Health & Psychology Bullying

Enter the mind of a bully

“Hi my name is Laura and I was a bully.”
“She was a short girl with cropped red hair, plump and she always wore bright pink lipstick. She smiled a lot, she had a funny Irish accent. Which was funny in itself as we all had funny accents, we were at an international school after all. She was an easy target. The teacher would turn her back and one of “us” would start throwing props at her, when she turned we would make pig noises. The teacher would turn and ask what was going on but we all sat with a poker face, as did she. She still smiled at us. We would make Wanted signs with a picture of her face and some piercing scrawl underneath it, I think I blocked out what we said. “We” all thought it was hilarious. We would wait in a corner till she passed and watched her face sink. Everyone would snigger. I remember there was some sort of sinking feeling in my heart, but I sniggered along with them. She still smiled at us as she passed. Whoever came up with a new idea got a lot of recognition from the group, it propelled us forward to do more. I remember one day I saw her leave school, you could see she had been crying, that day we were too busy huddling and laughing about something else to pass comments. At the end of the school day I would also go home, I can’t remember ever feeling proud of what had happened and I chose to focus on other thoughts. I myself had my own demons to deal with. A lonely broken home, being ripped from half of my family due to a messy divorce. Never feeling right at home and a lot of conflict. Never feeling that I could be myself and always being told how to do things. Looking back, I guess I needed a place to feel recognized, a place where I was appreciated, positive or negative. I was so insecure in myself, I see that now. I took up smoking, partly to be “part” of the group but mainly to have something to hide behind. I remember always skulking in the corners when I was alone with the big kids, there was another group of bullies and I saw what they did, I was terrified they would target me. I would hunch my shoulders as I walked by, smiled at them and pray for the best as I desperately sucked on my cigarette. They would pass comments my way, I would pretend I didn’t hear them. Back to the classroom and back to targeting the little red head with the bright pink lipstick. That felt better.
When I look back now, I wonder what became of the little red head. I realize now that the reason she was an easy target is that she never was assertive, she never said “stop”, she never stopped being nice. Maybe somewhere that is what we were looking for, to see her breakdown completely. She was so insecure and so desperate to make friends….and so scared. We were like a pack of wolves, smelling the scent of fear. ”

–       Laura (name is protected); 42years old

The demons that hide in the dark

Have you ever wondered why all the most hideous mythical monsters created live in dark caves, under forlorn bridges, dark murky waters and so on? Have you ever encountered a dragon like creature with the body of a crocodile and the head of a horse and a neck like a giraffe (South African Ninki Nanka) who lives in a bright green pasture with daisies and butterflies?? Our brain is wired to protect us, something that we cannot see is a danger, it can harm us as we cannot assess it, hence our brain sends out warning signals which create the feeling of anxiety, panic, fear, we retaliate from it. Our brain is keeping us safe. Most mythical beasts were created in places of darkness, where one could not explore (back in the day) and one could only wonder “what lies beneath” and our minds are such creative places, oh the things that could lie beneath!  The belly of caves with fresh running water were often left unexplored and untapped for the community due to great, fierce, mythical figures that would lurk there. We fear what we do not know.
In order to lose our fear of a bully, in order to lose the “scent” of fear that is prayed on we need to debunk the bully, we need to understand them and bring them into the daylight. There is a range of information that needs to be understood in order to stop or diminish bullying. However, it starts with debunking the mind of a bully. However, as with administering a medicine to the wrong cause, first we need to really understand “what is bullying”. So often in this day and age children get pestered or someone was mean, the first label they attach to that is “bullying”, the word is over used and erroneously used. We have pestering, teasing, thoughtless kids, a mean moment, conflict, rudeness. This is not “same-same but different” this is different. Let’s look at what bullying is.

I Bully……or do I?

