Characteristics of a Bully

Let's start by debunking the biggest myth of them all: Bullies bully others to cover up their own sense of inadequacy or poor self-esteem. Research has consistently shown that bullies actually possess normal, if not higher, levels of self-esteem than those of their non-bully peers.

The popular theory that bullies are just miserable kids who lash out in a misguided attempt to raise their level of self-esteem has been proven untrue. That's not to say that some kids don't fit that profile; no doubt some do. But the majority of kids who bully do it for reasons that are less underdog and more alpha dog.

Recent research has compiled some common characteristics that most bullies share:

  • A bully has the need to feel powerful and in control.

  • A bully has the need for attention.

  • A bully has the need to feel superior.

  • A bully feels that he does no wrong.

  • A bully has no empathy.

  • A bully is quick to feel anger and aggression.

  • A bully enjoys inflicting pain and suffering.

Surprisingly, most bullies see themselves in a positive light. This is directly correlated with the fact that they have very little awareness of what others think of them. No kid wants to suffer a bully's wrath by telling him the truth, so no one does. The bully's confidence survives, and even thrives, simply because he lacks the feedback to perceive his reputation correctly in social situations.

Think of the Queen, Snow White's wicked stepmother, in the childhood fairytale Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by the Brothers Grimm. Every morning the Queen looks in the mirror and asks, “Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of us all?” to which the mirror always replies, “Tis you.” One day the Queen asks her mirror the usual question, and it responds, “Queen, you are full fair, 'tis true, but Snow White is fairer than you.” The Queen reacts with rage and jealousy and orders a huntsman to take Snow White into the woods, kill her, and return with her heart as proof that she's dead. A chilling story to say the least.

Now imagine the typical bully who sees and judges himself through the eyes of his peers (his magic mirror). When he looks in the mirror, what he sees is that the vast majority of kids either approve (the kids who laugh at or join in the bullying) or don't actively disapprove of his actions (the kids who ignore it). When classmates join him in his bullying efforts, he feels like the Wicked Queen when she looks in the mirror, asks “Who is the fairest of us all?” and it says, “Tis you.” This reflection of approval and acceptance (even if it is false) reinforces his desire to remain “the fairest in the land.”

Kids intuitively know that if they shatter the bully's self-serving image, they risk the wrath of the “Queen.” The Queen might come after them for revenge as the Queen does to Snow White. So day after day, they stay silently approving. They tell the bully, “Tis you.”

And kids aren't the only ones who are unwilling to reflect the truth back at the Queen-type bullies. Adults often won't stand up to a boss who is overbearing or verbally abusive. After all, who wants to risk their job by telling the boss that he's a bullying jerk? Battered spouses don't tell the truth for fear of repeated abuse, and victims of hazing rarely speak out against the monsters who hazed them. Because of this, bullies young and old continue to have an inaccurate and distorted view of what others think of them.


Many parents will admit that they would rather have a child who bullies than one who is bullied. The reason is simple: Society rewards the tough, the strong, and the powerful and shows nothing but contempt for those who show weakness (i.e., those who are physically, emotionally, or mentally fragile).

One important facet of bully prevention and intervention programs teaches children how to reflect correct and accurate information back to bullies. All kids (and adults, too) must learn to project the attitude that bullying is wrong and that it will not be tolerated. When bullies stop getting active or tacit approval for their actions, when they stop getting socially rewarded for abusing other kids, they'll start to see themselves in a more accurate light.

The objective is to get bullies to see that over the long term, bullying erodes their social standing and undermines their ability to have authentic relationships with their peers. Studies have shown that kids who bully are at serious risk for depression and social isolation, that they tend to lead adult lives filled with aggression and abuse, and that they are more likely to get into trouble with the law. Not surprisingly, bullying can be as harmful to the bully as it is to the bullied.

Here are a few of the characteristics that may make a child more likely to bully:

  • He has a low tolerance for frustration

  • He has difficulty conforming to rules

  • He has little respect for authority

  • He is impulsive

  • He exhibits other antisocial behavior (vandalism, stealing, truancy, substance abuse)

  • He is cruel to animals

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