The Secret Life of Bullies: Why They Do It—and How to Stop Them

by James Lehman, MSW
The Secret Life of Bullies: Why They Do It—and How to Stop Them

Why do some kids turn to bullying? The answer is simple: it solves their social problems. After all, it's easier to bully somebody than to work things out, manage your emotions, and learn to solve problems. Bullying is the proverbial “easy way out,” and sadly, some kids take it.

Look at men who beat or intimidate their wives and scream at their kids. They’ve never learned to be effective spouses or parents. Instead, they're really bullies. And the other people in those families live in fear—fear that they're going to be yelled at, called names, or hit. Nothing has to be worked out, because the bully always gets his way. The chain of command has been established by force, and the whole mindset becomes, “If you'd only do what I say, there'd be peace around here.” So the bully's attitude is, “Give me my way or face my aggression.”

Aggression can either take the forms of violence or emotional abuse. I've seen many families that operate this way. I’m not just talking about the adults in the family, either—there are countless children who throw tantrums for the same reason: they’re saying, “Give me my way or face my behavior.” And if you as a parent don't start dealing with those tantrums early, your child may develop larger behavior problems as they grow older.

Ask yourself this question: How many passive bullies do you know? They usually control others through verbal abuse and insults and by making people feel small. They're very negative, critical people. The threat is always in the background that they're going to break something or call somebody names or hit someone if they are disagreed with. Realize that the behavior doesn't start when someone is in their teens—it usually begins when a child is five or six.

Portrait of a Bully
Bullying itself can come from a variety of sources. One source, as I mentioned, is bullying at home—maybe there are older siblings, extended family members or parents who use aggression or intimidation to get their way. I also think part of the development of bullying can stem from some type of undiagnosed or diagnosed learning disability which inhibits the child's ability to learn both social and problem-solving skills.

Make no mistake, kids use bullying primarily to replace the social skills they’re supposed to develop in grade school, middle school and high school. As children go through their developmental stages, they should be finding ways of working problems out and getting along with other people. This includes learning how to read social situations, make friends, and understand their social environment.

Bullies use aggression, and some use violence and verbal abuse, to supplant those skills. So in effect, they don't have to learn problem solving, because they just threaten the other kids. They don't have to learn how to work things out because they just push their classmates or call them names. They don't have to learn how to get along with other people—they just control them. The way they’re solving problems is through brute force and intimidation. So by the time that child reaches ten, bullying is pretty ingrained—it has become their natural response to any situation where they feel socially awkward, insecure, frightened, bored or embarrassed.

Here is what an aggressive bully often looks like: He doesn't know how to get along with other kids, so he's usually not trying to play with them. When you look out on the playground at recess, he's probably alone. He's not playing soccer or kickball with the other children; he’s roaming around the perimeter of all the interactions that take place at school on a daily basis. And whenever he's confronted with a problem or feels insecure, he takes that out on somebody else. He does this by putting somebody else down verbally or physically. A child who bullies might also throw or break things in order to feel better and more powerful about himself. When the bully feels powerless and afraid, he's much more likely to be aggressive, because that makes him feel powerful and in control. That’s a very seductive kind of thing for kids; it’s very hard for them to let go of that power.

Adolescents and Gang Mentality
When we talk about adolescent bullying, we're entering into another phenomenon altogether. The reality is that many adolescents in high school today are very abusive to each other. There are peer groups that will attack other kids verbally and emotionally, similar to a gang mentality. When these kids start calling other students rude names and questioning their sexuality, it is all done to dominate and bully them. If a teen or pre-teen doesn't want to be a victim, they have to join a group. The kids who don't socialize very well—the shy or passive types—often become the targets. And the threat of violence is always behind it. This trend in high school is prevalent today, and I think very destructive. In my opinion, parents and school administrators who ignore the way kids abuse each other in high school are kidding themselves. This behavior is hurtful and harmful, and there needs to be a lot more accountability.

Make no bones about it, bullying is traumatizing for kids who are the targets. In fact, I think children should be taught about bullying throughout grade school. They need to learn what it means, how to resolve it, and how to deal with a bully. If this is not taught, kids who are targets will think there's something wrong with them, and this vicious cycle—because that is truly what this is—perpetuates itself. Kids should also be learning how to handle their impulses and control themselves when they want to hit, hurt or intimidate others. Unless there's a concerted effort to deal with bullying and bullies in school, nothing will change. It's a challenge, but I firmly believe it can be done.

