Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


How Do I Know If My Child Is the Bully?

Sometimes, it's tough to see what is right in front of your face

Key points

  • There is a growing bullying epidemic in this country.
  • Bullies in real life don't look like they do in the movies.
  • What if the bully is actually in your own backyard?
  • How can you help your daughter if she is the neighborhood bully?

The title of an article in The Atlantic earlier this month, "America's Teenage Girls Are Not Okay," says it all. According to the CDC's Youth Risk Behavior Survey, data on school shootings, changes in parenting, and even data on climate change, the author makes the point that everyone, everywhere, is drowning.

When someone is drowning—especially an adolescent girl, whose sharp, well-manicured nail can be filed into more than 26 different shapes—they will do anything to survive, even if it means stepping on someone smaller and weaker than they are.

But...your daughter would never do this...would she?

Cottonbro Studios/Pexels
Source: Cottonbro Studios/Pexels

What Does a Bully Look Like?

Most of us can easily identify the stereotypical, Stephen King type of bully. You know, that big, mean, ugly kid who beats up the scrawny, smart kid at the beginning of every film.1 This is the type of bully that researchers Peeters, Cilessen, and Scholte would define as the unpopular/less socially intelligent type.

But, this rather antiquated view of bullies as awkward, ugly, and socially incompetent has been replaced by more recent evidence that suggests that a sense of grandiosity and entitlement (Fanti & Kimonis 2012), as well as lack of empathy and shame (Reijntjes et al 2016), are more likely to be associated with bullying.

Instead of the bully from a Stephen King film, now close your eyes and envision the truly fabulous Regina George, the girl who inspired a movie, a musical, and every theater geek who looks forward to a summer spent with the only people in the world who can understand the power of an alto-soprano.

The girl so many of our daughters want to be.

This means that so many of our daughters, who we raised with the hope that they would be brave, strong, outgoing, and confident, have, in some way, perhaps silently, also been given permission to feel entitled to take all that life has to offer.

"You've got this! If you practice hard enough, you can be the best soccer player on that team!"

"You're the bravest person I know!"

"You tried your best, you worked hard, and you earned that trophy!"

Is it possible, that, in some way, when we try to raise brave, beautiful, strong daughters, we may, accidentally, raise girls who are more likely to lack empathy? To become bullies? To be girls we would have feared in our youth, and yet as parents, we don't even notice?

My Daughter Can't Be a Bully, She Has So Many Friends!

A lot of us are left scratching our heads when a nasty bully ends up surrounded by more people than the average person, whether it be to celebrate a happy moment or to commiserate with a sad one.

Researchers put these bullies in a category they describe as being both socially competent as well as able to use coercive strategies. They are central members of their peer networks (Caravita, DiBlasio, & Salmivalli). They value dominance (Olthof et al.) and engage with others with similar behaviors. These are the kids who keep most of their friends and win the admiration of most of the faculty at school.

Is your daughter a bit too beloved? Oddly enough, that might put her in the possible range of being a bully. "Possible" being the keyword.

So...What Do I Do if My Child Is a Bully?

  1. Take off your Mama Bear cape. This is not the time to leap to her defense. This is the time to pull her aside and try to understand why. If you are called by the school, a parent, or if you stumbled across this article by chance and couldn't shake this nagging thought—go to your child and ask her why she said or did whatever it was. Listen carefully to her reasons. Accept the fact that your child might—and probably will—lie to you. This is not the time to protect your child. That is what a Mama Bear would do. This is the time for an intervention. Ask questions, find a therapist, find an answer, and figure out why your daughter needs to have power over her peers.
  2. Determine if your daughter's actions are, in part, the result of peer influence. Keep in mind that even if peer influence has played a part, research has shown that bullies are often attracted to similar behavior in others, whether it be actual bullying, or simply power plays in order to fit in socially. Remember to ask open-ended questions of your child. And don't be afraid to ask the school guidance counselor and social worker to get a better gauge of the temperature at school, both in her grade as well as the surrounding grades.
  3. Help them to develop skills of empathy and sympathy by seeing things from the perspective of the other person, the victim of their behavior. It is not unusual for a tween or teen to take on a myopic, or self-serving perspective—and for very good reason. High school has long been known as a near-death experience, as Lord of the Flies most eloquently told us many years ago. Remind your child that with emotional and physical assault comes pain, and anything you afflict on others, you would feel yourself as well.

Most of All, Do Not Give Up on Your Daughter—Or Son.

None of us are born perfect. A bully is simply someone who shows their imperfections on the outside, directed towards others. If you find yourself relating to this blog post, let that thought give you comfort.

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.


¹ Fortunately, the skinny, scrawny, smart kid is probably some sort of embodiment of Stephen King and gets to kiss the pretty new girl in town by the end of the movie, so the black eye was probably worth it.

Peeters, Cillessen, and Scholte (Peeters, M., Cillessen, A. H. N., & Scholte, R. H. J. (2010). Clueless or powerful? Identifying subtypes of bullies in adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 39, 1041–1052.10.1007/s10964-009-9478-9,

Fanti, K. A., & Kimonis, E. (2012). Bullying and victimization: The role of conduct problems and psychopathic traits. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 22, 617–631.

Caravita, S., DiBlasio, P., & Salmivalli, C. (2009). Unique and interactive effects of empathy and social status on inovlvement in bullying. Social Development, 18, 140–163.

Reijntjes, A., Vermande, M., Thomaes, S., Goossens, F., Olthof, T., Aleva, L., & Van der Meulen, M. (2016). Narcissism, bullying, and social dominance in youth: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 44, 63–74.

More from Lindsay Weisner Psy.D.
More from Psychology Today