Data from the USA show us that about 21% of students ages 12-18 experienced bullying (2014–2015 School Crime Supplement ;  National Center for Education Statistics and Bureau of Justice Statistics) and 20% of students in grades 9–12 report being bullied on school property (2015 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System;  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
We are definitely seeing, in our schools especially, “that gratuitous references to “bullying” are creating a bit of a “little boy who cried wolf” phenomena. In other words, if kids and parents improperly classify rudeness and mean behavior as bullying — whether to simply make conversation or to bring attention to their short-term discomfort — we all run the risk of becoming so sick and tired of hearing the word that this actual life altering (and sometimes as far as deadly) issue among young people loses its urgency as quickly as it rose to prominence. It is important to distinguish between rude, mean and bullying so that teachers, school administrators, police, youth workers, parents and kids all know what to pay attention to and when to intervene. As we have heard too often in the news, a child’s future may depend on an adult’s ability to discern between rudeness at the bus stop and life-altering bullying (Signe Whitson).”
Laura was a bully. There is a pattern we can see between the older kids that were bullying and her bullying. There was repetition, repetition to the same target and repetition ad nauseum.
In order to be considered bullying, the behavior must be aggressive (physically or mentally) and include:

  • An Imbalance of Power: Kids who bully use their power—such as physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others. Power imbalances can change over time and in different situations, even if they involve the same people.
  • Repetition: Bullying behaviors happen more than once or have the potential to happen more than once.
  • Unwanted: Bullying is aggressive behavior (in its different forms) that involves unwanted and negative actions.

There are 4 types of bullying.

  1. Verbal – name calling, threats, taunting, verbal abuse, racist remarks
  2. Social – exclusion, spreading rumors, public humiliation, making rude gestures, playing nasty jokes, damaging someone’s social reputation
  3. Physical – spitting, hitting, kicking, pinching, breaking someone’s belongings
  4. Cyber – over cellphones and internet, not exclusive to: mean texts, prank calls, rude comments, compromising images, imitating others, fake online log-ins, nasty rumours

These are not bullying behaviours:

  • Teasing = when everyone is having fun, no one is getting hurt, there is a strong relationship between the two people, the person is not distressed and it is not repetitive.
  • Conflict = there is a possible solution to the disagreement and an equal balance of power
  • Mean (intentional) = purposefully saying or doing something to hurt someone once (or maybe twice).
  • Rude (unintentional) – rudeness might look more like burping in someone’s face, jumping ahead in line, bragging about achieving the highest grade or even throwing a crushed up pile of leaves in someone’s face. On their own, any of these behaviors could appear as elements of bullying, but when looked at in context, incidents of rudeness are usually spontaneous, unplanned inconsideration, based on thoughtlessness, poor manners or narcissism, but not meant to actually hurt someone.

Now that we are crystal clear on what bullying is and is not, let’s look at the mind of the bully.

The Mind of a Bully

Before we delve into the dark cave, we have to understand this. When we understand what lies behind the bully, often it takes away the mystery and this reduces the fear, which in turn reduces the scent of fear. Hence, we don’t walk hunched, avoid eye contact, look at the ground, fidget. It creates an air of assertiveness, this in its’ self is a deterent to the bully. Equally it creates a new mindset “this is not about me, I am not terrible, its about them, …..” this change in mindset creates a change in feeling. Once we believe it is not about us being insufficient/ not worthy, we drop the anger and sadness and move to empathy or disinterest, it doesn’t stick anymore.

Let’s look at the bully.

