Posted by: l2bb | March 14, 2010

Children who bully: Why do they do it?

As discussed previously, understanding the motivations or triggers for bullying behaviour is a key factor in the fight to eliminate bullying.  In an attempt to understand why children bully, I was wondering if anyone actually asked children this question.

Straight from their mouths…

Rigby (2008) reports on a survey of children that asked about the motivation for bullying.  He reports that the most common answers were that they bullied others because

  • they annoyed me
  • to get even
  • for fun
  • others were doing it too
  • the people I bullied were wimps
  • to show how tough I am
  • to get things or money from people

Bullying for fun:  What the…?!

Rigby reports that of the children surveyed, 30% of secondary school boys and 20% of secondary school girls suggested that this was their reason for bullying.  This statistic shocks me a little.

It brings up questions like: Are we doing enough to build awareness of the effects of bullying?  Are we teaching the difference between a practical joke, and something that causes great distress in others?  Are we helping youth to be conscious about the feelings of others, to think about the consequences of their actions?  Are we helping our children to have enough emotional intelligence and sensitivity to know when they have crossed the line?

Perhaps we should also question what our media culture is communicating to our children in this context.  The problem with the media is that we don’t always get to hear both sides of the story, see the full picture or follow the story beyond a single event or moment in time. 

Coping skills, relationships and mental health: Getting even won’t help.

Hinduja and Patchin (2009) and Rigby (2008) both suggest that different types of bullying may be linked to different types of motivation.  For example, many youth who cyber bully others have been bullied themselves.  Getting even via cyber bullying could be considered a “safer” way than person-to-person bullying as there is not immediate feedback or contact with the person being bullied.

This tells us two things: 1) we need to continue to find better ways to protect children from bullying, and 2) we need to keep working on finding ways for children to defend themselves that don’t involve retaliation.   Standing up for yourself is fine, inflicting harm in retaliation is not. 

It is also possible that the latter approach could perpetuate and increase the child’s problems.  For example, children who use bullying to deal with their difficulties may go on to use this coping mechanism in future relationships.  This could lead to difficulties with maintaining friendships, romantic relationships and possibly even lead to behaviour such as domestic violence.

So while bullying for revenge might help in the short-term, it can have a significant negative impact on future socialisation.

Another worrying statistic related to this is that rates of suicidal thoughts and depression are higher than average in children who bully others (Rigby, 2008).  Children with depression who are not coping with the social challenges of life can take their anger, despair and frustration out on others.

This suggests we need to continue the push to train children in coping strategies and social skills through programs such as Mind Matters, Kids Matters and Think Good Feel Good.

The need for belonging: “Others were doing it, too”

If we look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the need to belong comes as part of the essential building blocks for self-esteem and self-actualisation.  That is, if we don’t have our physical needs (food, shelter), safety needs and the need for belonging met, we can find it very difficult to build a positive sense of ourselves and struggle to achieve to our potential.

In the search for belonging, there are children who find the only way to achieve this is to exert power over others.  This search for power can lead children to become leaders or part of groups/gangs of children/youth who bully others.

As Beck and Malley suggest,  there are times when a child’s need for belonging is increased due to factors outside the school community.  They also discuss how the use of pedagogical structures such as cross-age tutoring, leadership programs, group work and a positive rapport between students and teachers can help reduce the need for using bullying as a way to get a sense of belonging.

Powerful bullies: “The people I bullied were wimps”

This reflects the importance of continuing education on respect for diversity.  Here is a great article written for children/youth on the subject of diversity: Defining Diversity, Prejudice and Respect.

The other side of this is that, when popular children are the perpetrators of bullying, it is possible that adults can reinforce or even support the bullying themselves (McGrath, 2007).  These children can be confident, manipulative and so deceptive that the victim of bullying is the one that gets in trouble from an adult, or the adult laughs at what they may see as a “joke” because they have not been a party to what happened before or what the “victim” of the “joke” may be feeling.

A story that touched me deeply was Nick Dubin’s story of being bullied by a teacher in front of a classroom due to a lack of understanding of his difficulties due to Aspergers (Dubin, 2007).  It all revolved around Nick’s difficulty with problem-solving due to a rigid or inflexible way of understanding the world.  He was struggling to open the door of a classroom because the handle of the door worked in a different way to those he had previously experienced.

