The Secret Life of Bullies: Why They Do It—and How to Stop Them
by James Lehman, MSW
Why do some kids turn to bullying? The answer is simple: it solves their social problems. After all, it's easier to bully somebody than to work things out, manage your emotions, and learn to solve problems. Bullying is the proverbial “easy way out,” and sadly, some kids take it.
Look at men who beat or intimidate their wives and scream at their kids. They’ve never learned to be effective spouses or parents. Instead, they're really bullies. And the other people in those families live in fear—fear that they're going to be yelled at, called names, or hit. Nothing has to be worked out, because the bully always gets his way. The chain of command has been established by force, and the whole mindset becomes, “If you'd only do what I say, there'd be peace around here.” So the bully's attitude is, “Give me my way or face my aggression.”
Aggression can either take the forms of violence or emotional abuse. I've seen many families that operate this way. I’m not just talking about the adults in the family, either—there are countless children who throw tantrums for the same reason: they’re saying, “Give me my way or face my behavior.” And if you as a parent don't start dealing with those tantrums early, your child may develop larger behavior problems as they grow older.
Ask yourself this question: How many passive bullies do you know? They usually control others through verbal abuse and insults and by making people feel small. They're very negative, critical people. The threat is always in the background that they're going to break something or call somebody names or hit someone if they are disagreed with. Realize that the behavior doesn't start when someone is in their teens—it usually begins when a child is five or six.
Portrait of a Bully
Bullying itself can come from a variety of sources. One source, as I mentioned, is bullying at home—maybe there are older siblings, extended family members or parents who use aggression or intimidation to get their way. I also think part of the development of bullying can stem from some type of undiagnosed or diagnosed learning disability which inhibits the child's ability to learn both social and problem-solving skills.
Make no mistake, kids use bullying primarily to replace the social skills they’re supposed to develop in grade school, middle school and high school. As children go through their developmental stages, they should be finding ways of working problems out and getting along with other people. This includes learning how to read social situations, make friends, and understand their social environment.
Bullies use aggression, and some use violence and verbal abuse, to supplant those skills. So in effect, they don't have to learn problem solving, because they just threaten the other kids. They don't have to learn how to work things out because they just push their classmates or call them names. They don't have to learn how to get along with other people—they just control them. The way they’re solving problems is through brute force and intimidation. So by the time that child reaches ten, bullying is pretty ingrained—it has become their natural response to any situation where they feel socially awkward, insecure, frightened, bored or embarrassed.
Here is what an aggressive bully often looks like: He doesn't know how to get along with other kids, so he's usually not trying to play with them. When you look out on the playground at recess, he's probably alone. He's not playing soccer or kickball with the other children; he’s roaming around the perimeter of all the interactions that take place at school on a daily basis. And whenever he's confronted with a problem or feels insecure, he takes that out on somebody else. He does this by putting somebody else down verbally or physically. A child who bullies might also throw or break things in order to feel better and more powerful about himself. When the bully feels powerless and afraid, he's much more likely to be aggressive, because that makes him feel powerful and in control. That’s a very seductive kind of thing for kids; it’s very hard for them to let go of that power.
Adolescents and Gang Mentality
When we talk about adolescent bullying, we're entering into another phenomenon altogether. The reality is that many adolescents in high school today are very abusive to each other. There are peer groups that will attack other kids verbally and emotionally, similar to a gang mentality. When these kids start calling other students rude names and questioning their sexuality, it is all done to dominate and bully them. If a teen or pre-teen doesn't want to be a victim, they have to join a group. The kids who don't socialize very well—the shy or passive types—often become the targets. And the threat of violence is always behind it. This trend in high school is prevalent today, and I think very destructive. In my opinion, parents and school administrators who ignore the way kids abuse each other in high school are kidding themselves. This behavior is hurtful and harmful, and there needs to be a lot more accountability.
Make no bones about it, bullying is traumatizing for kids who are the targets. In fact, I think children should be taught about bullying throughout grade school. They need to learn what it means, how to resolve it, and how to deal with a bully. If this is not taught, kids who are targets will think there's something wrong with them, and this vicious cycle—because that is truly what this is—perpetuates itself. Kids should also be learning how to handle their impulses and control themselves when they want to hit, hurt or intimidate others. Unless there's a concerted effort to deal with bullying and bullies in school, nothing will change. It's a challenge, but I firmly believe it can be done.
1. Teach Your Children about Bullying from an Early Age
I think from a very early age, you have to teach your child what a bully is. You can tell them the following (or even post these words in your house somewhere):
A bully is somebody who forces other people to do things they don't want to do.
A bully is somebody who hits other people.
A bully is someone who takes or breaks other people's property.
A bully is someone who calls other people names.
Then you have to set a standard that says, “We don't do that in our house.” Start that culture of accountability early. Teach them what the word means, and say, “You're accountable for that kind of behavior in our house.”
I think it’s also important that you talk about how to treat others. Ask your child, “How should you treat others?” And the answer is, “You treat others with respect ; if they don't respect you back, walk away. Treating someone with respect means not calling them names, threatening them, or hitting them.” You can also say, “You listen to others. You accept others. If they don't want to play with your toys or they don't want to share their things, you have to learn how to accept that.” This is not easy for kids, but they will learn. I really think children need to have the concept of bullying explained to them numerous times. That way, when any kind of bullying is going on, they can identify it and stop the behavior, both in themselves and others.
