By Michelle Covington

psychology of a bully

photo credit: rando1945 via photopin cc

In previous generations, people perceived bullying to be a normal part of growing up. It was seen as a rite of passage that kids needed to help them toughen up so that they could face the world. We now know that this isn’t true.

Bullies attack others because they enjoy attacking others. As we’ve already discussed earlier in this series, bullying isn’t a conflict, nor is it a misunderstanding. Both of these are normal aspects of human interaction.

Bullying causes psychological and sometimes physical damage. It is the repeated use of superior power intended to harm another person through physical threat, humiliation, or isolation. Bullying is not a normal aspect of human interaction — it is an abuse of it.

Bullying doesn’t ‘toughen up’ a victim. It weakens them. Seven out of 10 targets of bullying have difficulty forming lasting relationships as adults. They struggle with anger management, resentment, and trusting others. They are more likely to deal with depression, get lower grades, and have anxiety.

The Psychology of a Bully

Bullies deliberately harm others. They discover that they can abuse others to get things they want, like social affirmation, control over another person, and feelings of superiority.

The prevailing thought for many years was that bullies had low self-esteem, were likely bullied or abused themselves, and lashed out at others out of their own pain. Research shows that this is not the case. Bullies usually have high self-esteem. More likely than not, they are the popular kids. They have power and use it to harm others.

Bullies want to dominate other people. This could come in the form of physical domination, or more often social domination. They put their own position in the social hierarchy before the well-being of others, which means they feel nothing for their victims. They believe the victim deserves the abuse. This is why the most effective anti-bullying campaigns focus not on the bully, nor on the victim, but on the bystanders. Bystanders are the people who give the bully their power. When they don’t allow bullying behavior to dominate the social hierarchy, the bully’s behavior will no longer achieve what he or she intends, and the bullying will most likely end.

To find out how you can bring a bullying program to your school that focuses on the bystander, talk to one of our program coordinators about scheduling Paul Coughlin to visit your school.

While there is no rule on who bullies are, or why they become bullies (bullies come in all shapes, sizes, genders and family backgrounds), they do typically have a number of things in common. We went into these in depth last week.

The Pattern of Bullying

A full fledged bullying attack doesn’t happen overnight. Instead, there is typically a pattern of bullying, or method, that bullies will follow.

1. Intent – Bullies start out building intent. This includes the reasoning and motivation behind their abuse toward a particular person or group of people. Because bullies create this intent first, they feel justified in bullying another person. They see what the action of bullying can gain them, assess how far they can likely go without getting caught, and how much enjoyment they will get from the other person’s pain.

2. Interview – After weighing out the benefits and risks, a bully will approach their intended target and test them out to see how easy or difficult of a target they will be. They will usually ask questions they planned in advance to test the target’s resolve, courage, and verbal skills. From the target’s answers, the bully will assess if he or she is a worthy target. Sometimes this interview process is carried out from a distance through observation.

3. Positioning – Once they have decided who they will target, bullies will position themselves for attack. Sometimes, the position is a physical location. A bully will know where to go so they will have the most power, and won’t get caught. This might be a place on the playground, or a spot in the hallway or cafeteria where they can’t be seen by a teacher. It could be a location the bully and his or her group have claimed as their territory. Sometimes, the position is relational instead of physical. A bully may pretend to be friends with the target to lower his or her defenses and help gather ammunition to be used later. Help teach your children how to avoid being positioned by a bully. There may be certain places they should avoid going.

4. Attack – The attack itself takes preparation on the part of the bully and the bully’s helpers. The attack is often proceeded by a display of posturing. This will likely include things like pointing, mocking, and staring. They will try to provoke or intimidate the target before they attack. The attack itself may be physical, it may be verbal, or it may be social. This is the part of the process that we recognize as the act of bullying.

5. Reaction – After the bully has attacked, there will be a lull between rounds. Teach your child to recognize this lull and to take the opportunity to escape to a public place before the second attack begins. The sooner they can extract themselves from the situation, the better.

Bullying is a premeditated action, not normal behavior

The bully dynamic is not, nor should it be considered a normal part of growing up. It is an intentional, premeditated act intended to harm another person. When we recognize the signs of bullying taking place, it is essential for the well being of both the bully and the victim that the bullying end.

Bullying expert Paul Coughlin trains parents, educators and teens what to do to end bullying. Request more information about booking Paul by filling out this form. A program coordinator will contact you to see what program might best fit your needs.


*This article was written with assistance from Paul Coughlin’s parent resource “4-Circle Solution to Bullying.” The full document will be available for purchase soon from The Protectors website.


Learn more about bullying on our bullying topic page.

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