Understanding the psychology of a bully should be the first thing you do if you’re worried your child is bullying others at school. By having that insight behind what motivates and drives someone to be a bully, you’ll have a better grasp of the kind of discipline that needs to be used to resolve the problem.
Bullying is more than just some good-humoured teasing shared between friends. In a friendship, there’s a clear understanding about what you can joke about and what would hurt another person’s feelings. For something to be classified as bullying, it needs to be an intentional, hurtful and consistent attack that singles out and demeans another person. The psychology of a bully is set to demean someone else in order to boost their own sense of self-worth or to ease their insecurities.
The not-so-easy question we need to answer is: What drives a child to want that kind of power over someone else? Remember that to truly understand the psychology of a bully, you need to consider the fact that they feel pleasure when bullying and causing others pain. This is why it’s likely they’ll continue do bully others until there’s some form of intervention.
Psychology of a bully - getting into their mindset
It’s easy to see the bully as the “bad guy” in the situation. And you’re not wrong in saying that the things a bully does to others are bad. But it really doesn’t mean they’re bad people. In fact, it often just means they don’t know how else to cope with their own concerns.
Ben is a 15-year-old boy who loves playing football and has got a big group of friends. Unfortunately, he’s not very close to any of them. The friendships are purely based on their love for sport and nothing else. Ben is also an only child with a very small family. His parents are unhappily married, and he often arrives home from school to see them fighting. It's not unusual for him to try and stop his parents physically attacking each other and it's exhausting. Not only has he been traumatised by seeing such destructive behaviour from two people that he loves, but subconsciously he has also started to process his own emotions in the same way they do.
He often asks himself, “Are they this unhappy because of me?” and “Who would actually help me if I needed someone to talk to?”. Through all these years of unhappiness at home, Ben decided to channel all of his energy into his football. It was the only thing that made him happy.
How unhappiness can trigger abusive behaviour
One day, Ben was called into the headmaster’s office. With a look of disappointment, the headmaster asked Ben to explain why his grades worsened so much in the last year. Ben felt his gut drop. He was now failing most of his subjects and would most likely have to repeat the year. His focus on football had started to impact the quality of his performance at school. So, the headmaster threatened to take him off the team unless his grades turned around quickly.
At this point Ben’s anger began to build uncontrollably…
Unfortunately, he had never been shown how to manage such stressful feelings before. Now, he desperately began to want to make himself feel better and, at that moment, he really didn’t care how.
At the end of the day, he saw two kids from his class walking down the school corridor. Both were good students and they were talking about how well they did in their last test. Ben felt humiliated as they walked past. He had failed that very same test. His anger began to surge even more and only one thought crossed his mind: If I humiliate them, maybe I won’t look like such a loser anymore…
There are many kids out there like Ben who choose to bully others so that they can cope with their own problems or boost their self-worth. Each case is different. Often it’s not as straightforward as Ben’s, but the concept remains the same. Your child’s environment, guidance, and support structure all contribute to their emotional aptitude.
What triggers someone to adopt a bully mentality?
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are the predominant traumatic ‘trigger’ that could cause a behavioural problem (such as a bully mentality) to develop. There are certain aspects of the psychology of a bully we can look into and understand better. So, if you’re concerned your child might become, or already is, a bully. Here is what you need to know.
In Ben’s case, we can see that the domestic trauma he experienced triggered his sense of insecurity and the inability to deal with anger properly. However, no two cases are alike. And there are a variety of emotional triggers (namely ACEs such as neglect, abuse, or household dysfunction) that could edge someone closer and closer to adopting the psychology of a bully.
Research shows that each trigger or trauma your child experiences puts them at risk of developing a behavioural or physiological problem at some point in their life. The more traumas they suffer, the higher their risk is.
If your child has gone through any first-hand trauma or experience that has triggered the below-mentioned behaviour, they’re at risk of developing the psychology of a bully:
A sense of self-inadequacy or insecurity.
The need to overuse defence mechanisms such as projection and denial.
The inability to self-reflect and accept their own flaws and virtues.
An ingrained sense of fear about their social status.
Issues with figures of authority and following rules.
