Understanding The Bully: They're Often Victims, Too, Experts Say

Kids bully others for a variety of reasons, whether they’re simply modeling the behavior they see at home or in society. Bullying is learned behavior, but it can also be “unlearned,” experts say.

Bullied kids come in all body types, races, ethnicities and socioeconomic classes, and they’re as likely to be pretty or handsome as not, according to experts. They may have low self-esteem or loneliness in common, but mainly they’re targeted because of a difference or perceived difference that sets them apart. In many cases, those dishing out the torment have been bullied — hurt kids misdirecting the frustration of powerlessness on someone else.

Involvement in bullying in any way — even as a bystander who witnesses it but doesn’t intercede — has serious and long-lasting negative consequences for kids, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

For years, bullying has been shrugged off as a rite of passage, a normal part of childhood and even something that the targets of bullies somehow “asked for,” according to Dr. Frederick Rivara, one of the authors of a study by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that urged that cyberbullying, in particular, should be treated as a major public health problem on multiple public and private fronts.


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“This is not just a part of growing up,” Rivara told Patch. “This is behavior that is harmful. We as responsible adults need to try to educate our kids into not doing it.”

Whether bullying itself is increasing or if there is greater awareness is a topic of some debate among experts. One recent report, based on a survey of 160,000 middle and high school students across 27 states by the nonprofit group YouthTruth, noted an increase in bullying.

The increase was especially sharp among middle school students, nearly 40 percent of whom reported they’d been bullied over the past year, compared to 27 percent of high schoolers.

It also found bullying most frequently occurs in majority non-white schools, where students of color experienced a steeper increase in bullying over the past year than did white students. Students most often said they were bullied based on their looks, but also because of sexual orientation and race.

Arming parents with the information they need to help their children navigate these difficult situations is one of the goals of Patch’s year-long look at bullying and cyberbullying. We’ve assembled a panel of experts offer helpful advice on navigating what for many is a tortured path through their adolescence and teen years. Our experts are:

Read more about the Patch panel of experts, as well as their answers to previous questions. Come back to Patch through the remainder of the year for more answers to parents’ questions.

Why do kids bully?

On the most basic level, it’s because they are insecure or because they take cues from the behavior they see at home, Principe said.

“Parents set models for their children,” she said. “If they bully each other, or any siblings, it is noted and registered as how to handle others in the child’s mind. If Mommy or Daddy or both bully others to get what they want, then that is how the child handles dealing with others also.”

It’s critical for parents to set examples for the behavior they expect from their children, Principe added noting:

“How a parent handles disappointment, aggressiveness in others, how they treat their significant other is all being soaked up by their children. When a kindergarten teacher tells them that their child bullies others, the parents are shocked. They always ask where their child could have possibly learned that type of behavior. Their teacher already knows.”

Other adult role models — a coach or a teacher, for example — may also bully, signaling to young people that the behavior is OK, Ellis said.

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Bullying is “learned behavior that can be unlearned,” Ellis said, noting that most kids who bully don’t understand how wrong their behavior is or how it makes the bullied person feel. She said their responses when asked why they bully include that it makes them feel stronger, smarter or better than their targets; because they’re bullied at home; because they’re jealous; because it takes the target off them; and “because it’s what you do if you want to hang out with the right crowd.”

“Bullies dominate, blame and use others,” she wrote on her organization’s website. “They lack empathy and foresight and have contempt for the weak. They see weaker kids as their target., and don’t accept the consequences of their actions. They crave power and attention.”

Some kids who bully have been bullied themselves, she said, adding that overpowering others gives them some relief from a sense of helplessness.

Understanding the reasons kids bully shouldn’t be confused with excusing bullying behavior, said Dillon.

“Helping children understand the reasons for bullying within the context of their social environment can help them change their behavior,” he said. “A powerful influence for a lot of bullying behavior is the desire for students to improve, protect, or flaunt their status in the social environment outside of the adult world.

‘Unfortunately, children see in our culture and very often in the school environment that power can be used to control other people to achieve personal ends,” he continued. “This means that there are also situations where children see the abuse of power being justified, i.e. the person who is bullied/mistreated somehow deserves it. These are ‘lessons’ that many children need to unlearn.”


Throughout 2018, Patch is looking at society’s roles and responsibilities in bullying and a child’s unthinkable decision to end their own life in hopes we might offer solutions that save lives.

Do you have a story to tell? Are you concerned about how your local schools handle bullies and their victims?

Email us at bullies@patch.com and share your views in the comments.

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