1. Teach Your Children about Bullying from an Early Age
I think from a very early age, you have to teach your child what a bully is. You can tell them the following (or even post these words in your house somewhere):

A bully is somebody who forces other people to do things they don't want to do.

A bully is somebody who hits other people.

A bully is someone who takes or breaks other people's property.

A bully is someone who calls other people names.

Then you have to set a standard that says, “We don't do that in our house.” Start that culture of accountability early. Teach them what the word means, and say, “You're accountable for that kind of behavior in our house.”

I think it’s also important that you talk about how to treat others. Ask your child, “How should you treat others?” And the answer is, “You treat others with respect ; if they don't respect you back, walk away. Treating someone with respect means not calling them names, threatening them, or hitting them.” You can also say, “You listen to others. You accept others. If they don't want to play with your toys or they don't want to share their things, you have to learn how to accept that.” This is not easy for kids, but they will learn. I really think children need to have the concept of bullying explained to them numerous times. That way, when any kind of bullying is going on, they can identify it and stop the behavior, both in themselves and others.

2. Create a Culture of Accountability in Your Home
I think the most important thing for every family is to have a Culture of Accountability in your home. This means your child is accountable to you: how he talks to you, how he talks to his siblings, how he treats his family members. When he’s bullying his siblings, don’t get sucked into his excuses; just because he had a bad day at school does not give him the right to mistreat anyone in your family, for example. Let me say it again: Your child is accountable to you.

When a bully feels powerless and afraid, he's much more likely to be aggressive, because that makes him feel powerful and in control.

Don't forget, bullies often have cognitive distortions—they see the world in a certain way that justifies their bullying. So you’ll frequently hear them blaming others and making excuses for their behavior. Most of the time, they really believe that stuff: they believe what they think, and that's what you've got to challenge. You can say directly, “It sounds like you’re blaming Jesse for the fact that you punched him. It is not Jesse’s fault that you hit him.”

Schools should also have a culture of accountability, and I think that many try. That's what detentions, suspensions and expulsions are all about—if your child breaks the rules, he should be held accountable, and it’s very important that you let him deal with the natural consequences and not try to shield him.

3. The Skills Your Child Needs to Learn
Plain and simple, a child who bullies needs to learn how to solve social problems and deal with their emotions without acting out behaviorally. Have conversations with your child where you ask, “What happens when other kids don't want to play your games? What do you do? What do you do when other kids have things you want and they won't give them to you? How do you handle that? How do you handle it when you think you're right and they're wrong and there's nothing you can do about it?”

Your child has to learn how to resolve conflicts and manage his emotions. He needs to learn the skills of compromise, how to sacrifice, how to share and how to deal with injustice. He should also learn how to check things out, and to ask himself, “Is what I'm seeing really happening? Does Jonathon really hate me, or is he just in a bad mood today?”

Kids have got to learn how to manage their impulses. If their impulse is to hit or to hurt or call someone names, they have to learn to deal with that in an appropriate way. Many children and adolescents have the impulse to hurt others—they have impulses to do all kinds of things. But they need to learn to handle them, and kids who bully are no exception.

4. What to Do If Your Child is Bullying Others in School
Kids who are bullying others should be held accountable at home—they should absolutely be given consequences for their behavior. And the consequences should go like this: your child should be deprived of doing something he or she likes. So, no TV or computer games or cell phone, for example. And they also should have to do a task: they should write an essay or letter on what they're going to do next time they're in the same situation or feel the same way—instead of bullying. It’s critical that they start thinking of other ways they can solve this problem. Understand that they may not have any ideas, and that’s where you have to interact with them and coach them as a parent. In the Total Transformation Program, there's an interview process I outline where parents learn to talk with their children to solve problems, rather than explore emotions and listen to excuses. If your child is hurting or bullying others, he needs to have conversations that solve problems. He does not need or benefit from conversations that explore emotions. Bullies tend to see themselves as victims, so the conversation has to focus on them taking responsibility for their behavior.

I think your child's teachers should handle the process of having your child make amends for his behavior at school. But remember that bullies don't stop bullying when they get home—they often target younger or weaker siblings. You have to be very clear if your child is bullying—be very black and white; leave no gray areas. Don't forget, your child is bullying because solving problems— talking to people and working things out—is very hard for him. Again, your child is taking the easy way out. We all go through the growing pains of learning how to negotiate in social situations—in fact, we may work on this skill our whole lives. There should be no exceptions for anyone in your family when it comes to these skills. For a child who is using bullying as a shortcut instead of developing these skills, you have to work even harder as a parent to coach them on what to do.

