What Causes Your Child to Become a Bully?

While there is no one single profile of a child bully, in my years as a researcher and educator, I have witnessed a few different situations that describe the majority of child bullies.
10/14/2014 01:43 pm ET Updated Dec 14, 2014

It's late morning on a weekday when you receive a call from your child's school principal. She tells you there has been an incident involving your child, and asks you to come in for a conference to speak with her, as well as your child's teacher and the school counselor. You race to the school, a million scenarios flashing through your brain. Is your child hurt? Was your child bullied?

Then you arrive at the school to learn that your child was involved with the one scenario you never imagined in your head as a parent: your child, it turns out, has been bullying other children at school.

Your child is the bully.

You didn't see it coming. What should you do?

What causes a child to become the bully?

While there is no one single profile of a child bully, in my years as a researcher and educator, I have witnessed a few different situations that describe the majority of child bullies:

1. Like Parent, Like Child
Children model what they see. If a child is bullied by his/her parent, or is being abused or treated in a disrespectful way at home, that child is likely to imitate this behavior at school. They are learning from their parent that this type of behavior is acceptable.

2. The Powerless Child
Sometimes, the child that bullies is the child who feels completely powerless at home. Perhaps this child is abused, or watches one of his parents abuse another parent and he/she is left feeling scared and powerless at home. This child may attempt to gain back power by bullying others at school.

3. The Forgotten Child
I have seen children who feel invisible at home act out as bullies at school. Children need constant love and respectful attention from the adults who care for them -- and they want and need it most from their mother and father. Nobody is more important than mom and dad; children will try to gain approval from mom and dad, from the time they are born until the time they die. If they do not get love and attention at home, they may feel voiceless and un-important. That feeling of invisibility may turn into anger, resentment and then bullying others at school.

4. The Entitled Child
Then there is the child who has been given too much power. I have seen children who are given everything they want, raised without limitations and rules to follow, who then grow up to feel entitled and all-powerful. These children may believe they have a right to bully others at school, since they bulldoze their parents at home.

5. Children Who Lack Empathy
Finally, there are those children who come from wonderful, loving homes with actively involved parents who become bullies. These child bullies may simply lack empathy, like to dominate, are possessive and want power. The wonderful thing about this is that empathy is something that can be taught.

Children Who Bully Are Still Children
It is important to remember that children who bully are still children. They are acting that way for a reason, and they, too, need help and guidance from adults. In my experience, bullies may not have healthy social behaviors, empathy, or coping skills. This has the potential to lead to a lifetime of relationship problems, general parenting problems, and even problems with the law.

In my next blog post, I will outline some ways that parents, teachers, and counselors can help children who bully.