Where Bullies come from

Image Credit: Ryan Hyde (Flickr)

Millions of people have had the experience of being bullied.  It starts early: as many as 1 in 6 American students are regularly on the receiving end of a bully’s aggressions, and every day, 160,000 kids stay home from school just to avoid their bullies.

Sadly, this isn’t behavior that people tend to grow out of.  More than one-third of all working adults are bullied in the workplace, with the majority of that bullying being done by bosses to their employees.

I’d like to pose an interesting question today: Where does that behavior originate? Perhaps by understanding its origins, we can understand the behavior itself.  By understanding the behavior, we can learn how to prevent it.  By learning how to prevent it, we can learn how to combat it where it already exists.

Let’s be very specific about what we’re talking about here.  According to the National Association of School Psychologists:

A bully is someone who directs physical, verbal, or psychological aggression or harassment toward others, with the goal of gaining power over or dominating another individual.

Now that we’re all on the same page, let’s explore the roots of this behavior:

Where it is learned

Bullying behavior is learned.  This happens in a variety of ways – we won’t get into all of them today – but a prime place bullies are made is at home.

This isn’t always as straightforward as some may think.  Though many may correctly speculate that a bully is created when a child is a direct victim of aggressive behavior by relatives, there are other ways a flawed family environment can plant the seeds of bullying.

Even if a child is not the direct victim of abusive behavior, bullying tendencies can be formed when the child is simply allowed to bully other children.  This can happen because of the indifference of supervising adults, or a lack of supervision altogether.  The behavior becomes reinforced as the child learns that there are no consequences to acting this way to get what they want.

Bullying can also stem from a child witnessing an abusive incident or a pattern of abusive behavior between relatives: The parents, for example.  The child may either identify with the victim and fear becoming vulnerable themselves, or identify with the aggressor and seek to dominate others.  Either way, a bully is born.

Ways they do it

There are different types of bullying that people experience. Many categorize this differently, but I’m going to stick to just three broad areas: Verbal, Social, and Physical.

Verbal Bullying includes taunting, teasing, name-calling, and sexually inappropriate comments.  The verbal bully seeks to upset the victim with what they say.  Social Bullying (also known as Emotional Bullying) involves inflicting pain by damaging, among other things, someone’s relationships and reputation.  This is done by spreading rumors and causing public embarrassment, and has become much more prevalent through the rise of social media.  Physical Bullying is the hallmark of the archetypal schoolyard bully, causing physical harm to others through shoving, kicking, punching and the like.

If one were to follow the same group of children through their lives, one would notice that bullying behavior first appears in elementary school, peaks in middle school and still exists throughout high school.  Interestingly, physical bullying tapers off in middle school, but verbal and social bullying remain more commonplace thereafter and into adulthood.

What they get out of it

Most bullies have this in common: high insecurity.  Generally incapable of being satisfied with themselves and lacking healthy self-esteem (for a variety of reasons), they must resort to putting others down in order to feel better about themselves or increase their pecking order within their social group.

Interestingly, bullies like to find targets that are easy to attack.  Physical bullies are notorious for this, so much so that their behavior inspired the phrase, “Pick on someone your own size”.  Of course, picking on someone their own size is something no bully would ever want to do.

Choosing a victim that is vulnerable reduces the odds that the bullying attempt will backfire and the bully will inadvertently become the victim.  This would be the worst possible outcome for the bully as the embarrassment would be severely damaging to their already low self-esteem.  Arguably, the bully is the most emotionally vulnerable person in the confrontation.

They avoid someone their own size because a challenge is not what they’re after; they just want the emotional benefit of dominating their victim.  Choosing someone that looks weak to them increases the odds of getting the power they so desperately seek.

So now we know where bullies come from.  This is really just an introduction: There is so much more to be discussed on this topic.

For that reason, I’m announcing that this is the first of a multi-part series I’ll be doing this year on bullying.

If we intend to stop this behavior, the first thing we must do is educate ourselves.  It is only by beginning with understanding that we can foster healthy environments.

Thanks for reading, folks.  Stay tuned.


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