There appear to me to be a lot of mythos surrounding the question as to why people bully. I was bullied for around eight years — probably longer. Since then I have worked with or alongside young people for fourteen years, and I have worked with children for a lot longer than that. I remember one time when I had an interview for a youth work post with someone who was aware of my history of being bullied. They asked me in a very matter-of-fact way “So, how will you stop yourself from bullying our young people?” I was quite frankly gobsmacked and astounded, but I answered her question quite clearly “Some people who are bullied do end up bullying, but that is not a hard-and-fast rule. For me, I want to help those like me and like those who harmed me.” People get very fixated on the fact that bullies were often bullied themselves. Just as it is true that not all targets of bullying end up bullying others, it is also true that not all bullies are doing so because they were once bullied. To think this can actually be damaging to both the targets of bullying and the bully because it risks overlooking other factors that might contribute to such behaviour. Left unchecked these factors could lead to worse behaviour later on in life.
What Underpins The Reasons Why People Bully
I will look into the specifics in a minute, but I think it is vital that we understand what underpins most if not all of the reasons people bully. Most bullies have issues with power, they feel powerless in one situation and so try and find it in another. They believe they cannot take that power back from the source of the lack of power, and so deflect it onto someone they perceive as weaker than themselves. They often do this by finding the one thing that makes a person stand out from the crowd and picking on that thing. It is far easier than finding something that is hidden beneath the surface, and anyway if they did that they would probably find they liked that person and not want to bully them. I would say that most of us have unintentionally bullied someone at some point. However, what we are looking at here are the 14% who admit having deliberately bullied someone. I believe the true percentage of people to have deliberately bullied to be much higher as you have those who won’t admit to it because of shame, or who see nothing wrong with what the did still.
1. Having a history of being the target of bullies
After what I’ve just said, I thought I better address this one first. Yes, if you are more likely to bully if you have been bullied yourself. In fact, research shows that those who have been bullied are twice as likely to bully others as those who haven’t. This can be a bit confusing for some people. When someone knows what it is like to be on the receiving end of bullying how could they inflict that pain on others. This view, however, discounts the effects bullying can have on someone’s mental health. If you have been bullied for a significant period of time, you are going to become depressed and self-loathing. What can self-loathing do? Make you feel powerless. You are divided into two halves, the half that blames yourself for everything that has happened to you, and the other half which will want to prove that you are not that person. It is my belief that no matter how self-loathing you get, there is always a part of you that doesn’t believe it, and demands proof of the contrary. One way of getting that proof is by demonstrating that someone is more loathsome than yourself, and a way of doing that is by pulling someone down lower than you.
I believe that another factor that leads to targets of bullying becoming bullies is, firstly how old they were when the bullying started, but also how much affection they got from their friends before and after the bullying. If a person has very little experience — or no memory of — being treated with affection by friends then they will effectively have been programmed to think that hostility is the only way you treat people of their own age.
2. Power shifts within the family
As we know becoming a bully is an outlet for the feeling of powerlessness elsewhere. It may be unsurprising then that children and young people who have a power shift within their family unit have an increased chance of becoming a bully within a five year period of that power shift. When we talk about power shifts, we are of course talking about the removal of a parent from the family unit — whether through divorce or death — but also the addition of a new parent or sibling — whether step-siblings or natural ones.
These experiences can be very stressful and traumatic on people, and everybody has different ways to relieve stress. Some find a quiet place to focus on themselves and find peace, while others might express that stress violence, substance abuse and of course, bullying.
3. They have issues at home
A third of all people who bully on a daily basis say that they have troubles at home. Often when we think about troubles at home we picture feuding or separating parents, but this is just part of the picture. When I talk about troubled homes, I am also talking about large homes where the person bullying may find it difficult to find their place being heard. Or they have issues with their step-families and have so far failed to find their place. They have strained relationships with their parents — and this could be for many reasons. Essentially they have struggled, or are struggling to find affection and affirmation from those who they need it from the most. This, of course, includes those children and young people who come from homes where violence is considered the norm.
It is interesting to note here that during my own time being bullied, about a third or more that bullied me regularly came from within the foster system; Now granted, this was partly due to the fact that the taxi that served as my ride home also ferried in the students who came from a local foster home. Having seen the kinds of homes they did come from, I also wonder whether this was also a contributory factor.
4. Having insecure or manipulative friendships of their own
Making friends is an art form, but it also something we more often than not have to do on instinct alone. This is especially true when we are young as we are still learning the art form. Therefore we can easily fall into insecure or manipulative friendships. When we are in these types of friendships we can often find ourselves doing things we may not do naturally. There can be a lot of pressure to act out against someone, even if we know it is the wrong thing to do. How often do we hear about someone being bullied by a person they were friends with as a child? This often happens because they have fallen in with another group of friends who insist that they disown the old friend, for whatever reason. Then they are goaded into proving they have disowned the old friend, which results in them bullying them.
This is often done as a safety mechanism as well as fulfilling a need to fit in. Someone may bully someone else to prove they are not weak. For if they are shown to be weak in the eyes of the new friendship group they could very well become a target of bullying themselves.
5. Masculinity within our culture
Two-thirds of bullies are male. If we look at how men and women are brought up and represented in our culture then it could be very easy to see why this could be. Pretty much from the time men are born, they are told that the expression of emotion is a feminine thing and should be shied away from. We have expressions like “Man Up”, “Take it like a man” or “don’t be a girl.”
But emotions have to be expressed somehow. If it is not done through healthy expression, then it is expressed in aggression, rage and violence. This is also the reason why boys are more likely to act out with aggression and violent self-harming. They are not necessarily born that way, it is not a case of sticks and stone etc. In reality, our society and culture have taught them that.
A good film to watch on this very subject is “The Mask You Live In” and I thoroughly encourage you to seek it out.
6. They have issues with who they are
Teenagers don’t really know who they are yet. They are still seeking and searching. There can be many identity issues that a teenager could face. The most prominent ones around at the moment are those surrounding sexuality and gender. However, there are also identity issues of interests, career paths — so many we would be here forever listing them!
The issue of bullying arises here when there is someone else who perhaps is dealing with similar issues but in a more confident manner. I know that one of the reasons I was bullied was because of my physical disability. One of the main people to focus on this area as a target was someone who had recently had a lot of hospital visits themselves around that time. Though they were totally different scenarios, he saw my perceived confidence in living day to day life as an indictment on his coping with his.
The other one that always comes up from my experiences is the fact I was bullied as many people wrongly presumed I was gay. It is interesting to look back now and see how many of the boys who bullied me for this misconception are now living as gay men themselves.
Of course, if any of these are present in the life of a child you know, it does not mean they are going to go out a bully someone tomorrow. Many people who have these in their lives live life without harming anyone else — some may even actively help others. But they are definitely at a higher risk of becoming bullies, so it is wise to keep a quiet eye, remembering two things, bullies are not evil and you know the children in your life better than I do.
Founder & CEO
Strength Restored is Tom’s baby. Born out of 8 years of being the target of bullies, Tom’s heart burns with a passion for seeing the lives of anyone touched by bullying turned around. Tom started working with children when he was only eleven himself, he then expanded into working with young people too, back in 2003. Tom has had the luck of being able to see bullying from all its angles, for not only was he the target of bullying, he also worked as a teaching assistant for a time, and so saw it from the teacher’s point of view too. All this experience has helped him construct Strength Restored, and truly he believes it could make a real impact.