How A Child Becomes A Bully (And What To Do)


Sep 29, 2015


In my practice, I have often felt that even bullies need help. What we tend to forget or miss is that their behaviour, while aggressive, can also be a sign or plea for help. As parents and educators, how we choose to address the issue is what makes a difference; labelling a child as a bully can scar them for a lifetime as surely as their behaviour can scar others. Parents, called to school to discuss their 6-year-old’s aggressive behaviour, once asked me, “Is there something I may have done to encourage this?” The answer to that is perhaps; research points toward factors – some of which include parental influence – that increase a child’s risk of becoming a bully. Their second question, “How can I help?” was encouraging. There are indeed ways in which parents can help curb a child’s tendencies toward bullying.

Children as young as 1 to 2 years old begin to imitate their parents. So, it’s no surprise that a lot of children learn to mistreat others if they see similar behaviour at home. These children consider poor behaviour to be the norm. A 6-year-old boy once asked me in therapy, “Do you also hit children who don’t listen to you?” When I asked what made him ask that, he mentioned that both of his parents hit each other in an argument; he thought that was how adults operated. They also hit him in anger, so he learned that aggression was the only tactic to deal with conflicts. Therapy sessions with him involved teaching him empathy, socially constructive ways of dealing with problems and arguments, and, most importantly, family counselling.

Inconsistent discipline can also be a factor that can influence bullying behaviour. Sometimes, when parents notice their child’s aggressive behaviour, they choose to believe that it’s normal or “just a phase,” which in turn reinforces the child’s understanding that his or her behaviour is right. It is important for parents to be gentle, yet firm, so that children realize the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. At an early stage, if parents can help children learn the concept of appropriate actions, the children can learn to control their anger or impulses at a later age. Lack of parental consensus about discipline or permissive parenting can negatively impact children and encourage negative behaviour.

Parental neglect, lack of social support within the family, abuse and discrimination at home are also factors that could make children vulnerable to becoming a bully. Having said that, bullies can also come from homes that are loving, caring and supportive.

Clayton R. Cook and her team of researchers from University of California at Riverside analyzed 153 studies conducted over the last 30 years, finding that poor social problem-solving skills is a characteristic that not only puts children at risk of becoming bullies, but also at-risk of being bullied, or becoming both bully and victim. Much of therapy for children and adolescents is centred around teaching them how to deal with tricky social situations effectively and to develop a sense of confidence. Our perception of social situations and our competence to deal with them influences our reaction to them. Skills such as assertiveness training, learning to filter feedback, and understanding of the locus of control can help mitigate bullying propensities.

Interestingly, Cook and colleagues also found that poor academic performance is also a huge predictor of why a child becomes a bully. Sadly, this factor has been often overlooked. We, as a culture, need more interventions at the school level in which the school and parents work together to help these vulnerable groups.

Finally, Dan Olewus, the founding father of research on bullying, points out that sometimes whether a child becomes a bully or not is out of our control; a child’s temperament can play an important role. Some children may be temperamentally more aggressive or impulsive, and this can predispose them to bullying behaviour. But again, how we, as parents, respond in terms of discipline can decide whether the child develops into a bully. Firm and consistent discipline of negative behaviour can help curb aggressive tendencies.

Involved parenting, greater supervision at school, supportive teachers, channels of open communication at school and home, and supportive friendships also help combat the vulnerability that can lead children to become bullies or victims.

As Nicholas Ferroni says, “Students who are loved at home, come to school to learn, and students who aren’t, come to school to be loved.” This is where our answer lies. If parents and educators can join hands to create a more compassionate and understanding culture, our children will be helped in developing the empathy, self-love and social problem-solving skills that counteract bullying at its roots.


Written By Sonali Gupta

Sonali Gupta is a practicing clinical psychologist with 10 years of experience. She conducts workshops to enhance the emotional well-being of couples, parents and children. She can be reached at sonaligupta297@gmail.com. You can find more of Sonali’s thoughts on Twitter (@guptasonali) and on her website, guptasonali.com

  1. Zoe

    Thank you for a very insightful piece. Thinking it is a phase and doing nothing reinforces their behaviour. Much room for thought. Bullies seek validation. And the early years even at 1 or 2 are so important in developing bullies!


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