When Your Child Is An "Emotional Bully"

Hi Mark— I want to start by thanking you again for your continued support and constant flow of information on your website. I have just completed the program and have seen positive changes in my 11-year-old son at home. He still continues to CONSTANTLY ANNOY others and put them down. He does this to his friends and other children in our neighborhood. He has been tackled two times this summer because of his mouth. I do not know what to do. I know that he is constantly putting down people because of his own self-esteem. We are trying hard to follow all steps of the program. I review them several times a week. Please let me know if there is something else we can do to help him not to make fun of people and feel better about himself. Thank you. J.


Hi J.,

What you’re referring to is a form of “emotional bullying.” Psychologists used to believe that bullies have low self-esteem, and put down other people to feel better about themselves. While many bullies are themselves bullied at home or at school, new research shows that most bullies actually have excellent self-esteem. 

Bullies usually have a sense of entitlement and superiority over others, and lack compassion, impulse control and social skills. They enjoy being cruel to others and sometimes use bullying as an anger management tool, the way a normally angry person would punch a pillow.

All bullies have certain attitudes and behaviors in common. Bullies dominate, blame and use others. They have contempt for the weak and view them as their prey. They lack empathy and foresight, and do not accept responsibility for their actions. They are concerned only about themselves and crave attention.

Bullies are not born that way, although certain genetic traits are often present. Some children's personalities are naturally more aggressive, dominating and/or impulsive. Children with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) are more likely to become bullies. However, having such inborn traits does not mean that a child will automatically become a bully. Bullying is a learned behavior, not a character trait. Bullies can learn new ways to curb their aggression and handle conflicts.

Bullies come from all backgrounds. Researchers have not been able to find a link between bullies and any particular religion, race, income level, divorce, or any other socio-economic factor. Girls are just as likely as boys to bully and abuse others verbally, although boys are three times more likely to be physically abusive.

There are different types of bullies produced in different types of homes. There are seven kinds of bullies. Among them are the hyperactive bully who does not understand social cues and therefore reacts inappropriately and often physically. The detached bully plans his attacks and is charming to everyone but his victims. The social bully has a poor sense of self and manipulates others through gossip and meanness. The bullied bully gets relief from his own sense of helplessness by overpowering others.

Bullies are often victims of bullies themselves. 40% of bullies are themselves bullied at home or at school. Research shows that a victim at home is more likely to be a bully at school. The reason may be that when a bully watches another child appear weak and cowering, it disturbs him because it reminds him of his own vulnerability and behavior at home.

Bullies have immature social skills and believe other children are more aggressive than they actually are. If you brush up against a bully, he may take it as a physical attack and assault you because "you deserve it, you started it," etc. Research indicates that bullies see threats where there are none, and view other children as more hostile than they are. The hyperactive bully will explode over little things because he lacks social skills and the ability to think in depth about a conflict.

A bully's parents may be permissive and unable to set limits on their child's behavior. From early on, the bully can do whatever he wants without clear consequences and discipline. His parents may have been abused themselves as children and view disciplinary measures as a form of child abuse. While their lax style may have been fine for an easy-going, older sibling, it will not work on this more aggressive child. This bully may be allowed to dominate younger siblings and even take over his entire family - everything will revolve around his agenda.

A bully's parents often discipline inconsistently. If his parents are in a good mood, the child gets away with bad behavior. If the same parent is under stress, he or she will take it out in angry outbursts against the child. This child never internalizes rules of conduct or respect for authority.

Self-centered, neglectful parents can create a cold, calculating bully. Since his parents do not monitor his activities or take an interest in his life, he learns to abuse others when no authority figure is looking. His bullying can be planned and relentless, as he constantly humiliates his victim, often getting other children to join him.

A bully has not learned empathy and compassion. The parents of bullies often have prejudices based on race, sex, wealth and achievement. Other people are just competitors who stand in the way. Their child must always be the best in sports or academics, and others must be kept in an inferior position. A University of Chicago study suggested that bullies watch more aggression on television and in family interactions. Aggression is rewarded and respected, and humiliating others is tolerated. Compassion and empathy seem like weaknesses.

In order for the behavior to be bullying, your child must be abusing another child physically, verbally or socially not just once, but repeatedly. There must be an imbalance of power: your child must be bigger, stronger or more powerful than the other child. However, the power can be “social power.” In that case, your child uses his power to exclude the other one from cliques and activities. The other child must have asked your child to stop bullying him or her. The victim has to feel threatened and has to believe your child will keep harming him.

A bully will first either blame the victim or act like the victim himself. Many cry and say the other child provoked the situation. But if a teacher, bus driver or other person in authority has told you that your child is repeatedly terrorizing another, accept responsibility that your child may have a problem and that you are willing to fix it.

First, agree to work on the problem. If the victim’s family wants your child kept away from theirs, agree to that and keep in contact with them once a week on the phone for a few months.

Create a less violent, angry atmosphere at home. Don’t let your child play violent video games or watch television shows in which people act mean to one another or use violence. Use a rational approach to discipline and try not to lose your temper in front of your child. If the house rules vary from day to day, make them consistent and follow up if your child breaks them. Don’t use physical punishment or humiliation to discipline your child.

Read aloud books about bullies. Let him take care of a pet. Invite other children over to your house and monitor them. Let them play in a non-competitive way.

Enroll your child into groups that encourage cooperation and friendship, such as religious social groups or Scouts. Have him volunteer to learn the joy of helping others.

You are not alone. Other parents have had this problem and fixed it. One parent said the best thing that ever happened in their son’s life was when he changed from being a bully into a compassionate human being.

Mark Hutten, M.A.

==> JOIN Online Parent Support

How do I get my over-achieving daughter to slow down?

"I have taken the quiz and surprisingly found that I was a severely over indulgent parent. This angers me because I didn't think...