There are a multitude of reasons as to why a child becomes a bully. The important thing to remember is that bullying is a learned behavior—meaning that it can be unlearned. The factors that cause this behavioral problem work both individually and collectively, and contribute to the overall likelihood of a child becoming a bully.
Generally speaking, most learned behavior begins developing in the home. Children start developing ideas as to how people interact with one another by witnessing and experiencing the day-to-day interactions between their family members. Children then take that learned knowledge and apply it to the outside world.
In the case of bullying, there are many things that a child can witness or experience that can cause behavioral problems later on. Harsh, physical discipline coupled with a lack of parental involvement can breed contempt inside the child for his or her parents and others. Overly permissive parents that provide no consequences for bad behavior grant their child the consent to do whatever they like, preventing them from learning right from wrong.
Having to endure abuse from older siblings can impact a child’s cognitive development process. Children don’t just learn from how they are treated by other. They also model the behavior they see. If there is spousal abuse happening inside the home, a child may think of this behavior as normal. Lacking a general sense of compassion at home can greatly affect how a child treats others.
Living in an environment where any of these things happen on a regular basis is bound to have a negative impact on a child’s behavior. Having a safe home environment where respect is given and feelings are appropriately expressed is tremendously important for any child.
As the saying goes, “you are the company you keep.” While this may not be entirely true, there is some merit to this old piece of wisdom. The ways in which children interact with members of their friend group can impact how they behave towards those outside of it. Children who have friends that bully are much more likely to bully as well. Friend groups that act violently towards one another are also more likely to turn that violent behavior onto others.
The peer pressure that friends put on one another can be very powerful and can compel children to behave in a way that they otherwise would not. Having friends that encourage positive behavior and show support towards one another is incredibly important.
Lacking a social circle or group of friends can also cause children to feel isolated, leading them to act out. Everyone craves some amount of attention, and if they don’t get it at home or at school, they will start to behave in a way that can’t help but draw attention to themselves—often in a negative way.
An interesting study conducted by researchers at the University of California-Davis found that popularity had an effect on aggressive behavior. The study focused on 19 middle schools and high schools in North Carolina and lasted 4.5 years. During the duration of the study, authors Robert Faris and Diana Felmlee interviewed public-school kids seven times, beginning when the students were in grades 6, 7, and 8.
The students were asked to name their friends, as well as the kids who were unkind to them and whom they picked on. This information was then used to create “friendship maps” and aggression pathways to show the social network of the school.
Researchers found that only 1/3 of the students engaged in bullying activity, but they noticed a trend. The kids that were moving up the school’s popularity chain engaged in more bulling activity the higher up they went. However, once they reached the top 2% or fell to the bottom 2% of the school’s social hierarchy, their behavior changed and they became the least aggressive kids in school.
Faris was quoted in Time saying, “It’s one of the few times I can recall in social sciences where race and family background seem to make very little difference… Those demographic and socioeconomic factors don’t seem to matter as much as where the kids are in the school hierarchy.”
The study also concluded that the more students cared about popularity, the more aggressive they became. Researchers found this to be somewhat ironic, as they didn’t find that hostile behavior actually caused the children’s popularity to rise.
Faris mentions in the article that if bullying is more of a result of hierarchy than psychology, then finding a solution comes down to changing the minds of students on how to achieve a higher social status. “The majority of kids who witness this [bullying], either give it tacit approval or outright encourage it,” he says.
Lack of School Prevention
Schools that have a prevalent bully problem and do not address it with proactive measures perpetuate the issue. Teachers must work with students and their families to counteract the bully’s bad behavior.
Schools should also setup evidence-based anti-bullying programs to help support victims and educate students on the effects bullying has on others. Bullying is typically allowed to happen because students do not know what to do when they find themselves in a situation with a bully.
Lack of Empathy/Emotional Understanding
This is what many will say is the crux of the issue, and we tend to agree. But finding out where this lack of empathy is coming from is vital to changing a child’s behavior. Children need to learn for themselves the reasons behind why they behave the way they do, so they can learn how they ought to act.
Understanding their own emotions and how to control them helps them understand the emotional responses of others. It’s one thing to tell a child the proper way to act, but getting them to adopt it as their new behavioral pattern requires them to know the reason behind why they ought to act one way and not another.
Understanding the reasons why any given child decides to bully is absolutely necessary when addressing their behavioral problems. This means parents and educators working together with the child to bring about a healthy change. The more we know, the better we can be at resolving this very serious issue.