We sometimes hear that bullies harass other people because they are emotionally insecure or socially incompetent. They resort to harassment and intimidation because they can’t think of any better way of getting attention. The reality is more complicated than that. There are two types of bullies, the ones who feel like social misfits, the ones who feel depressed, anxious, or lonely. However, these bullies usually belong to a special category–bullies who are also the victims of other bullies. In contrast, there are the “pure” bullies. These are the people who always occupy the dominant role. They don’t get victimized by other bullies. And they seem to reap the benefits of their position. Bullies aren’t necessarily high-strung, insecure, socially clueless, or academically inept. Other research supports the idea of the confident bully. Studies conducted in Finland, Ireland, and the United States have all found that kids who bullied were more likely to have positive self-concepts (Kaukianien et al 2002; Collins and Bell 1996; Pollastri et al 2010).
If pure bullies aren’t suffering from deficits in social reasoning, self-esteem, self-control, or social status….then just what is missing? New research points to an old-fashioned answer. Bullies may simply have trouble with moral reasoning. One study found that bullies scored low on a test of empathic reactivity (Gini 2006b). Other studies (Obermann 2011; Perren et al 2012; Pozzoli et al 2012) report that bullies are more likely to justify their behavior in terms of the consequences for themselves, rely on rationalizations that make anti-social behavior seem acceptable. Kids who bully others on a daily basis are at a greater risk of developing anti-social traits particularly if they also exhibit other behavioral problems.
One study of Italian and Spanish children, researchers asked 4th and 8th grade students to identify the bullies and victims in their classes. Next, researchers presented each child with a visual story—told with cartoons—about peer bullying (Menesini et al 2003). During the presentation, researchers asked “If you were this boy or girl in the story” (pointing to the bully), “would you feel (guilty, ashamed, indifferent, or proud)? Why would you feel this way?” The bullies were more likely to say they would feel pride or indifference. Bullies were also more egocentric, explaining their emotional responses in terms of the positive consequences for themselves (Menesini et al 2003). This seems to be a common pattern. These results have been replicated in Denmark (Oberman 2011), Switzerland (Perren et al 2012), and Italy (Pozzoli et al 2012).
So if they are on top of the food chain, does that make bullies the popular kids? Studies show that bullying does not equate with popularity. The real bullies aren’t the coolest, most popular kids — they’re the ones on the edge of the inner circle trying to get in, and they’re using bullying as a tool for social mobility.  Those who are most popular, at the top of the social hierarchy, are the least aggressive. “They have much more to gain by being nice when they’re up at that level than by being cruel,” theorized lead author Robert Faris, assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Davis. Alternatively, it could be that the most popular kids are “simply different and incredibly nice people.” It appears that it didn’t matter what kind of aggression was involved – the popular (but not most popular) kids are more likely to be perpetrators. At the core of bullying is a relationship issue, kids are craving to fit in and be included, but don’t know how. Those at the second tier of popularity don’t have a platform of security, and use bullying as a way of gaining influence.
So there are the pure bullies. What about the other group, the bully-victims, they are both bullies and victims. Such victimized aggressors suffer from a distinctive set of problems. Compared to pure bullies, they may be more: anxious, depressed, lonely and high-strung. A study of American teenage boys found that bully-victims suffered the worst psychological health of any group – including pure bullies and passive victims. An American government-funded study, carried out by the Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning (WBL), focusing on information collected from 6,500 eight- to eleven-year-olds, found that 5% of children were bullies, but only 0.5% were “true/pure” bullies, while 4.5% were bullied themselves. The majority (74%) of bullies were found to be boys, who suffered the highest levels of depression, anger, paranoia, emotional disaffection and suicidal behaviour, and disliked school the most.
So it seems that the greater part of bullies are actually those that are not pure bullies and suffer from a host of difficulties and low self-worth. So what lies behind these children? A study conducted in the UK involved 666 students (ages 12 to 16) from 14 schools who had recently reported bullying others. The researchers compared the bullies with a group of 478 students who had not recently engaged in bullying. Bullies were more likely than non-bullies to live in families without two biological parents, such as living in single parent families, living with extended family members or with foster parents. Such situations may mean bullies, in some cases, do not receive as much attention at home, the scientists said. Further studies by Perren (2005) suggests that families of bullies frequently have little closeness and unity, as well as being focused on power over one another. These children often report more negative family functioning than non-bullies. Because of the lack of parental and family support, many adolescents use bullying as a form of control and attention. These children do not know the correct form of asking for attention, love and support from others, including their peers. Brown (1986) suggests that this is often a response to family situations, as well as peer pressure. A portion of these children lack any control in their lives, except for the control they place on others. Many times children find that when they are lacking something essential in one environment, they will over-compensate in another. Quite often, children may be victims at home and a bully at school. Older siblings can also be the cause of the problem. If they’ve been bullied, they are more apt to bully a younger sibling to feel more secure or empower themselves.
And we cannot rule out the fact that an adult role model is a bully. This can include parents, teachers, coaches, etc. Very often, even unknowingly, parents are bullies, are angry, or don’t handle conflict well. Something as simple as stamping continuously on a kid to do better, continuous reprimands can cause a feeling of lack of control in a child. This they then try to rectify by controlling someone else themselves. Bullied bullies get relief from feeling helpless by overpowering others.
One last theory on what lies behind the bully is fear. One study states that that they are all easily overwhelmed with fear. They are afraid of getting hurt, they are afraid of not being liked, and their list of fears are usually lengthy. The truth is that fear is an important feeling to experience, but it is not healthy to be obsessed with fear. It appears that these kids have come to believe that they should never experience any type of discomfort in their lives. Those who have thoroughly bought into this concept, believe strictly in following a protocol on how to live their lives in exchange for being rewarded with things going their way. This is in line with Carol Dweck’s fixed mindset, these students constantly seek to reaffirm their superiority, they are afraid to take risks for fear of demonstrating a deficiency, and seek the easiest paths to success. Is it possible then that bullies aren’t genetically hardwired, but come to school with a fixed mindset for social prominence?

