding how to interact appropriately with others.

  • Insecurity around others/peer pressure.

  • Feeling that it keeps others from bullying them.

It’s prudent to note that not every child who acts like a bully is cruel and lacks empathy. For instance, bullying is sometimes a symptom of a psychological disorder such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, and/or anxiety. This is true not only in children but adults as well. 

Some children don’t understand their behavior as bullying, even though it may be aggressive and dominating. They may not have the ability to imagine how their behavior makes the bullied party feel. 

If you are facing or witnessing abuse of any kind, the National Domestic Violence Hotline is available. Call 1-800-799-SAFE (7233) or Text "START" to 88788. You can also use the online chat.

Psychological Impact Of Being Bullied

The consequences on a bullied individual’s mental health are often lasting, and depending on the intensity of the attacks, they can be devastating. Bullying can cause immediate feelings of isolation, rejection, and exclusion. Low self-esteem, problems with trusting others, and anger issues are common results of bullying, as well. 

The effects of bullying on mental health can evolve from less to more severe over time. Some individuals develop chronic depression and anxiety, and in some cases, it can even develop into PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) or ASD (Acute Stress Disorder). 

Research shows that bullying victims are more likely to engage in high-risk behaviors such as substance abuse and unprotected sex. Some may also experience interpersonal violence and poor social functioning in the world. 

Psychological Impact Of Bullying Others

People identified as bullies are also likely to experience mental health issues, both as a cause and effect of bullying others. Depression, anxiety, and attention deficit disorder are common pre-cursers to bullying, and they tend to be a problem for bullies into adulthood. 

But those who are considered bullies sometimes also display characteristics of Oppositional DefiantDisorder (ODD) and are six times more likely to receive an official diagnosis of the disorder. ODD is characterized by frequent and persistent episodes of anger and hostility, especially toward parents and authority figures. 

Children with ODD may be argumentative and defiant, go out of their way to upset or annoy people, and blame others when they get in trouble for their behavior. Symptoms of ODD range from mild to severe and, for some kids, first appear around preschool age. 

What To Do If Your Child Is Bullied 

Parents of bullied children can sometimes feel helpless to stop the behavior and its impact on their child. But there are ways to take action: 

Observe, communicate, and listen.

If your child wants to discuss their experiences of being bullied, it’s essential to listen carefully. Part of the damage that bullies aim to cause is silencing their targets, so giving your kid the space and attention they need to tell you what’s going on not only provides you with information, but it also puts them at ease and may make them feel a little more empowered. 

If you suspect your child is being bullied, but they don’t want to talk about it, gentle encouragement is key. It’s also imperative to restrain reactions of anger or frustration at first; if the child is already fearful of such behaviors from a bully, it may deter them from speaking about it with others. 

After you’ve established your child is being bullied, keep the communication going. Check with them daily for updates about their interactions with the bully and other details. 

Create a plan.

Communication about bullying should also include the best ways to handle it. Developing a plan for what to say and how to handle episodes of bullying is a good way to help. Do some role-playing to practice what to say, what to do, and how to develop a confident posture and words when interacting with the bully.

Reinforce healthy reactions.

Projecting confidence is a good foundation for dealing with a bully, but on top of that, it’s helpful for your child to learn how to react in different ways depending on the circumstances. Using humor and kindness to disarm a bully may be appropriate at times but walking away and telling an adult may be most appropriate at other times.

Encourage them by offering praise for victories earned by healthy reactions. Also, ensure they understand that bullying isn’t a reflection of their self-worth but more likely a symptom of a larger problem for the bully. 

Stay involved with the adults.

Report severe bullying immediately and reach out to the bully’s parents or guardians if you think they’ll be receptive to working with you. When speaking to parents of a bully, it’s important to stay non-confrontational and make it clear that your goal is simply to resolve the issue for your child and stop the bullying. 

What To Do If Your Child Is A Bully 

If you become aware that your child is bullying others, be open, direct, and compassionate when addressing it with them. Ask for details and give them space to tell you about it in their own words. 

Once you’ve established the details, make it clear how you expect their behavior to change. For instance, if they’re socially alienating another child, let them know you want them to start acting friendly towards them from now on. Encourage them to repair those relationships with action, such as writing a note of apology or standing up for the child when others bully them. Also, make them understand that If their behaviors don’t change or evolve into another type of bullying, there will be specific consequences. 

Finally, keep the lines of communication open with teachers and parents to monitor your child’s progress. Stay connected with your child by asking them daily about their school activities, social interactions, and other noteworthy parts of their day

Bullying Can Cause Pain For All Involved

Get Professional Help 

Issues associated with bullying can run deeper than individual occurrences; there may be real consequences psychologically for both parties. Regardless of whether your child is bullied or bullying or both – it may be beneficial for them to speak to a mental health professional. Your child can talk about their experiences with a school counselor, a therapist who specializes in treating children and adolescents, or another professional with experience working with kids about issues like bullying. 


Understanding bullying and what makes a bully is helpful for recovering from the psychological damage done, but it isn’t likely enough to truly move past it. Professional help from a licensed therapist is perhaps the most impactful way to begin healing. 

But barriers like time constraints, accessibility issues, perceived social stigma, and cost can keep those who need it most out of therapy. A popular solution to these roadblocks is to speak with a professional online. Online therapy has been proven just as effective as in-person therapy when treating mental health disorders that are often related to bullying, like depression, anxiety, and trauma. 

BetterHelp matches licensed online therapists with patients to meet anytime, anywhere there’s an internet connection. When you’re ready to get help, a BetterHelp therapist is available to work with you on developing coping strategies to successfully handle bullying. 

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