The Top Reasons Why People Bully

Medically reviewed by Julie Dodson, MA
Updated May 14, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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Most people have encountered bullies at some point during their lives, but we may not always be aware of the reasons why people tend to engage in bullying behavior. Often, insecurity, perceptions of being powerless, a need for control, and being rewarded for bullying can motivate people to treat others poorly. This conduct can stem from factors such as low self-esteem, especially in young people, and social status. If you experience or witness bullying, it can be best to take a stand, lean on your support system, remain emotionally neutral, and manage the situation as soon as possible. You may also benefit from working with a licensed therapist to address the impacts of bullying.

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Why do people bully?

Bullying can be defined as the deliberate and repetitive use of words or actions against a person or group of people to cause social, physical, or psychological harm. School staff and parents are often crucial in implementing anti-bullying programs to prevent such conduct. While bullying has likely existed for a very long time, it was generally in the 1970s that this form of interpersonal aggression became the subject of research focused primarily on school bullying. 

However, bullying is not necessarily something that only happens to school-aged children. People may encounter bullies at every stage of life, and this can involve different circumstances, including the workplace or within families.

While some children who bully eventually recognize their poor behavior or are reprimanded accordingly, others may continue to bully as adults.

Peer-reviewed studies (high-quality sources with accurate content) have shown that childhood experiences can deeply influence whether a child becomes a bully or a victim. Bullying is a pervasive issue in schools and online platforms and can profoundly impact a person’s self-esteem and sense of safety, especially when it targets aspects like sexual orientation. Research provides a helpful report to show that anti-bullying campaigns can reduce the increased risk of low self-esteem and mental health issues in young people who experience bullying.

There may not be a simple answer to the question of why people bully. However, some potential causes of bullying behavior can include the following: 

  • Insecurity
  • A perception of powerlessness
  • A need for control
  • Being rewarded for bullying behavior

People who bully may be managing mental health conditions, such as depression or anger management concerns. They may be emotionally neglected at home. It’s important to only use high-quality sources and evidence-based approaches when trying to understand and treat such behaviors.

Insecurity and powerlessness

For those who have experienced or witnessed bullying, it may seem impossible that the person doing the bullying could be experiencing feelings of insecurity or powerlessness. These feelings can be particularly intense in children and young people, leading them to engage in bullying to compensate. However, some people may attempt to combat insecurity by trying to overpower others. In some cases, if a bully feels unhappy with themselves, they may attempt to make others feel as poorly as they do. 

When an individual feels this way, they may engage in bullying to bring others down to their perceived level. Schools often face challenges in dealing with these behaviors, as they have to balance the needs and rights of all kids involved. Many people who are subjected to bullying may want to avenge their pain and humiliation to restore their own self-esteem. 

It can be more beneficial to learn ways to navigate an aggressive personality—not by meeting them with equal aggression, but instead, with a sense of compassion and clear, healthy boundaries. 

Keep in mind that when an individual believes themselves to be powerless in their own life, it may lead them to bully others. Role play in therapy sessions can be a useful tool for both victims and perpetrators of bullying to understand and deal with their emotions. Some children from dysfunctional homes may engage in bullying because they are shown this example at home. This behavior may stem from feeling either too much adoration or too much criticism in their home environment. Someone who is insecure may be afraid of appearing weak in front of others. To hide their own weakness, they may try to find and expose weakness in someone else. 

Please note that this explanation (and the others below) is not meant to excuse bullying, but to explain its potential motivations. Often, when we understand something, we are more equipped to change it.

Internalized behaviors and the need for control

Research has shown that emotional deficits and mental health concerns in people who bully may be the root causes of bullying behavior. For example, anxiety and depression, as well as other mental health conditions, can be strongly related to bullying behaviors. Other factors that can cause a person to bully may include emotional reactivity and anger management challenges.

Some people may engage in bullying to gain control of their surroundings. For example, they may have no control over the way they are treated at home and seek to control their lives in other ways. Children who bully are often deeply insecure and might have experienced either too much adoration or criticism at home, leading to distorted perceptions of their own worth and the worth of others. The common theme may be that there are concerns we often cannot see playing a role in bullying behavior, such as cultural differences, race disparities, disabilities, and more.

Bullying is rewarded

Sadly, bullying behavior can often be rewarded. The bully may seem to get what they want from the interaction. Meanwhile, those who witness the behavior and choose to do nothing can reinforce or even encourage the bullying. 

Bullies may be particularly rewarded in the workplace. They often achieve higher levels of career success and receive positive evaluations from supervisors.

Any time a person who bullies wins and succeeds in getting what they want, it may reinforce their behavior. When they can control and intimidate others, they usually achieve what they have set out to do. Bullies’ behavior can also be rewarded if others encourage them or join in. This can give them the attention they likely desire. 

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How to stop bullying

Here are some ways you can put an end to bullying:

Take a stand

This advice may work regardless of your age. It’s important to define bullying clearly to effectively confront it. People who bully tend to prey on people they perceive to be weaker than they are. When you show them that you are confident and that their tactics are not working, you may steal their power and cause them to lose control of the situation. Because the person who bullies may already be self-conscious, they are likely to become angry as you become more empowered. Eventually, they may be forced to give up once you show them that you are not going to allow their behavior to impact you.

