Why Do Some Kids Bully?

There are many reasons why kids bully, but the most common and widely accepted one is social conditioning. Social conditioning is when a child learns to conform to his environing culture. Simply put: a child learns how to behave by modeling the behaviors of those around him. For instance, if Dad is a grown-up bully and berates, puts down, and pushes around Mom, the child learns that it's okay to threaten, berate, and overpower in order to get what you want.

This partly explains why bullies need, and should receive, as much intervention and assistance as victims do. And it explains why intervention should happen quickly and at a young age. Changing a child's behavior patterns early on is usually more successful than at later ages.

In the early developmental years, the average child experiences an increase in her level of frustration and aggression until around age two. This is predominantly because a toddler's language and communication skills are unable to keep up with her ever-increasing wants and needs. She knows what she wants, but often can't express it properly; this leads to the classic temper tantrum — a child's first attempt at bullying her parents.

It looks something like this:

A mom is at the park with her two-year-old daughter. The daughter is playing happily in the sandbox. A little while later, the mom tells her daughter that it's time to leave. The child ignores the mother's attempts to get her to leave and continues to play in the sandbox. When the mother runs out of patience, she approaches her daughter, gently takes away the shovel, and tries to pick her up. The daughter shrieks in protest, flails her arms (hitting her mother in face), and bursts into tears.

The daughter won't allow the mother to pick her up, and she throws sand in the mother's face. The harder the mother tries to pick her daughter up, the harder she screams and fights. The daughter believes that if she keeps fighting her mother, her mother will eventually give in and let her stay at the park.

A wise mother knows that giving in would be the worst possible solution. The best solution would be to give the daughter a chance to calm down and as soon as she's calm, leave the playground. Option number two would be to pick her up (if possible), carry her to the car, and put her in the car seat once she's calmed down. To give in to a child's first attempts at bullying would be a mistake. She will learn that bullying people (her parents included) is a way to get what she wants.

Most parents spend a significant amount of time and effort teaching their two-year-olds how to control aggressive impulses and to delay gratification. This is an extremely important developmental task for a child to master. When parents fail to teach their two- or three-year-olds how to handle anger and aggression in a socially acceptable manner, they set the stage for bullying in the later years.

If you think it's hard to teach a toddler impulse control, try teaching it to an out-of-control eight- or ten-year-old for whom it's become a habit. Researchers have studied two types of parenting styles that can be harmful to the developing child and may add to the type of social aggression that most bullies display: permissive and authoritarian.

Permissive Parenting Style

A permissive parent will allow a two-year-old's temper tantrum to go on and on and on. That same parent will attempt to bribe the child. When you allow a tantrum to go on and on, and make no attempt to comfort the child, it only serves to make her feel more out of control. And bribing teaches her that if you behave badly enough, you can always get what you want.

When this child is ten, she'll believe that she can do whatever she pleases, whenever she pleases. She'll constantly push the envelope of proper behavior in an attempt to find a boundary — any boundary. And when she crosses the line, she won't be willing to change her behavior until she receives a bribe or reward. She'll think nothing of using threats and strong-arm techniques to bully her parents as well as her peers.

Extremely permissive or uninvolved parents take a hands-off approach to parenting. Their main goal is to avoid conflict and keep the peace. Discipline and limits are few and far between and can be virtually nonexistent. The children do what they want when they want, and when there are behavioral problems, the parents will often blame other people's kids or stick their head in the sand and ignore the problem, hoping it will go away.

But kids need limits and guidance. They need age-appropriate discipline that teaches them how to behave appropriately in myriad social situations. And they need their parents to be responsible and in charge. Instead, with permissive parenting, they get very little guidance and wind up with no sense of family connectedness. Without a sense of connectedness and belonging, these kids have nothing to anchor them and no one to keep them in line. This self-parenting puts kids at a distinct social disadvantage and leaves them feeling that no one loves, values, or cares for them.


Some bullies don't stop bullying just because they grow up; they just become grown-up bullies. Bullies are everywhere — on college campuses, in dating relationships, in the workplace, in marriages, in the military, in politics. This is proof positive that not enough intervention is being done at early ages.

Authoritarian Parenting Style

The other potentially harmful parenting style is labeled authoritarian — the parent rules with an iron hand. An authoritarian parent can be so focused on maintaining control and proper discipline that the relationship between parent and child suffers from insufficient levels of love, affection, and attention. This doesn't mean that an authoritarian parent doesn't love her child; it simply means that the love is often portrayed as being conditional on the child's ability to obey.

The child of an authoritarian parent will often receive harsh punishment for relatively mild childhood crimes, and it's not uncommon for authoritarian parents to use spanking as the primary means of discipline. When the spanking eventually fails to curb misbehavior (as is often the case), the punishment escalates and can become physically or emotionally abusive, or both.

The danger of this type of parenting is that children become very good at obeying authority, but fail to develop a strong sense of inner discipline. Without inner discipline, and with the experience that “might is right,” a child will naturally see bullying as an acceptable means to an end.

An authoritarian parent will attempt to stop a two-year-old's temper tantrum by giving the child a spanking. Here's the rub: When kids receive harsh punishment from their parents for aggressive behaviors, it only teaches them to be more aggressive. By the time that same child reaches the age of ten, her temper tantrums resemble full-blown rampages. She'll act out physically, destroy property, and project her frustrations onto innocent victims by bullying them.


According to studies conducted by Swedish researcher Dan Olweus, many bullies are raised in environments where physical punishment is routine, where physical aggression is an acceptable way to handle problems, and where the parents are emotionally distant and uninvolved.

Some bullies come from relatively normal families and are merely seeking attention. Others may think bullying is a way to be popular amongst their peers or that it will make it easier to get what they want. And some kids try out bullying temporarily because they've seen someone else do it.

Some bullies want to hurt other kids and set out intentionally to do so, and some just don't fully comprehend how hurtful their actions can be. Some bullies pick on a particular type of child and some will pick on a random kid for no specific reason.

The reasons girls bully can be somewhat different. A girl will bully another girl because she's jealous. She may be a bit insecure and realizes she can become popular by social dominance, even though she may not be well liked. She may adhere to the survival of the fittest mentality and bully because a good offense is the best defense.

In other words, to prevent being bullied, she becomes one. She may not fit in with typical gender stereotypes and choose to model her behavior after the male bullies. Or she may simply do it for sport and find it highly entertaining to watch her peers squirm and be miserable.

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