Why Do Kids Bully Other Kids

Featured image of crying girl in white being bullied

When the topic of bullying is brought up, most parents think about how horrible it would be if their child was bullied, sometimes forgetting about the other, equally realistic and unsettling option, that their child is actually bullying others.

Even though our sympathies will usually be on the side of kids who are getting mistreated, it is important to remember that they are not the only victims here. As a matter of fact, bullies themselves end up with severe social and psychological issues if their behavior is not timely recognized and addressed. 

That’s why any discussion dealing with bullying prevention needs to start from the premise that it’s not just the bullied who need help and guidance, since they are often just the final link in a chain of violence and abuse that the bully is in the middle of. 

Regardless of which side of this problem you find yourself on, having a child who is bullied or who bullies others, the best way to help them is by understanding some of the common reasons kids engage in this kind of behavior. 

However, before we get into the specific causes and motivations, it’s important to mention that bullying often goes unreported. This is to say that just because you haven’t heard anything from or about your child, that doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is fine. 

In order to fix the problem, you first need to identify it. Since kids can be extremely sensitive about these issues, you don’t only need constant vigilance, but also quite a bit of subtlety as well. So, what are some of the warning signs that you should look out for?

How to Tell if Your Kid Is Being Bullied

Regardless of how open and trusting a relationship you have with your child, you should always be aware of the possibility that there are some things they are not telling you. Sometimes this will be naive, or even cute secrets, but at other times, they might be hiding something terribly serious.

There are plenty of reasons for a child to do something like this. They might be too scared to approach you since your intervention might make the bully even more aggressive; they might be trying to protect their social image among their peers; they might be ashamed, or feel a whole range of other irrational emotions preventing them from opening up.

That’s why it will often be up to you to recognize that your child is having trouble with bullies, even though they claim that this isn’t the case. Some of the things you need to look out for include:

  • Changes in the child’s behavior like increased nervousness, bouts of glum mood, increased aversion towards school and social activities, etc.
  • Changes in the child’s health, including disturbances in their eating habits or sleeping patterns
  • Injuries they can’t provide an adequate explanation for
  • Frequent loss of property – books, sneakers, lunch money…

Since a child’s inner life is bound to be turbulent and confusing enough even if they are not being bullied, the emergence of these signals doesn’t necessarily have to be indicative of bullying, but is still an obvious red flag that you need to investigate.

Image of sad boy with head on his legs

How to Tell if Your Kid Is a Bully

Like we mentioned, the other side of the coin, i.e. having a child who mistreats other children, is by no means easier to deal with. 

Not only are you faced with the fact that your child is heading down the path which leads to social inadequacy, isolation and potentially even a life of crime; you also have to deal with the uncomfortable truth that you may have had an important role in setting them on that path.

Even though a child may have a perfectly idyllic home and still find reasons and opportunities to bully other kids, this kind of behavior is often just a manifestation of issues that the child has developed because of the interactions with their closest ones. 

Naturally, unlike the bullied kids who sometimes do admit to their problem, bullies are practically never forthcoming about it, and indeed, don’t even perceive it as a problem in the first place. That’s why it is completely up to parents to recognize this kind of behavior. This can be done by:

  • Talking to the child’s teacher, principal and counselor regularly, not only when prompted by them
  • Paying attention to who your child socializes with and what their interactions look like
  • Constantly observing their mood, especially keeping an eye out for bouts of aggression
  • Monitoring their activities enough to notice if a child has injuries they are trying to conceal or have more money than can be accounted for by their allowance
  • Assessing their reactions to your attempts at disciplining them 

While it is extremely disconcerting to find out that your child has developed this kind of attitude towards their peers, if you don’t own up to that harsh reality, you won’t only be doing a great disservice to the kids being bullied, but to your own child as well.

Image of angry boy on orange background

Motivation for Bullying

Even once you’ve recognized that your child has either of these problems, you can’t hope to help before you learn exactly why do kids bully other kids. Here are some of the more common reasons.

Trying to fit in

Regardless of how much time, love and effort you invest into raising your child and instilling proper values into them, your influence is not the only one they are exposed to. A lot of who they are and how they behave will be a product of the out-of-home environment, i.e. their friends and their broader social circle.

Even if your child doesn’t have a natural predisposition for it, they might turn to bullying other children simply because of peer pressure and the desire not to be bullied themselves. This kind of groupthink is often most obvious and intensive online, where it is not uncommon to find examples of massive harassment campaigns focused around a single victim.

