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An exploration into the different types of bullies

We've grown up witnessing bully behavior all our lives, whether on film, in the news, and more recently, even in presidential debates. Bullies and bullying permeate our society. Additionally, we've all experienced being bullied at one time or another. And tough as it may be to admit, maybe we have been the bully. But what makes a bully?

Bullying is defined as systematically and chronically inflicting physical hurt and/or psychological distress on one or more others, whether they are students in school, workers in the workplace, or family members. Bully behavior is being studied and monitored very closely due to the dramatic increase in mass shootings over the last three years as well as murder/suicides carried out by people who were bully victims seeking retribution. This is the extreme flip side of the bullying phenomenon—when the victim becomes the ultimate bully.

Research indicates that some bullies may suffer from narcissistic personality disorder, a trait we are fast becoming familiar with from media as we peruse the political landscape. Other bullies may have difficulty interpreting or judging social situations and other people’s actions. They interpret hostility from others when no such intent was meant. As an example, a student unintentionally bumps into a bully, who views this accident as an act of aggression; over-reacting and triggering the bully response of seeking revenge.

When Does Bully Behavior Start?

Bully behavior is often learned at home from family members such as parents or older siblings who display this form of aggression. It can also be intentionally or unintentionally reinforced by adults. For instance, children may discover that they can get out of doing household chores by bullying their parent (negative reinforcement) or bully their way to getting a treat (misuse of positive reinforcement).

Generally, bully behavior is caused by stress in the bully's life. Bullies have often been abused or are driven by their insecurities. They typically want to control and manipulate others to feel superior. The anger they feel as a result of their hurt is directed toward others. Their targets are those they consider weaker than and/or different from themselves. The actions of a bully are intentional: to emotionally or physically cause injury to one or more people, usually on a repeated basis. The effects of bullying, on both the victim and the bully, can last years and sometimes a lifetime. It’s no wonder that people who were bullies as children are more likely to become caught up in the web of the criminal justice system at an early age. They are also at a higher risk of getting involved in illegal drug use as well as other anti-social behavior.

The traditional method of dealing with bullies is to identify the culprit and punish them in various ways, moving them to other classes, school, or jobs. This is likely to move the bussers and their abuse to different venues but not change them; often it makes them even angrier and vengeful.

Types of Bullying

For most middle-aged and older people, there was one basic type of bully and the bully was epitomized as a character named Eddie Haskell on a popular television show called Leave It to Beaver. But as the decades have unfolded and our technology has evolved, so have the number and type of bullies.

Physical Bullying is the most obvious form of bullying. It occurs when people use physical actions to gain power and control over their targets. It's easiest to identify and most likely what people think of when they think of bullying.

Verbal Bullying is using words, statements and name-calling to gain power and control over a target. Typically, verbal bullies use relentless insults to belittle, demean and hurt others. As children, being told that words can't hurt us is simply not true. In fact, it can leave deep emotional scars.

Prejudicial Bullying is based on prejudices people have toward people of different races, religions, or sexual orientation. This type of bullying can encompass all the other types of bullying. When prejudicial bullying occurs, those who are somehow considered “different” are targeted and the door opened to hate crimes. This type of bullying has been the cause of social upheaval in our nation for too long. No one is better than another, we are simply different.

Relational Aggression, frequently referred to as emotional bullying, is a sneaky, insidious type of bullying that manifests as social manipulation. In other words, the goal of a relational bully is to ostracize others from a group to gain social standing and control other people. Such behavior is cruel no matter the age of the victims and when it occurs in school-aged children it can be devastating and affect all aspects of development.

Cyberbullying is a term used for tweens or teenagers using the Internet, cell phones, or other technology to harass, threaten, embarrass, or target another person. If an adult is involved in this harassment it is called cyberharrassment or cyberstalking. This form of bullying has gained momentum as there is much less risk of being caught. Those who might not otherwise indulge in other bully behaviors can get caught up in cyberbullying, setting off a cyber-mob mentality attack.

Sexual Bullying consists of repeated, harmful and humiliating actions—sexual name-calling, crude comments, vulgar gestures, uninvited touching or sexual propositioning—that target a person sexually. It can occur in a group and be considered a show of bravado among the perpetrators, or one-on-one, which can lead to sexual assault.

Changing Times

Any significant change begins in the way we think. There is no magic wand, and will take time, but change can be affected when we examine certain toxic beliefs and focus on a healthier outlook. We are currently living in a time when our attitudes toward bullying are shifting. Bullies are not a “normal”, therefore acceptable, part of growing up. Once we finally realize that bullies, as well as their victims, can grow up to be dangerous people, things will begin to change.

Consider most coming-of-age films over the years and you will find the Eddie Haskell, the proverbial town bully as the villain pitted against the young protagonist. While the bully terrorizes the boy through much of the story, he is actually defeated pretty easily once our hero faces his fear and stands up to the bully. Typically, it’s not much of a fight, as the bully quickly crumbles when finally confronted. He cries and runs home, presumably now cured of his bully ways, and the main character regains his confidence and self-esteem, and learns an important life lesson in becoming a man. In our culture, such things have been considered a normal rite of passage. While this scenario may or may not have ever been very realistic, it is certainly not so today. With extreme bullying becoming increasingly pervasive, often with tragic results, we can no longer view it as simply part of growing up.

The Solution

We must start with better awareness of the problem and its origins. For parents, recognize early bully behavior and encourage communication over manipulation and violent outbursts to express anger and frustration. Take your toddlers rage seriously, and help her deal with it in a positive way. Find a responsible balance between over-protection (fighting your child’s battles for him), and completely disregarding what might eventually become a serious problem. Almost every child will be affected in some way by some form of bullying; either as a victim and/or as a youngster experimenting with ways of getting what he wants in the world. Learn how to recognize the signs, and how to help your child overcome situations that make bullies and victims.

As a nation, parents, teachers, religious leaders, politicians as well as the therapeutic communities need to wake up and develop programs that engage our youth more fully as vital human beings who feel accepted, respected, and loved by others. This is the social psychological component that can be dealt with by creating more positive, caring, compassionate communities in our school, work places and nation. It's a tall order, but it is at the heart of the new everyday heroism being developed by our Heroic Imagination Project (HIP) based in San Francisco. HIP seeks to inspire young people with a sense of hopefulness, and a positive outlook toward the future. Early education is our most powerful tool in creating positive change for the future.

Self-realization is perhaps the most important step toward creating a more positive present and a brighter future. In addition, supporting educational projects that promote tolerance and open communication, as well as mentoring programs that provide positive role models, will also help you and your family. And if you have a special talent or knowledge consider participating in these projects and programs; this valuable contribution is needed by your community, the world!


For information about how your life is affected by the mental time zones that you live in, see: Time Perspective Therapy; The Time Cure; and The Time Paradox. Learn more about yourself and helpful ways to cope with life’s stress:; watch The River of Time. Take Charge! Get in touch with the Hero in You! Check out Phil Zimbardo's Heroic Imagination Project.


Psychology Core Concepts 7th Edition by Philip Zimbardo, Pearson. 2013.

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