Have a support group

Bullies often act alone, and they do not usually want to take on an entire group. Schools play a vital role in providing support for victims and implementing effective anti-bullying programs. If you have a solid group of friends you can lean on for support, it might cause the person who is bullying you to think twice. This can be effective on the playground with young children, and it often works well with adults in an office setting, too.

Stay emotionally neutral

Try not to show emotion when you are being bullied. If you become angry or confrontational, you may only encourage the bully’s behavior. Many bullies want to see a strong reaction from their targets. If you remain neutral and do your best to ignore the behavior, they may be more likely to give up.

Manage the situation quickly

The longer a person gets away with bullying you, the harder it can be to get them to stop. If you take immediate action when you first experience bullying, it may send the bully a message that you are not going to stand for their behavior. It’s essential for schools and parents to share feedback and collaborate to effectively deal with bullying situations. Depending on where the bullying situation is taking place, you may wish to immediately report the person’s behavior to relevant authorities.

Anti-bullying programs often include strategies that educate students about the harmful effects of name calling and other forms of bullying, including how to manage the situation. By understanding where and how bullying takes place, educators and parents can better support victims and address the behavior of other bullies. The goal is to create a safe environment where every person feels valued and protected, regardless of their sexual orientation or any other personal characteristic.

Don’t keep school and workplace bullying a secret

If you are being bullied in school, you may need to find a trusted adult with whom to talk. This could be a teacher, a parent, or a mentor. Parents play a crucial role in helping their child deal with bullying and maintaining their child’s self-esteem. If you are in the workplace, then you should generally address the issue with your Human Resources (HR) department. If you do not tell anyone you are being bullied, the effects of bullying can worsen.

How to overcome the effects of bullying on mental health

Bullying can affect several aspects of a person’s life, potentially impacting their physical and mental health, social functioning, and work or school performance. 

People who are bullied often experience negative health and social consequences, often including the following:

  • Poor academic and/ or work performance
  • Relationship problems
  • Negative self-perceptions, including low self-worth and self-esteem
  • Mental health disorders or concerns, such as emotional dysregulation, depression, and anxiety

Bullying can lead to feelings of loneliness and social anxiety. Depression and teen suicide* can also be significantly higher among those who experience bullying. Finding the right therapist may be the best way to learn how to navigate the effects of bullying and the distress that may follow.

*If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 988. You can also text “START” to 741741 for the Crisis Text Line, which will connect you to a trained volunteer within five minutes.

While the psychological and physical effects of bullying can impact people throughout their lives, one approach to stopping the cycle of this interpersonal aggression can be to treat the mental health of the bully as well. Children exposed to violence in the home tend to participate in higher levels of physical bullying than those who are not exposed to violence. 

A therapist can address the reasons behind this behavior, helping those who bully to change their destructive habits and take responsibility for their actions. There can be many reasons for bullying, which often have roots in mental health challenges, traumatic experiences, or family dysfunction. Early intervention and therapy can make a big difference in bullying behavior, especially for teens. Along the way, a bully can learn to relate to others in healthier ways and heal the wounds within that may be contributing to their behavior.

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

When a professional can help

Bullying can seriously impact your mental health, including your self-esteem, confidence, and ability to manage anxiety. If you are the target of a bully, do not hesitate to reach out for help. Similarly, if you’ve realized you have a tendency to bully others, seeking help can be beneficial.

A highly effective form of therapy for helping people living with anxiety and depression symptoms can be cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), a type of talk therapy where the client can learn to change negative thought processes, thus adjusting their emotions and behaviors as well. Whether you engage in bullying behavior or have been bullied yourself, you may be living with symptoms of these disorders, and CBT may be helpful.

Benefits of online therapy

Many people seeking therapy face barriers to in-person treatment, such as limited opportunities for licensed therapists, delayed treatment due to waiting lists, and more. In these cases, online therapy can be a beneficial and research-backed form of treatment that can remove these potential barriers. In addition, speaking out about bullying can be challenging, and the option to talk to a therapist via phone call, video call, or online chat can help individuals feel more comfortable.

Effectiveness of online therapy

Research generally supports the effectiveness of online cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), as shown in a systematic review study published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research. The researchers reported that “this study provides evidence supporting the acceptability and effectiveness of guided iCBT for the treatment of depression and anxiety in routine care.” If you’ve been experiencing symptoms of depression or anxiety due to bullying, online therapy may be an effective treatment option.

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Takeaway

Bullies are often motivated to act in harmful ways toward others due to their own feelings of insecurity and powerlessness, a need for control, and potential rewards for their behavior. Understanding these factors can help victims and bystanders effectively deal with bullying situations. It can be crucial not to keep bullying situations a secret and to take action as soon as possible. Taking a stand, involving your support system, and not emotionally reacting to the bully can be helpful. Therapy can also be beneficial for those who have experienced bullying situations.
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