There's No Such Thing as a Bully, Only Bullying Behavior

New research finds kids who demonstrate bullying behavior are harmed themselves.

Posted Dec 09, 2019

The connection between being victimized by a bully and poor psychological adjustment has been long established. A new study of a nationally representative sample of 13,200 children between the ages of 12-17 shows a bidirectional relationship between engaging in bullying behaviors and psychological maladjustment. That is, it appears that engaging in bullying behavior increased the risk of developing internalizing problems, and that having internalizing problems increased the probability of bullying others. In other words, habitual bullying interactions may harm the bully as well as the victim.

This study points to a much more nuanced understanding of the entire concept of bullying.

As a school and clinical child psychologist, I strongly believe that there is no such thing as a bully. There are only children, some who choose to engage in bullying behaviors, and others who need to be taught how to deal with those behaviors.

 Dusanka Visnjican/123RF
He's not "a bully," he's a kid who needs to learn not to use bullying behaviors. Let's educate instead of punishing!
Source: Dusanka Visnjican/123RF

No Such Thing as a Bully

This research points to a fallacy in the entire “anti-bullying” movement. As soon as we engage in categorical thinking about “bully” and “victim,” we fall prey to an essentialist error in understanding a much more complex phenomenon. When we think of a “bully,” we imagine a hulking kid, shaking down a smaller child for his lunch money. We don’t picture a child who is shaking himself due to his own anxiety or depression! We might picture the quintessential “class queen,” treating less popular girls with disdain. We don’t picture a girl who is socially anxious herself!

In creating these categories, we miss the more nuanced view of children who engage in bullying behaviors. The problem with doing that is that we don’t look at the emotion regulation skills that so-called “bullies” need to develop. We spend our time looking at ways to enforce a certain code of conduct, and to punish perpetrators, instead of seeing all children as in need of self-regulation training.

When we focus on bullying interactions, it becomes easier to see the skills that both sides of the equation need to learn. The children engaging in bullying behavior need to learn to regulate negative emotions, to manage their moods without hurting others. The children on the other side of the interaction also need to learn to regulate negative emotions, and they need to learn how to respond in a confident manner.

When adults look for these types of interactions in an educative fashion, rather than in a punitive fashion, it’s much easier to spot them. As much as humans like to identify with the underdog, we’re not looking for a “bully” to “punish” and a “victim” to “protect.” We’re looking for two kids, each who need to develop particular types of emotion regulation and social skills.

Looking at these interactions as behaviors, rather than crimes, allows us to gain parental cooperation much more readily. When parents aren’t hearing about their child the bully, they’re willing to hear about specific behaviors that need to be corrected. When parents aren’t hearing about their child the victim, they start to focus on specific social skills that might need to be developed. Instead of only “comforting” a victim, they can focus on teaching someone who might lack certain skills.

Limitations of the Study

For the purposes of the study, “internalizing” problems were defined as positive responses to four categories: Feeling trapped, sad or depressed; trouble sleeping; feeling nervous, anxious, or tense; and being upset or distressed about the past. These responses were then correlated with agreement with “bullying perpetration” statements such as “I have engaged in bullying the same person two or more times.”

In order to be classified as “bullying,” the behavior should meet the following criteria

  1. Unwanted aggressive behavior
  2. Observed or perceived power imbalance
  3. Repeated multiple times/likely to be repeated

The study simply used a dichotomous measure for “bullying perpetration,” asking, “When was the last time you were a bully or threatened other people two or more times?” This question does not fully capture the nuance of bullying interactions.

Rumination, thinking over social situations obsessively, is a characteristic of many children who tend to internalize. It is possible that an internalizer, ruminating over an ambiguous social situation, might misrepresent his or her actions as bullying when they were not.

In addition, the dichotomous nature of the question does not take the power imbalance part of the bullying interaction into account. If there is no power imbalance between two children, then the interaction might have been aggressive, but it wasn’t bullying.

Towards a More Nuanced Approach:

Rather than creating a “zero-tolerance” policy towards bullying, perhaps our efforts could be better directed towards more intensive social and emotional learning programs for all children.

How can I say there’s no such thing as a bully? After all, we have all seen bullying in action. We’ve heard about the devastating consequences. We’ve all heard of children who have faced bullying behavior.

But a person is not simply a bully. There’s a person whose habitual mode of connecting to other people is through social aggression. There’s a person who feels the need to intimidate others, or a person who can’t confront another person directly, so gets others to do it for her. There’s a person who can’t feel good about himself unless he sees someone else fail or be humiliated, and there’s a person who becomes the boss just to have the power to intimidate others.

All these people are—people. People who make choices, based on their emotional makeup. Sometimes, these are people who are so locked into their habits, that interaction pattern has become hardwired. Those people need help, and by all means, let’s help them.

I was bullied as a child. Could a zero-tolerance policy have saved me? Not a chance. The girl who bullied me was way too savvy and good at what she did. She would have not only gotten away with it; she would have made herself out to be the victim.

What could have helped me? Teachers teaching emotion regulation, talking about the social environment, giving us the vocabulary to understand our internal worlds. Certainly, learning about social pragmatics, how to choose a friend and who to distance yourself from, learning what to say to those sneaky comments that you know are aggressive, but sound nice on the surface, and mostly, my teachers presenting themselves as people who could solve those problems.

It’s time to take a good look at what we are teaching. After years of talking to young adults who have experienced major psychological disturbance, I know this. Not one had bad outcomes because they weren’t taught math well or didn’t pass chemistry. Every single one will talk about experiences in school that hurt them, that they couldn’t talk about, or that they couldn’t even process until years later.

When we teach children, we stuff their heads full of knowledge. That’s fine, but to educate a child is to help them become the fully actualized person they were meant to be. It’s time to stop teaching and start educating.


Marine Azevedo Da Silva, Jasmin C. Gonzalez, Gregory L. Person, Silvia S. Martins, Bidirectional Association Between Bullying Perpetration and Internalizing Problems Among Youth, Journal of Adolescent Health, 2019, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2019.09.022.

R.M. Gladden, A.M. Vivolo-Kantor, M.E. Hamburger, et al.Bullying surveillance among youths: Uniform definitions for public health and recommended data elements, version 1.0 National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and U.S. Department of Education, Atlanta, GA (2014)

S.E. Moore, R.E. Norman, S. Suetani, et al.Consequences of bullying victimization in childhood and adolescence: A systematic review and meta-analysis. World J Psychiatry, 7 (2017), pp. 60-76