Why Do Bullies Bully?

Medically reviewed by Paige Henry, LMSW, J.D.
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.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 20% of high school students reported having been bullied in the previous year.

Some people’s first experiences with bullying begin as early as kindergarten, and bullying often escalates at school in adolescence.

Have you ever wondered why bullies bully? What drives a child or teenager to torment other kids, especially in an era when we have so many anti-bullying campaigns? In this article, we’ll explore the harsh reality of bullying and learn why some kids bully others.

What is a bully?

A bully is someone who is physically or verbally abusive to someone else or has repeatedly used manipulation or aggression to control another person. Although bullying can occur in adulthood, most cases of bullying involve children, especially in middle and high school. Bullying doesn’t just happen in person; it can also happen online—a phenomenon called cyber-bullying. Research shows that 33% of middle schoolers have experienced cyber-bullying, and one in six high school students (nearly 17%) experienced cyber-bullying in the last year.

We have all seen the heartbreaking consequences of bullying on the survivor, which can be as simple getting bad grades or as serious as having suicidal thoughts.* 

* If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, please call the 988 Suicide And Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. You can also use the online chat feature on the lifeline’s website.

Why do bullies bully?

When confronted with the harsh reality of violence and bullying, people commonly question the factors that cause it. For example, they might wonder if violent people were “born bad” or if they were negatively affected by something they experienced. Is it possible that some people are just bullies from birth? Experts and the media have debated this issue for many years, and the majority of professionals believe that bullies are made and not born.

Abuse

Research suggest that most bullies have actually experienced bullying or abuse at the hands of someone else. According to one study by the University of Washington and Indiana University, 97% of individuals who engaged in bullying had been bullied by others. In cases where a child experiences abuse at home and/or at school— and later goes on to bully others—traits such as sadism and aggression may be learned and absorbed at a young age. If no one intervenes and the child does not receive help, these traits can become core facets of a child’s personality and have a significant impact on their future behavior and relationships.

Insecurity

Given that many bullies are often abused at home or at school, insecurity can be a significant underlying factor that drives a bully’s behavior. When bullies are targeting their victims, they may seem powerful, dominant, or in control. However, this may be merely a facade. Many people put others down to make themselves feel strong.

If a child feels vulnerable, they may decide to pick on someone else in an effort to feel better about themselves. This may be especially true if they feel jealous of the person they decide to target. While these motivations do not excuse bullying, they may help researchers develop new insights into the psychology of bullies and learn how to help children who are at risk of becoming bullies.

Peer pressure

Many children also bully others as a result of peer pressure. Although they may not be inherently cruel themselves, they may go along with other bullies in search of acceptance from peers in their social circle. This desire to below can often drive kids to behave in cruel or uncharacteristic ways if they think it will give them the acceptance and admiration of their peers. Although this does not excuse bullying, it may help to be aware that peer pressure can be a powerful factor that motivates children to abuse their peers.

Why it’s important to understand bullies

Abuse, insecurity, and peer pressure are only a few of the factors that can lead someone to bully others, but these factors are among some of the most common. Understanding them can go a long way toward improving our understanding of bullies. This understanding may help to prevent—and ultimately eliminate—bullying. 

Whether they are being abused at home or at school, children who bully others are often experiencing something negative themselves. Therefore, our awareness of bullying should always lead to an intervention for each of the children involved: the one who is being bullied and the one who is doing the bullying. If this can take place, then it may be possible to prevent years of physical, psychological, and emotional harm for both parties – as well as long-term health consequences.

How you can help

If you suspect that your child or someone you love is being bullied, it’s important to remember that you can be a positive force for bullying prevention. You might start by talking to the teacher and expressing the need for change. If your child is being bullied by a peer at school – be it physical bullying, sexual bullying, or verbal bullying – you might make time to sit down with the parents and talk about what’s going on. The other parents may not realize that their child is participating in bullying behavior. They may be able to get their child help so that they no longer feel the need to bully others. If this doesn’t help, in dangerous situations, you may need to escalate the situation by reaching out to the police.

Counseling for children and teens affected by bullying

If your child is experiencing bullying, they may need extra support at this time. It may be beneficial to connect them with a therapist who specializes in helping children and adolescents. A licensed counselor may be able to help your child work through their feelings and provide them with positive tools and coping mechanisms to process their experiences and respond to bullying. If your child doesn’t feel comfortable with traditional in-person therapy, they may benefit from online therapy. Some therapists, such as those at TeenCounseling, offer online therapy via audio, videoconferencing, or live chat. 

Online therapy has been shown to be just as effective as in-office therapy. One study published in 2020 showed that online therapy is effective for anxiety and depression, which may be common among people who have experienced bullying.

Counseling for parents of youth affected by bullying

As a parent of a child who has been bullied, you, too, may benefit from connecting with a licensed therapist. It can be hurtful to learn that your child has experienced bullying, and you may feel guilty for not having noticed. However, this is not your fault, and an online therapist may be able to help you process your experience and learn how to prevent your child from being bullied in the future. 

Takeaway

Bullies often bully others as a result of having experienced bullying themselves. If you have a child who has experienced bullying or who has engaged in bullying, know that there is help available through therapy, whether in person or online at TeenCounseling (for youth aged 13 and older). Also, you may benefit from speaking with a licensed therapist to get support as a parent. With BetterHelp, you can be matched with a therapist who has experience helping parents whose children have been affected by bullying. Take the first step toward enlisting the help of a licensed counselor and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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