Understanding the Nature of Bullies and Bullying

People tend to think of bullying as something that happens only to children and to feel that the word is inappropriate when applied to adults. In fact, bullying can happen to anyone at any age. The victims, for example, may not always be quiet, shy, or vulnerable. The reasons may also be trivial, even absurd. Indeed, in many cases there is no reason at all.


A useful distinction is often made between direct and indirect bullying. The first is blatant and obvious: punches, kicks, face to face insults, and so on. The second is more subtle and often takes place behind the victim’s back: spreading rumours, for example, or making faces and rolling your eyes when someone speaks. No matter what form it takes, bullying usually results in physical, psychological, or emotional suffering, undermining confidence and instilling fear. And whether it happens day in day out or only once, bullying is still bullying.

It is often said that bullies seek power. After all, once he has humiliated and broken his victim, the bully has control and can choose whether or not to inflict suffering. Observe a spiteful child and you will probably find that he often throws fake punches and kicks, just for the pleasure of seeing his victim wince. But power is not the only motive. Some people bully for sheer sadistic pleasure, others out of a desire for revenge. Many do so in order to boost their self-esteem. After all, self-esteem depends on how people feel they compare to others; through bullying, they can push someone down the ladder and thus raise their own status and confidence.

So who are these bullies? Professor Weddle, of the UMKC Law School, questions the stereotype of the neglected, brutalized child lashing out in pain. In fact, argues Weddle, the average school bully is more likely to be popular and confident than isolated and abused. Indeed, the most vicious and destructive bullies also tend to be intelligent and successful students. In Weddle’s opinion, the single most important and widespread trait is a lack of empathy.

Finally, it should be stressed once again that bullying can happen anywhere: a husband can bully his wife, a sister can bully her brother, a parent can bully their child. Bullying in the workplace is also a major problem. Not only does it cause pain to the victim, it also creates a poisonous, negative atmosphere that undermines the smooth running of the business. And bullying can happen at any stage of life – from the nursery school to the retirement home.

The Victim

Victims often assume that they have done something to deserve it. This is rarely true. In fact, it may not even be personal: the bully is just looking for someone to control, humiliate, or vent spite on. There is no such thing as a typical victim; the only thing that is typical is the imbalance of power. If the bully is larger, stronger, and more aggressive he obviously has an advantage. But other imbalances can be just as important. The bully may be more popular, successful, or beautiful. Wealth and social status also help.

The most obvious target would be quiet, clever, and socially awkward. But people with fiery tempers can also be targeted. Sometimes, the bully is simply looking for attention, and the quiet person who barely reacts is no fun. Those who respond with fury and aggression, on the other hand, will attract an audience. Some become victims because their appearance is unusual – maybe they are exceptionally tall, short, fat or thin; or maybe they have ginger hair, a big nose, or goofy teeth. Of course, normality (whatever that means) is no guarantee of safety: some are picked on simply for being too bland and ordinary!

Finally, it may be some comfort to those on the receiving end to learn that they are not alone. A recent UK survey found that nearly half those questioned had experienced some form of bullying by the age of 18.


Unfortunately, there is now a whole new form of bullying – cyberbullying. This is of special concern to parents, many of whom find it both frightening and bewildering. In essence, cyberbullying means inflicting harm through computers, Iphones, cellphones etc. This can include text messages, hurtful comments on social media, and footage loaded onto video-sharing sites.

Bullying is always ugly and hurtful, but cyberbullying can be especially damaging. At their worst, bullies can wage a vicious, relentless campaign against their victim, often encouraging others to join in. But, so long as this bullying is restricted to the school or office, the victim at least gets a break. Cyberbullying, however, can be waged at any time of the day or night and involve an almost limitless number of people.

Another problem with cyberbullying is that it takes place anonymously. The bully does not have his victim standing before him, frightened and tearful. Because of this, he has no idea when he has gone too far. Neither are there sympathetic bystanders who can step in. Such anonymity allows free rein to the worst side of the worst people, and the results can be horrific.

Most distressing of all is the fact that photos and videos cannot be erased once they have gone viral. Imagine an overweight teenage girl bullied at a High School in Canada. One day, two bullies film her slipping over on some ice and post the video online, with her name attached and a title like “fatty falls over”. By the end of the week, everyone in the school has seen it. Her parents complain, and the bullies are made to take the video down. But it is too late: others have uploaded it and it has been commented on by people from all over the English-speaking world. The devastating psychological effects of this should be obvious.

Fighting Back

So what can be done? First, it is important to be assertive. If you are simply passive and allow the bully to do what he likes, not only will he continue but other people will assume the bullying doesn’t bother you. Keep your chin up, shoulders back, and look the bully straight in the eyes. Also, keep your voice level and clear. When you speak, do not accuse, just focus on how his actions are affecting you. Don’t explain, backtrack or apologize. Just repeat what you have said over and over until they get the message.

The parents of bullied children find themselves in an especially difficult situation. Some explode with anger and confront either the bully or his mother and father. But this can be dangerous. After all, no one likes to be told that their child is behaving in such a way. Some will tell their child to fight back. Again, this can be dangerous: life is not like a mawkish Hollywood movie in which the bully backs down as soon as someone stands up to him. Thankfully, schools now take the issue far more seriously than they used to.

Whatever form it takes, bullying reveals an ugly and depressing side of human nature. And saddest of all, no one benefits. The victim obviously suffers. But so do those around him. The bullied often take out their pain on other people, feeling that they too ought to suffer: bullied children may attack younger siblings or yell abuse at their parents, bullied workers may become sullen and resentful, creating a toxic atmosphere for those who work with them. Ultimately, even the bully does not escape. Bullying can become a habit, making the bully unpleasant company and leaving him isolated and alone.

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