When Bullies Grow Up
Make no mistake, if a child bullies, that tendency can stay with them their whole lives. Fortunately, some bullies do mature after they leave school. You'll see them get into their early twenties and go their own way; they get married, they go to college, they start a career, and they stop their bullying behavior.

But sadly, you will also see young child bullies who become teenage bullies and then adult bullies. How does this behavior and lack of social skills affect them? These are the people who abuse their wives and kids emotionally and sometimes physically. These are the people who call their spouses and kids names if they don't do things the way they want them to. Bullies may also become criminals. Look at it this way: a bully is somebody who is willing to use aggression, verbal abuse, property destruction or even violence to get his way. An anti-social personality disorder (which is how criminals are classified) refers to somebody who is willing to use aggression and violence to get his way. The criminal population is literally full of bullies who, among other things, never learned how to resolve conflicts and behave appropriately in social situations.

If you think your child is bullying others, it’s very important to start working with him now. This behavior is already hurting his life—and will continue to do so if it’s left to fester. If you expect your child to “outgrow” bullying once he reaches adulthood, realize that you’re also taking the risk that he may not—and that choice may negatively affect him for the rest of his life.


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


Wonderful reminder of how we need to take responsibility to teach our kids with bullying tendencies to create healthier ways of dealing with their feelings of inadequacies. I was also reminded about the tantrums and how they are a form of bullying. Children who tantrum are holding people hostage to get what they want rather than using their skills to manage their needs. Verbal bullying is pervasive in our society and I think this article helps to identify and create active responsibility to stop these behaviors. THANK YOU!

Comment By : mother5590

Allowing your child to bully does him no favors in life. It makes keeping a job or a relationship almost impossible. Be the parent. If you don't know how to handle situations without abuse, here is your chance too.

Comment By : mom of 3

I am a single mom with a 12 year old bully. He bullies his little brother both verbally and physically. He bullies smaller kids on campus verbally. My 12 year old is bigger than me and when I tell him to go to his room because he can't get along with the family, he won't go and I sometimes have to push him in there. I do take things away, but what do you do when a kid is bigger than you? I feel like I've become the bully because I have to push him into his room and away from his brother. Once he is alone and uses his head, he calms down and comes out asking for forgiveness and gets along fine with everyone for days. Any advice?

Comment By : mombee

What do you do when the stepfather is the bully and he thinks he's right. He didn't show signs of bullying understand later in high school when he got involved in drugs. He was well liked when little and in the beginning of high school when he played sports. He always was an LD student but when he got into his senior year the school didn't have an LD program and everything went downhill from there. He quit sports and ran around the bad group. From that point he was a bully. When he is in public he's very nice and loving but behind closed doors at his home he's mad and mean. It is affecting his 4 stepsons. The oldest and the middle twins don't want him around and the youngest is taking after him. The youngest is a bully now. What should be done to get this straighten out?

Comment By : Concerned mother/grandmother

I think this is great article, but there are no solutions to help a teenage bully. Is it too late? A consequence might be to call law enforcement if you need to push a child. At some point he's going to realize you can't push him around. How does Mombee nip this in the bud? I totally empathasize with her. I don't trust law enforcement myself most of the time they are digging up some way to arrest you here in California.

Comment By : Frustrated in CA

* Dear ‘Frustrated in Ca’: It’s never too late to change. It can be harder and harder to do as habits get entrenched. But it’s still important to try. You’re right that you may need to call the police if you cannot stop one child from bullying another. James Lehman includes some really important solutions to the problem of bullying in this article in item #3. As he says, bullies resort to violence and intimidation because they lack social skills. Ask your child what he would do in certain situations. Talk over his options: What can he do instead of using force? Challenge his faulty thinking that might be triggering him to get angry, to check it out when he might think other’s are not giving him what he needs and it’s not right, for example. Help him recognize this trigger and accept that sometimes people do not give us what we want. James gives more assistance in trigger management in Lesson 7 of the Total Transformation program, How to Stop It Before It Starts. Refer to Lesson 5 for Understanding Faulty Thinking. Understanding your triggers and your faulty thinking is the key to managing your impulses. When you’re fighting the impulse to act out in anger, substitute an aggressive action with another action—like walking away, doing some exercises, or taking some deep, slow breaths. Thanks for your question. Call the trained specialists on the Support Line for more help—Monday through Friday, 8:00 AM to 10:00 pm and Saturday 10am – 6pm EST.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