Trying to stand out

Some kids bully because they want to be left alone, others do it because they actually want the attention. They often feel like their ability to exert social or physical dominance over their peers somehow elevates them, makes them more popular or even admired.

While this kind of misconception may have originated at home, it is just as likely that it has been created by their interactions with their peers. 

That is to say that, even though it is possible that the child is feeling neglected by the parents, and bullying others is a way to draw attention to themselves; it is also within the realm of reason to assume that the child developed the problematic attitude simply by observing other children and their behavior. 

Taking it from home

As difficult as this may be to admit, sometimes parents are the ones that have created the model of behavior that the child cannot help but reflect onto their environment. 

If a kid is constantly bullied at home, either by their siblings or by the parents themselves, they are very unlikely to find empathy, compassion and understanding for others on their own. If the people responsible for building your view of the world and helping you navigate it are constantly mistreating you and asserting their power over you, you can’t really be expected to adopt a healthier attitude towards your surroundings. 

It goes without saying that this kind of influence is far more sinister and profound than the ones coming from outside of the home. The fact that parents who act this way have often been treated similarly when they were children is tragic on its own, but it is by no means an excuse to perpetuate the cycle of abuse and misery.

However, while you do need to make sure that your attempts at disciplining your child don’t even come close to crossing over into abuse or bullying, that is not to say that you can afford to be completely lax with them either. 

Feeling entitled

On the other side of the spectrum from the abusively disciplinarian parents, we have those who allow their kids to get away with murder, and thereby doing them almost as great a disservice as the former group.

While it is much easier to understand a parent’s desire to coddle and protected their child than it is to accept the fact that some people are simply tyrants to their kids; this is not to say that you can allow yourself to overindulge in this kind of leniency.

As difficult as it may sometimes be to discipline your child when they deserve it, failing to do so gives them an extremely warped idea of how the world really works. They will get used to behaving any way they please without any consideration for the potential consequences of their actions. This entitlement makes them feel superior to others, unable to admit they might be at fault, as well as extremely narcissistic and self-absorbed. 

Jealousy and low self-esteem

One of the reasons some kids adopt the facade of a bully is just so that they can cover up their own perceived inadequacies. 

Even though some bullies might seem self-assured and perfectly comfortable in their own skin, this is rarely the case. Instead, bullies often turn their attention to those kids that possess the qualities that the bully lacks. If a child is often chided by their parents about not being studious, obedient or smart enough, they are not only likely to start resenting those qualities, but also those possessing them.

Of course, it is not only character traits that bullies can be envious of, it can be anything that they don’t have – a stable home, social status, academic success, etc. By bullying other children, they are trying to assert at least some kind of superiority over them, in hopes of making their deficiencies seem irrelevant.

Lacking social skills

While it is true that a lot of bullying is motivated by relatively sinister impulses, it has to be said that some of it is more a matter of crossed wires than malice.

Good-natured teasing and play-fighting has always been a part of the bonding ritual between children, the problem is, kids sometimes get carried away in either and lose track of where the fun stops and bullying begins.

Younger children who are still only getting the hang of social interactions are especially susceptible to bullying others without even realizing the effect they are producing. Remember, kids need to learn how to be considerate of others, it’s not something that just happens on its own. 

If a child has not been exposed to different environments and types of social interactions, finding out what is and isn’t acceptable may require them to do some experimenting with the limits of people around them. While some of the behavior displayed during this exploration may be characterized as bullying, as it is a product of inexperience, it often corrects itself as the child grows older and more aware of accepted social norms.

Seeing how bullying is not only detrimental to the development of the kids being bullied but can also have lasting negative effects on the bullies themselves and even those who just witness the bullying, we need to remember that everyone included is a victim, even the aggressor. 

While there are numerous signals that can alert attentive parents of the fact that their kid is being bullied or is bullying others, we can’t hope to effectively deal with the issue before we learn why do kids bully their peers and what do they get out of it.

From feelings of inadequacy to desire to attract attention, bullies can be guided by a range of influences that they themselves rarely have any kind of control over. This means that you have to be just as tentative when approaching them as you do when trying to help a victim of bullying, regardless of which of these two groups your child happens to be a member of.

Author: Mary Lynn Holden
Author: Mary Lynn Holden

Proud mom and stepmom to an adorable bunch of kids aged 7 and up. Deeply appreciates three things in life: the help of older siblings in the house, texts on parenting, and strong coffee. Shares her stories and experiences in order to help others navigate the unpredictable waters of parenting.

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