Aggressive bullies are the active instigators of the bunch, and the ones most likely to resemble our stereotypical beliefs about what a bully is. They are the kids most likely to be seen shaking kids down for possessions or relentlessly targeting any kid they consider weak. Aggressive bullies “generally initiate aggression toward their peers and are generally individuals who are belligerent, fearless, coercive, confident, tough, and impulsive. This type of behavior typically comes from individuals who have a low tolerance for frustration coupled with a stronger inclination toward violence and a desire to dominate others.” (Espelage & Swearer, 2004)
What motivates the aggressive bully
Aggressive bullies, for one reason or another, enjoy being mean. It literally makes them feel good. They do it for sport, for entertainment, and because it gives them pleasure and leaves them feeling good inside. They are individuals hooked on the pleasurable feelings of schadenfreude received from putting others down. Or they might be youth with a compulsive need to exert power over others and feel in control. Either way, bullying others is a rewarding activity for them.
Because of this, aggressive bullies are generally the hardest type to deal with. Their bullying tends to be random, indiscriminate, and is driven by personality characteristics that thrive on aggression and hostility towards others. Changing this is a matter of ongoing support and intervention to alter this aspect of their character.
The link between childhood trauma and aggressive bullying
Some aggressive bullies fit the mold of the child who is abused at home and responds by taking out his frustrations on kids at school. A recent study from DePaul University found that if a kid feels like he is being arbitrarily punished at home, he’s more likely to become a bully – someone meting out arbitrary punishments to others. (Week, 2010) When children are abused, whether physically or emotionally, it triggers a classic fight or flight response. Some kids may withdraw into isolation or depression, whereas others become aggressive. But since children are generally incapable of taking out their aggressions against an adult, kids who are strongly inclined towards this “fight” response end up transferring this aggression to an area where they can retaliate or exert power: among their peers.
We would also caution readers to understand that there are many types of child abuse, and not all fit within classical definitions. For instance, divorce is perfectly legal, yet it tends to cause lasting harm to children at rates 4 times to 8 times greater than comparable general population studies for youth who are molested. (GCF, 2012) Verbal abuse is quite common and will not land a perpetrator in jail, yet many studies show it to be more harmful than either physical or sexual abuse. (Ney et al., 1994; GCF, 2012) Many negative family environments are capable of producing problematic children, and the often overlooked and normalized traumas such as divorce, parental absence or family conflict are just as severe as traditional forms of abuse. Children can be pushed towards bullying behaviors in response to any one of them.