* Dear ‘Concerned mother/grandmother’: I’m so sorry to hear about this situation. It’s so difficult to watch. Find someone you can talk to about this situation for your own support. I think the family needs the help of outside resources in your community, such as family counseling. If the parents will not attend and the kids are suffering, it is in the best interest of the kids to let child protective services know about the situation. You can call them anonymously. Child protective will do an assessment and recommend or even require that the family work with a counselor. Calling protective service can feel like an intimidating idea to people but we as adults are responsible for the welfare of all children and should watch over and protect them as best we can.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Great article. Although I must say that I felt a little convicted. There are times when I 'bully' my kids. It's been a long day, I'm exhausted, and they start arguing with each other or with me. Quickest remedy is to raise my voice and verbally 'muscle' them into compliance. I've recently come to realize that it's just how my dad was and I swore I would never be!!! (he was a good dad, but was a 'yeller' and I hated it). It's not like I do it all the time, but I do see them emulate the behavior with each other sometimes. In general, they are great kids, but this article has helped motivate me not to consider my work day done when I walk in the front door at 5:30. The work day isn't done until 9pm when the last one is in bed. And I need to keep the same mindset that I have at work (where I would never yell at anyone!). Ugh, this parenting thing is much harder than they made it look on TV!!! But it's so worth it.

Comment By : Generationally Challenged

Welcome advice on helping kids who are being 'bullied.' My 11 year old son has a long-time friend who's now taken to belittling him and others verbally,taking food and his school supplies when he feels like it and offering little in the way of reciprocity. I've tried coaching him to be assertive -- "Happy to share things with you as a friend. But I don't see you offering me or anyone else the same..." Also suggested that if the pencil swiping and lunch 'mooching' continue after their talk, he seek assistance from the school vice principal and have him host a meeting between them. That was refuted as 'not cool, dad. Friends don't do that.'

Comment By : Ben S., Los Alamitos, CA

What about if your child is on the receiving end of a bully? How do you prevent your child from being bullied at school? It is effecting school work, relationship with classmates (because not sure who they can trust). And although Teachers are aware, there seems to be nothing done. This effects my child to point of physical illness. My child us currently seeing a psychologist regarding this, however, with no action from the school - there are no results. How do you encourage your child to still hold their head high and not run? How do you prevent it from effecting the rest of their lives?

Comment By : Nema

* Dear ‘Nema’: We would recommend that you continue to challenge the school to provide a safe learning environment for your child. It’s not okay that the bullying continues. Sometimes the school will assume that bullying has stopped if we [parents] stop informing the school officials that it continues. Listen to what your child is telling you and try to hear who is involved and how and where each incident takes place. Give factual reports to the school each time it occurs. If you find that working only with the teachers is inadequate, contact the school’s principal or the school superintendent. You and your daughter have a right to expect the bullying to stop. We wish you the best as you continue to advocate for your child.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

What should a parent do when this happens? My little boy 10 in the 5 grade is constantly is getting ASSAULTED at school physical/verbal for last 3 years now I started taking pictures,Documenting everyday even on good days,The incident that has happen 3 boys held my son down on concreat playground took his shoes,and dragged him around by his legs,MY SON HAS ADHD and takes meds for this,The last time he had bruises all over his arms,I did take him to 2 doctors which both agree that my son is being bullied at school,And are tring to back my son up,the problem I have is I went to TEACHERS,PRINCIPAL,SCHOOL COUNSEL,SUPERINTENDENT,SCHOOL BOARD PRESIDENT,SCHOOL POLICE,The SUPERINTENDENT will not let me address any ISSUES because I found out that he has teachers LOCK children in rooms and I wanted a STOP put to it!I WANTED TO SPEAK FOR ALL KIDS/PARENTS If parents only knew what their smaller children are going though at school behind close doors!My son was 6 years old when this started,So how do I get the HELP I need to protect my son from being BULLIED AT THIS SCHOOL!Even with a LAWYER THIS SCHOOL IS PROTECTED! please Help concern/worried mother

Comment By : ldram

* Dear ldram: We’re so sorry to hear that you and your son have experienced this. It must be very hard for you both. You have made a lot of attempts to work with the school to address this situation but have been unsuccessful. There is a government sponsored web site, Stop Bullying Now, that can be searched for information on addressing bullying with school systems and other officials. The web site recommends giving the school adequate time to investigate the situation, keep good records of each incident and put your complaint in writing.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

Dear Idram, I would press charges.

