Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

Who Are Those Schoolyard Bullies?

July 11, 2005

Do you remember the rough and tumble days of schoolyard conflicts? The bullies sure made life miserable, didn't they? We all got through it, but now our children or our grandchildren are negotiating that same terrain.

What are bullies like? We know a lot about bullies. They have average intelligence, greater than average strength but below average school achievement. Grades falloff quickly their junior high years.

Bullies are impudent and oppose adult control. They are skillful at talking themselves out of trouble and putting the blame on others.

Bullies are mostly boys though there are girl bullies too. They create fear and anxiety in their victims. Boys are three or four times more likely to give direct physical attacks, though lately physical attacks by girls are becoming more common.

Girl bullies engage in subtler forms of harassment and cruelty. They attack the self-esteem of their victims by ridiculing their developing figures, clothes, attempts at makeup and appearance. Bullies like to tease, embarrass, threaten, intimidate or exclude others.

Bullies don't pick fair fights. They use aggression in low conflict situations - for no apparent reason. A skilled bully exaggerates his or her aggression, cruelty and unkindness toward victims who they're sure won't resist.

Bullies have extra "radar" out for perceived slights and rejection. They turn to other highly aggressive and antisocial friends for companionship.

Their group has contempt for the goody-goody who lives within the limits of the responsible world. Their negative reputation grows, thanks to a vicious cycle of paranoia, aggression and peer rejection.

Who are the victims? Victims are often passive, isolated children with mild temperaments. They are often lonely, depressed, anxious and fearful. They have few or no friends. They tend to cry easily, flee and not fight back. When harassed or attacked, they do not react with an assertive response to preserve their dignity and self-image. Bullies know they won’t retaliate.

A second class of victims includes children who function in a dual role of being both a victim and an aggressor. They have poor conflict management skills, emotional control, and are often disruptive and attention-seeking. They have a hard time staying on task and are clueless about social cues. They are usually rejected by their peers also.

When this type of victim is attacked, their aggression is usually reactive. They fight back, however ineptly. When they lose, they show much pain, frustration, anxiety and distress.

Male victims are generally physically weaker than bullies who are stronger and bigger than average. Bullies like passive victims. If their bullying results in a hassle, they prefer to move on to easier targets.

How does a bully see himself? Bullies see themselves as decent human beings and can justify their

aggressive actions. They consistently underestimate their own aggression and overestimate the hostility coming from their peers.

In fact, they are rejected. Other children are especially critical of bullies who engage in unprovoked and unwarranted aggression.

The bully relishes being the tough guy. He or she knows right from wrong, and contrary to what most people think, a bully does consider consequences. But a bully can shut off fear of consequences long enough to pursue his or her single-minded objective of the moment.

A bully has a strong capacity to deal with fear, is not easily intimidated and has little interest in responsible performance.

Some researchers theorize that since bullies are exposed to aggression in their own families, a defenseless child reminds them of their own helplessness in abusive home situations. By attacking helpless targets they are in effect saying, "You're the victim, not me."

What kind of homes do bullies come from? Bullies typically come from homes where they are punished harshly and capriciously. Discipline is erratic and mood-related. There is not much reasoning.

Parents threaten, nag, scold and bluster but seldom follow through. There is frequent use of put-downs, sarcasm and criticism; little use of praise, encouragement or humor.

Parents are unable to control sibling conflict and the bully learns that aggression pays off. Because parents are ineffective, conflicts turn into major confrontations. Parents suddenly explode with anger and assault the child.

Bullies also experience aggression between the parents. Children learn that might makes right. Aggression in the home combined with a lack of parental interest and poor free time supervision are powerful predictors of antisocial behavior.

How aggression is learned at home. Psychologist Gerald Patterson of the University of Oregon believes that aggressive acts by children represent high powered attempts to turn off irritations given by parents and siblings who are threatening and aversive.

Aggression may result from a child's attempt to demand attention, stop teasing, stop being frustrated or to interrupt boredom.

Aggressive children are thus saying, "You better stop frustrating and irritating me! Give me what I want or I will escalate my attack until you do."

Counterattacks and coercive behavior are reinforced when parents or siblings stop aggravating and give in to the child's demands. Aggressive children continue to escalate conflict in the face of threats and punishments because they have confidence that their behavior will eventually payoff.

Background for this article was provided by psychologist David Perry at Florida Atlantic University.