Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Brian D. Johnson, Ph.D. and Laurie Berdahl, M.D.


Family Matters When It Comes to Becoming a Bully

Home-life characteristics can be warning signs of kids harming others

Source: Mandygodbehear/iStockPhoto

About one third of children are bullied and suffer long-lasting harm from it. On the other hand, kids who bully tend to have problems throughout their lives related to continuing aggression.

People often ask if there are things about family life that increase the risk of becoming a bully. The answer is yes. It’s good to know and recognize home-related risk factors for children becoming bullies who intentionally harm others directly, or through peers or technology. Bullies may make fun of, laugh or make rude hand gestures at, threaten, taunt, humiliate, embarrass, sexually harass, spit at, trip, hit, push, kick, tell lies about, intimidate, or exclude other kids to create distress. They may steal or break others’ possessions. Their actions may not only be directed at people outside their homes but also at parents, siblings, and partners.

Here are some family and home-life characteristics much more commonly found in youth who bully others compared to those who don’t. These can serve as warning signs of troubles that may lead to bullying behavior:

  • Lack of warm relationships between parents and children, but instead parental disinterest, coldness, excessive teasing, treating kids like enemies, or acting like they’re not liked or wanted.
  • Harsh discipline, such as shaming, insulting, yelling or swearing at, rejection, threats, or physical means.
  • Prejudice, hatred, meanness, or low empathy shown by parents and other family members towards groups of people who may be blamed for family members’ problems.
  • Domestic violence (a parent’s romantic partner is verbally or physically harmed).
  • Home violent conflict resolution, disrespect, or encouragement to use violence to solve problems (telling kids not to be wimps but to be tough to get what they want).
    Source: EJWhite/iStockPhoto
  • Children witness frequent nonviolent arguing and conflict between parents.
  • Drug and alcohol abuse.
  • Siblings or others bully children at home.
  • Child abuse and neglect.
  • Low interest and empathy for children’s problems.
  • Excessive pressure on kids to perform in school or activities, or rejection when not meeting expectations.
  • Entitlement is promoted by indulgent or harsh parenting. Entitlement is a belief in older kids that they don’t have to follow rules because they’re better than others and deserve special treatment regardless of circumstance, leading to manipulating or bullying others for selfish gain.
Source: EJWhite/iStockPhoto

Also, kids with low empathy who are bored because they don’t have enough responsibilities may become bullies—harming and exerting power over others may relieve their boredom and give them sick thrills.

But fortunately, research shows that intervening to prevent or stop these warning signs and risk factors reduces bullying and other types of youth violence. Knowledge and action gives families power to reduce this scourge on society. Tell your kids about bullying, that you expect them to be kind, and that you want to know if bullying happens to them. Also, be sure to intervene when you see any child being bullied and support the victim.

For total bullying protection, see the new book, WARNING SIGNS: How to Protect Your Kids From Becoming Victims or Perpetrators of Violence and Aggression . Find anti-bullying and other parenting resources at