Comment By : Matt

I have a teenage son, who is currently doing year 9 and after many great years of schooling and who experienced bullying in his younger primary years, is now bombarded daily with taunting and insulting comments that bring him to tears when he is home. THe very sad thing is, is that he is a truely genuine, well mannered nice Kid, who opens the doors for his friends and always thinks of other people, who will give up his seat for the very people who bully him. He is also quite accomplished.... Jnr School House Captaim, 3 years running Althelic champion, Swimming champion, participates in representing the school in basketball and volleyball...does very well academically but is modest. He doesn't get why everyone has to be so mean, why this constantly happens to him...he wonders whether giving everything up will help him... and his school has shown in the past they do not understand the principle of what to do? Now he wants to go on face book because he feels left out. Unfortunately I cannot stretch this out any longer as being `out' of the loop is as much as a problem for him as the teasing - and I understand this but I am not looking forward to dealing with the consequences of facebook, even though we have agreed with our son, that as parents, we need to have acess so we know he is alright and we can discuss things if there are problems. He is accepting of this.....THis is hard. What a heartbreaking work. Gab.

Comment By : Gabby

This does not match my own observations, either from childhood or now (as a parent and tutor). Bullies don't usually want "their way." They don't *want* anything except others' pain. The fictional bully shakes down kids for their lunch money or demands that his homework be done for him, but the real bully hits and insults because he (or she) enjoys the pain caused. There is no "his way" the target could do or give which would cause the abuse to stop, even temporarily. It doesn't make sense to say that the habitual bully feels powerless and afraid when the bully is actively seeking out and creating these situations. Teaching social skills has no impact, because the bullies enjoy what they're doing. That's why they're doing it. They're not trying to solve social problems -- where on Earth did that idea come from? The bullies are generally pretty content, entertaining themselves by mistreating others. Intervention by a superior force is the only thing which will stop a true bully.

Comment By : Sympathy for the bully?

I'm adopting a 14 year old who has theses traits. I live in a wealthy area and I'm concerned that the Schools in this area will not tolerate this kind of behavior. What is the best plan of action before he starts this kind of behavior?

Comment By : Concerned Adoptive Parent

* To “Concerned Adoptive Parent”: Thank you for asking such a great question. It’s outstanding you are being proactive in coming up with solutions to issues before they occur. We would suggest contacting the school and working with them to come up with a plan to address the behaviors should they occur. It may also be effective to sit down with your son before school starts and problem solve some situations that may give him opportunity to bully other kids. As James points out in the article, a lot of bullying behavior develops because kids don’t learn appropriate social or problem-solving skills. Sara Bean gives some great tips on how to problem solve with your child in her article The Surprising Reason for Bad Child Behavior: "I Can't Solve Problems.” It’s also going to be important to develop a culture of accountability in your house as James explains in the article. This will help your son learn that bullying will not be tolerated at school or at home. I hope this has been helpful. We wish you and your family the best. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

I learned, quite by accident, that powerful life skills penned into songs that stick in a kid's head like glue can really help a kid sort out the world, stand strong, and never become a bully themselves. My own oldest son was quiet, super smart, off the beaten path. It was pointed out to me by an insightful friend years ago that my son was looked up to instead of bullied because of one thing; he has a clever sense of humor that inspired respect. All he had to do was say something funny and look you in the eye...Years later, while serving as ringleader to a giant crew of kids (fun trivia; one of my kids was Jessie Bridges--dad's actor, Jeff)..I discovered I could pen tunes that helped them with titles and concepts like Whatever (I don't have to share your mood) Nonconformist (different is cooler), and Fearless--our most popular tune. This is NOT a plug. It's fact. Most bullies (I have counseled some) are clueless, scared kids. At least in my experience, handing them more life clues empowers them greatly and helps them lose a lot of the fear. We have a Scary Guy song about not hanging with depressing people--it's funny. And a monkey song that warns kids about their own bullies inside their heads. Parents--get as much wisdom as you can to your kids. It moves mountains. Just sayin'.

Comment By : IamBullyproofMusic

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