Instead of helping him to work out what was going on, the teacher said things like “that’s absurd. How old are you?… Now you open this door right now.  This instant!…” (Dubin, 2007 p19) in front of the class, who were laughing at him.

For Nick, this incident was a turning point in his perception of himself.  It caused anxiety, humiliation and sense that there was something wrong with him.

As adults we need to be sensitive and careful not to bully or promote bullying of children – even unwittingly.  We should always err on the side of caution.  And for teachers, the better we understand the individuals we teach or supervise, and the more sensitive and empathetic we are, the less likely we are to make such life-changing errors in judgement.

It is also important to recognise that sarcasm can be a form of bullying.  As teachers, we need to recognise that humour NOT sarcasm is a great tool for dealing with behaviour.  The use of sarcasm in the classroom needs to be avoided, especially if there are students from diverse language backgrounds or students with disabilities such as Autism Spectrum Disorders who have a very literal understanding of language.

It is an unfortunate fact of life that many of us respond more positively to confident, attractive and socially skilled people.  It is important that we recognise this and understand that the need to belong applies to everybody – including the child who is a bit of a loner and socially awkward.  We need to ensure that we treat these children with as much empathy, dignity and respect as anyone else.

Physical need: “To get things from people”

Going back to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a child whose need for food and/or shelter is not met will find it difficult to do their best at school and in social interaction.  It may be that to meet this need they bully others into handing over possessions.

I once cared for a number of children from one family in a before/after school care setting whose family circumstances (which included drug abuse and neglect) meant that, in the middle of winter, they had one jacket to share between the three of them.  They would take turns each day to wear the jacket.  They had no school equipment, and were provided with $2 for their daily food needs.

Not surprisingly, the eldest child had become known to the police due to incidences of bullying and stealing.

While this type of circumstance is, of course, not the source of all bullying motivated by wanting to “get something”, we need to make sure that we approach the perpetrator of bullying with a focus on changing their behaviour rather than punishment or “revenge“.


Dubin, N.  (2007).  Asperger Syndrome and Bullying: Strategies and Solutions.  Jessica Kingsley Publishers: London.

Hinduja, S. and Patchin, J.W.  (2009).  Bullying Beyond the Schoolyard: Preventing and responding to cyberbullying. Corwin Press: California.

McGrath, M.J.  (2007).  School Bullying: Tools for Avoiding Harm and Liability.  Corwin Press: Thousand Oaks.

Rigby, K.  (2008).  Children and Bullying:  How Parents and Educators Can Reduce Bullying at School. Blackwell Publishing:Victoria.



  1. […] you, for whatever reason, are a little more egocentric, impulsive and have a need to gain power or control over a situation, […]

  2. My child is turning 3 years old 7th June 2012. She is in preschool now, she keeps on bullying children at school… Now I don’t know it concerns me…she keeps on doing it and don’t stop when the child is crying..if the child is crying she gets even worse. I don’t know if it is a sign of anti social disorder maybe? I don’t know if she is enjoying seeing pain or if she don’t really understand the concept of playing not so rough??

    • At the age of three it is more likely that she has not developed a good understanding of why her behaviour is not appropriate. It is always hard to give advice without seeing the child, but here are some things to think about:
      1. She might be doing it because she wants attention. What happens when she hurts others? Does she get a lot of attention (even if that means she is being told that she is doing the wrong thing etc)? Try encouraging her carers to simply remove her from the situation and give all their attention to the crying child. Then when your child is playing well, give her lots of positive attention and praise. Also praise kids who are near her when they are playing well so she gets an idea of what is the approved behaviour.
      2. She might not yet know how to interact with other children positively, and may be feeling left out or lonely. Teach her some games, or play with her with other children to help her learn how to make friends.
      3. She may not have developed empathy yet, which would enable her to understand the feelings of other children. I know this will sound like a sales pitch, but products like our books and games help children develop an understanding of feelings, and help develop empathy in young children. It is important that when she hurts another child you encourage her carers to help her say sorry and comfort the other child rather than just focusing on disciplining your child.

      Best wishes, and I hope at least one of these ideas has helped.

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