So all in all:

  • Bullied bullies get relief from feeling helpless (or anxious or angry) and overpower others.
  • Social bullies have poor self-esteem and manipulate others to look better
  • Pure bullies are calculated and lack empathy.
  • Pure bullies are at risk of developing anti-social traits
  • Bullies use bullying as a tool for social mobility
  • Bullies are craving to fit in and be included, but don’t know how, they don’t have a platform of security and use bullying as a way of gaining influence.
  • Bullying is used as a form of control and attention often due to a lack of parental and family support
  • Bullies are afraid of demonstrating a deficiency

Let our children RISE

Now that a light has been shun within that cave with mystical demons, we see that at the base of every type of bully lies a cracked foundation. Demystifying the bully, understanding that most of these children hide their deficiencies behind an iron front, fearful to the bone of them being unveiled, this takes power away from them.  Our children now have the opportunity to rise, rise above their own fears. They now can feel greater self-mastery when they understand the true nature of the bully, their insecurities, mental deficiencies and desperate need for power. As was stated earlier on, the reason the bully is able to control a child is because of the child’s fear of the bully, it encourages the bully to continue their abuse. Once a child realizes that a bully mentality is cowardly and flawed the thoughts that they meet a bully with change. Once these change, the feeling changes and the behavior changes and hence what we portray, our body language changes which, in turn shifts the paradigm. If you are more assertive, you are less of a target. Not only physically, equally in the cyber world and with social and emotional bullying. If harsh words are said but you understand it is not about you but about them being insecure or unmoral, once you see beyond the front to the desperation with which they are trying to uphold a fasade, trying frantically to fit in, the harsh words slide off like Teflon. They don’t stick. I am not broken, it is not all about me.
Enter a small lesson from Cognitive Behaviour Therapy. It is not the “situation” that creates all our strong feelings, it is the “Thought we hold about the situation” that creates these feelings. And guess what, we are in control of our thoughts! Imagine:

  • Situation: Playground, a “bully” throws vicious insults your way “you are such an ugly little tramp”
  • Thought: “there must be something true in that”
  • Feeling: Sadness, uselessness, defeat
  • Behaviour: Walk away with slumped shoulders; ruminate statement (statement sticks) most of day feeling sad

Now we know the mind of a bully, look what changes.

  • Situation: Playground, a “bully” throws vicious insults your way “you are such an ugly little tramp”
  • Thought: “gosh that doesn’t sound nice, that girl must feel really insecure to have to try and get popularity by saying such nasty things, most likely this has no reflection on me but is just about her trying to get social power”
  • Feeling: a little annoyed but ok
  • Behaviour: walk on, head up, and continue with the day; thought slides off

We are shifting the goal from “how to defeat the bully” to “how to defeat our fears and learn through the experience”. Having our happiness and peace of mind attached to events and the whims of others places us out of control, we give our control away, and we render ourselves helpless. We often mistakenly attach our happiness to people’s behavior and actions, which are out of our control. The reality is that other people and events are seldom in our control. When our children learn that they do not control how others behave or how life unfolds they are more likely to detach from attachment to such things, they are more able to be taught to have high expectations for themselves, their own morals and conduct, understanding that their happiness is not fixed to how others treat them and that they have control over their thoughts and hence their feelings.
We have to realize that we as parents, equally, do not have full control over policies, government, school etc. equally we cannot stop what is happening on the internet, we cannot lock our children up, away from playgrounds, school grounds, streets and computers. There are ways of reducing bullying, minimizing its existence in schools. However, it starts with the child itself.  It is time to empower our children. Let our children rise!

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