2. Create a Culture of Accountability in Your Home
I think the most important thing for every family is to have a Culture of Accountability in your home. This means your child is accountable to you: how he talks to you, how he talks to his siblings, how he treats his family members. When he’s bullying his siblings, don’t get sucked into his excuses; just because he had a bad day at school does not give him the right to mistreat anyone in your family, for example. Let me say it again: Your child is accountable to you.
When a bully feels powerless and afraid, he's much more likely to be aggressive, because that makes him feel powerful and in control.
Don't forget, bullies often have cognitive distortions—they see the world in a certain way that justifies their bullying. So you’ll frequently hear them blaming others and making excuses for their behavior. Most of the time, they really believe that stuff: they believe what they think, and that's what you've got to challenge. You can say directly, “It sounds like you’re blaming Jesse for the fact that you punched him. It is not Jesse’s fault that you hit him.”
Schools should also have a culture of accountability, and I think that many try. That's what detentions, suspensions and expulsions are all about—if your child breaks the rules, he should be held accountable, and it’s very important that you let him deal with the natural consequences and not try to shield him.
3. The Skills Your Child Needs to Learn
Plain and simple, a child who bullies needs to learn how to solve social problems and deal with their emotions without acting out behaviorally. Have conversations with your child where you ask, “What happens when other kids don't want to play your games? What do you do? What do you do when other kids have things you want and they won't give them to you? How do you handle that? How do you handle it when you think you're right and they're wrong and there's nothing you can do about it?”
Your child has to learn how to resolve conflicts and manage his emotions. He needs to learn the skills of compromise, how to sacrifice, how to share and how to deal with injustice. He should also learn how to check things out, and to ask himself, “Is what I'm seeing really happening? Does Jonathon really hate me, or is he just in a bad mood today?”
Kids have got to learn how to manage their impulses. If their impulse is to hit or to hurt or call someone names, they have to learn to deal with that in an appropriate way. Many children and adolescents have the impulse to hurt others—they have impulses to do all kinds of things. But they need to learn to handle them, and kids who bully are no exception.
4. What to Do If Your Child is Bullying Others in School
Kids who are bullying others should be held accountable at home—they should absolutely be given consequences for their behavior. And the consequences should go like this: your child should be deprived of doing something he or she likes. So, no TV or computer games or cell phone, for example. And they also should have to do a task: they should write an essay or letter on what they're going to do next time they're in the same situation or feel the same way—instead of bullying. It’s critical that they start thinking of other ways they can solve this problem. Understand that they may not have any ideas, and that’s where you have to interact with them and coach them as a parent. In the Total Transformation Program, there's an interview process I outline where parents learn to talk with their children to solve problems, rather than explore emotions and listen to excuses. If your child is hurting or bullying others, he needs to have conversations that solve problems. He does not need or benefit from conversations that explore emotions. Bullies tend to see themselves as victims, so the conversation has to focus on them taking responsibility for their behavior.
I think your child's teachers should handle the process of having your child make amends for his behavior at school. But remember that bullies don't stop bullying when they get home—they often target younger or weaker siblings. You have to be very clear if your child is bullying—be very black and white; leave no gray areas. Don't forget, your child is bullying because solving problems— talking to people and working things out—is very hard for him. Again, your child is taking the easy way out. We all go through the growing pains of learning how to negotiate in social situations—in fact, we may work on this skill our whole lives. There should be no exceptions for anyone in your family when it comes to these skills. For a child who is using bullying as a shortcut instead of developing these skills, you have to work even harder as a parent to coach them on what to do.
When Bullies Grow Up
Make no mistake, if a child bullies, that tendency can stay with them their whole lives. Fortunately, some bullies do mature after they leave school. You'll see them get into their early twenties and go their own way; they get married, they go to college, they start a career, and they stop their bullying behavior.
But sadly, you will also see young child bullies who become teenage bullies and then adult bullies. How does this behavior and lack of social skills affect them? These are the people who abuse their wives and kids emotionally and sometimes physically. These are the people who call their spouses and kids names if they don't do things the way they want them to. Bullies may also become criminals. Look at it this way: a bully is somebody who is willing to use aggression, verbal abuse, property destruction or even violence to get his way. An anti-social personality disorder (which is how criminals are classified) refers to somebody who is willing to use aggression and violence to get his way. The criminal population is literally full of bullies who, among other things, never learned how to resolve conflicts and behave appropriately in social situations.
If you think your child is bullying others, it’s very important to start working with him now. This behavior is already hurting his life—and will continue to do so if it’s left to fester. If you expect your child to “outgrow” bullying once he reaches adulthood, realize that you’re also taking the risk that he may not—and that choice may negatively affect him for the rest of his life.
The Secret Life of Bullies: Why They Do It—and How to Stop Them reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents. For more information, visit www.empoweringparents.com
James Lehman is a behavioral therapist and the creator of The Total Transformation Program for parents. He has worked with troubled teens and children for three decades. James holds a Masters Degree in Social Work from Boston University. For more information, visit www.thetotaltransformation.com.