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Bullying: It's Not Just for Kids

Part 1 of 4: The psychology of childhood bullying.

Key points

  • There are several psychological principles involved in bullying.
  • Bullies do not "bully" randomly. There are usually personality characteristics involved with the bully and also the victim.
  • Understanding who is at risk for being a bully can help us understand otherwise difficult-to-understand behavior.
  • Understanding social vulnerabilities for those who are bullied is a key part in preventing bullying.

In recent years, the public has paid increasing attention to bullying among grade school children. This is a positive development, but bullying is not confined to grade school. Bullying exists in the adult world too, where it often goes unrecognized or is conflated with other types of interpersonal conflict and abuse.

This short series will consist of four Parts: In Parts 1 and 2, I will focus on the psychological and social features of childhood bullying. In Parts 3 and 4, I will explore the relationship between bullying in childhood and adulthood. For now, suffice it to say that many adult bullies were childhood bullies, and for the same psychological reasons. So a good place to begin to understand the psychology and social features of bullying in adults is to understand it in children, where most of us have an easier time spotting it.

A brief preliminary note: I will use male pronouns for simplicity (with one exception in Part 4), but bullying transcends gender and sexual identity.

How Bullies Choose Victims

Childhood bullies don’t pick on everybody—as the term “pick on” implies, bullies “pick” or target specific victims in each social setting. A bully tends to target just one or two kids on the playground, in the classroom, or on the school bus. How do bullies pick their victims?

A common answer to this question is “Bullies pick on kids who are physically vulnerable.” That is certainly true, but it's only one piece of the answer. While a bully will not voluntarily pick a fight with someone stronger than himself (because that won’t go well for the bully), the bully doesn’t pick fights equally with every smaller kid on the school bus or playground. What is special to a bully about his chosen victims?

A second important factor is social vulnerability. Easy targets for the bully tend to be children without broad peer support. This is why kids who are new, physically different, members of a minority subculture, or otherwise socially isolated are often favored targets.

The Role of Inadequacy

What else is involved psychologically? Just as there are many types of bullies, there are many psychological explanations for how and why a bully chooses his specific targets, but there is one common theme: Bullies have a need to publicly exert dominance over others to counteract an inner feeling of inferiority, insecurity, injustice, or loss. They may pick on anyone who’s vulnerable and available, but are most likely to choose kids who make them feel inadequate and frustrated in the moment—usually because the victim has something the bully wants and believes he deserves.

A bully with an alcoholic father and neglectful mother, for example, might pick on the child whose parents lovingly walk him to the bus stop, tuck lunch into his arms, and hug him goodbye. A bully from a working-class household might victimize the kid who lives in the big house with professionally employed parents. A bully who struggles academically may choose to pick on the classmate who gets straight As without seeming to try.

In each case, the subconscious thought process of the bully is: “He’s got a great home life, lots of money, or always gets good grades. He (and everybody else) probably thinks he’s better than me. I’ll show him/them who’s boss!”

It doesn’t matter if the victim actually thinks he’s better than the bully: the victim might have low self-esteem and think everybody else is better than him. That doesn’t matter because the bully is not responding to anything the victim thought, said, did, or didn’t do. The bully is responding to a sensation the victim gives him just by being present. Technically, the victim is an inverse existential threat to the bully—i.e., it is enough that the victim exists to make the bully feel inadequate and frustrated—and so the bully reacts to his presence by seeking retribution and dominance.

Also note that the bully’s reaction is subconscious and immediate. A bully usually doesn’t lie awake at night, examining his emotional pain and inner turmoil while choosing targets for the next day. A bully feels unsettled by another child in the moment and reacts by going on the attack.

Child being an inverse existential threat
Source: Rawpixelcom/Shutterstock

What transpires in the bully’s conscious mind at the moment of bullying is this: “That kid who just walked on the bus annoys me. I’ll show him who’s boss.” A chronologically older (somewhat more cerebrally mature) bully might go through the added trouble of coming up with a rationalization (excuse) for his behavior. This usually takes the form of “blaming the victim” and goes like this: “That kid who just walked on the bus annoys me; there must be a reason—he smirked! He thinks I’m a joke! He thinks he’s better than me! I’ll show him who’s boss!”

Once again, the child who walked onto the bus did not actually do anything to provoke the bully. As he walked onto the bus he may or may not have smiled—but even if he did, it had nothing to do with the bully, whom he may not have even noticed until it was too late. The bully’s true motivation has nothing to do with a smirk, real or imagined. The bully’s reaction has to do with the way the victim—simply by being who he is—makes the bully feel. The rest is the result of the bully’s automatic defense mechanisms—including reaction formation,1 projection, and rationalization—shielding his conscious mind from what is really troubling him emotionally.2

A few days from now in Bullying Part 2, I will describe the role and motivations of a bully’s usual allies—lieutenants and toadies.


1. Reaction Formation is a psychoanalytic term for the subconscious process described in this paragraph: conversion of an unacceptable impulse (ie. “I’m feeling inferior”) into the diametrically opposite behavior (ie. “I’m going to show everyone that I’m powerful.”) This will be explained a bit further in Part 4.

2. For more on the role of defense mechanisms in shielding the mind from its inner workings, see Psychology Today, Healthy Prescriptions, “Pathology Is in the Eye of the Beholder”…