A lack of empathy towards others.
A sense of narcissism.
The inability to process anger in a constructive way.
What does bullying behaviour look like?
Here are some classic bullying behaviour signs you need to look out for that will give you a clear indication of whether or not your child has taken to being a bully.If you see a behavioural pattern forming in your child with any of the traits mentioned below, it’s time to take action:
Seeking revenge on innocent people for anything bad that’s happened to them. (Like Ben was seeking revenge on the principal by attacking innocent classmates.)
Boosting their own sense of self-worth and confidence by demeaning others.
Eliminating a threat to their social hierarchy by humiliating or degrading others.
Constantly taking their anger and frustration out on weaker people because they’re less of a threat.
Controlling their mannerisms and behaviour depending on who they interact with.
Irrationally blaming others, demeaning them publicly, and making their behaviour seem rational in certain circumstances.
Projecting their own insecurities and shortcomings onto others.
Getting enjoyment out of putting others down on a regular basis.
How can you resolve the problem?
Remain calm. There are ways to help your child if you suspect they are bullying others. All it requires is a little insight into the problem as their parent.
The first and biggest obstacle you’ll face when you approach your child about their bully behaviour, is that it’s very unlikely they’ll recognise their own wrongdoings. The psychology of a bully can be very complex to unravel. In fact, most bullies are completely unaware that they are bullies at all.
Here’s a 5-step plan of action you can use to properly address the situation.
Don’t let this problem get to you or cause you to become more angry. You cannot resolve anything by fighting fire with fire here. There needs to be a strategic method to bringing awareness to the problem.
Get to the bottom of why your child is behaving this way. What was their specific trigger and what kind of benefit are they getting from bullying others?
Involve them in a [hypothetical] bullying dilemma you’re facing. The best way to bring awareness about bullying is to share a scenario with them where someone else is being bullied and needs help. Make sure to keep it relevant to the kind of bullying behaviour your child is displaying. Ask them to help you find a solution to the problem and how the bully should be addressed. This is an important step towards teaching your child empathy.
Now it’s time to use this information to explain to your child that they have left someone else feeling all those negative emotions you spoke about in Step 3. Carefully break down why it’s not the right way to interact or treat anyone in any circumstance. You can also share some of the consequences associated with being bullied to bring better awareness about the severity of the issue.
Talk to them about why they felt the need to behave the way they did towards other children. Explain that although bullying becomes a cycle, it’s never too late to change your behaviour and make up for the mistakes you’ve made. Ensure you speak to your child’s teacher and any of the parents involved in the problem about what you discussed. This way, there is a proper support structure for all the kids involved.
Remember to keep strong and communicate
Don’t be afraid to discipline your child if they fall back into old habits and always encourage any good behaviour that they start showing. It’s not an easy process to understand the psychology of a bully. But it’s definitely one that will be exponentially gratifying the more you work together on getting things right.
All too often, we are quick to point fingers at the bully without understanding the psychology behind their actions. We would love for you to share your own experiences if your child is a bully at school, and how you are managing to work on and improve their behaviour.
Please share these stories below so that they may help other parents who may be dealing with this difficult subject and maybe we can help each other overcome this together.
Britt, R. (2008). Bullies Enjoy Seeing Others Suffer. [online] Live Science. Available at: https://www.livescience.com/3026-bullies-enjoy-suffer.html [Accessed 30 July 2018].
Kerker, B., Zhang, J., Nadeem, E., Stein, R., Hurlburt, M., Heneghan, A., Landsverk, J and Horwitz, S (2015). Adverse childhood experiences and mental health, chronic medical conditions, and development in young children. Academic Pediatrics [online] Volume 15 (Issue 5). Available at: https://www.academicpedsjnl.net/article/S1876-2859(15)00173-4/fulltext [Accessed 28 July 2018].
Bosworth, K., Espelage, D. and Simon, T (1999). Factors Associated with Bullying Behavior in Middle School Students. The Journal of Early Adolescence [online] Volume 19 (Issue 3). Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com.libezproxy.open.ac.uk/doi/10.1177/0272431699019003003 [Accessed 26 July 2018].