There are no excuses for bullying, but that also doesn’t mean that those who engage in it are simply the embodiment of evil and without conscience. Bullies have their reasons too, and while they may not be right, reasonable or legitimate, it helps to understand what they are. This knowledge will help you better get to the root causes of bullying (which will help you formulate better resolutions), and it’s also important information to use when trying to provide comfort to a bullied child.
Why kids bully: Personal insecurity
One of the most consistent laws of human psychology is this: hostility and prejudice are deeply rooted in personal insecurity. The more insecure the psyche, the less tolerant it is of differences or threats between it and the outside world, and the more aggressively that person will attack others who either sway from their perceived normal or in some way remind themselves of this personal insecurity. (This is why a youth struggling with their own sexuality may aggressively bully the openly gay kid, whose presence dares to remind him of his struggle against his own homosexual feelings.) Since teens are naturally insecure to begin with, most of the bullying that takes place in schools has at its core some type of personal insecurity.
It goes back to the principle that our social world is governed by comparisons: If you’re worse, then I must be better, or so the thinking goes. “Thus,” remarks psychiatrist James Hollis, “when I feel so bad about myself, perhaps I can at least feel superior to you.” (Hollis, 2007, p. 135) It’s important bullied children know this. Whether it’s putting others down to feel better about themselves or bullying to go along with the group, bullying is always closely related to personal insecurity. TRULY SECURE AND HAPPY PEOPLE HAVE NO NEED TO SPEND THEIR TIME FOCUSING ON THE IMAGINED FLAWS OF OTHERS. They’ve got better things to do than focus their energy around the life of someone they claim they can’t stand. The only ones who do this are those people who are personally (and often profoundly) insecure.
All bullies are insecure to one degree or another, no matter how well they might pretend otherwise. The only exception to this rule is the bullying that sometimes takes place by popular kids, who make it a sport for their personal entertainment. Yet even then, insecurity often plays a background role.
Why kids bully: Disgruntled friendships
A surprisingly large number of bullying cases involve kids who used to be friends, and then for one reason or another, these friendships turned sour. One or both of the parties from this disgruntled friendship feels hurt and raw about it, and thus begins an escalated feud that evolves into bullying. The deepest wounds often come from those we love or once cared about, and just like the bitter feuding that so commonly arises between divorcee’s, many bullying cases emerge out of former friendships that fell into disrepair.
Why kids bully: To please a friend
When one child dislikes another, those around him can often earn easy kudos by going along with it. Even when the other youth aren’t consciously aware of such a decision, people tend to generally go along with – and ultimately adopt – the beliefs that their friends hold. So if one friend adamantly believes that a certain kid is a strange degenerate who deserves to be bullied, his other friends will tend to subconsciously adopt this perspective as well, and will start to think the same way themselves. This is also why bullying so commonly involves groups of kids and seldom occurs one on one: even though the motivations for bullying may come from only one classmate, the contagion generally spreads to all of that kid’s friends and allies.
Why kids bully: Social punishment
“Our kids may decide, out of righteous indignation, that they have to punish someone.”
– Rosalind Wiseman (2010, p. 97)
Americans take a sadistic joy in exacting punishment against anyone who offends our sensibilities. This is why it should come as no surprise when our kids mimic this behavior and invent reasons to do the same. Just like the adults in our society regularly create excuses to punish those who seem strange or different from us, kids will engage in the same self-righteous behavior, deciding that someone who acts different or appears strange is a “fag” or “freak” or “pervert” who deserves to be ridiculed and punished. No emotion is more dangerous than self-righteous hatred, since it turns even the most horrendous, despicable actions into an act of “good” in the mind of the perpetrator. Kids think, “this person really is a plight against society, so thus, I can do a good deed by tormenting them as punishment.” When people decide in their head that someone is evil or the trash of society, no crime against them, including murder, is beyond the scope of this twisted justification.
Why kids bully: Bullying and group persuasion
As discussed in our section on bully psychology, the desire to go along with the group can even alter a person’s perception of something they just witnessed. So if group persuasion is powerful enough to change one’s fundamental understanding of reality, it can certainly persuade an insecure child or teenager that the group is right and the person being targeted must deserve such treatment. Even when kids don’t buy into the bully psychology, group persuasion may convince them to reluctantly join in.
Fearing the wrath of the group or not wanting to stand out or be different, they go along with something their heart tells them is wrong. Parents shouldn’t underestimate how powerful this influence can be. If the group decides a certain kid is a “fag,” then by the (il)logical deduction of teenagers, anyone who speaks up about the bullying or refuses to participate must be “pro-fag” or a closet gay themselves. If someone is a “freak” and you don’t bully them, then you must have a freakish mind yourself. To an insecure youth who is struggling to establish their own identity, standing up against bullying generally means aligning oneself with whatever imaginary flaws or social labels the group has decided the other kid deserves to be bullied for. Given the choice between going along with the group and openly declaring your allegiance with “freaks, perverts, or degenerates,” it’s little wonder why so many youth end up going along with the group. This doesn’t make it right, but it does help to explain it.
Why kids bully: The emotional thrill of bullying
Sadly, human beings are wired with the capacity to take pleasure in another person’s pain, a psychological phenomenon commonly referred to as schadenfreude. fMRI scans of the brain show that schadenfreude registers in the brain as a distinct form of pleasure, comparable to the satisfaction one can derive from eating a good meal. “Anytime someone suffers a misfortune, that’s an opportunity,” explains social psychologist Richard H. Smith of the University of Kentucky. “Life is essentially relativistic; (other people’s) misfortunes are good for the self.” (Anthes, 2010, p. 40) In other words, their pain can be our gain.
All of us are capable of feeling pleasure in another’s misfortune when it’s beneficial to our psyche. For example, if that boss who tormented you for years gets fired, even the most caring and forgiving among us would have to fight back a smile. Kids with a sound psychology and a healthy level of empathy will only feel such pleasure when it involves someone they are in competition with (another girl who is after the same boy), or someone they feel has personally wronged them (whether or not that assessment is accurate). Bullies, on the other hand, tend to get hooked on this feeling or experience it indiscriminately, so that putting others down gives them a jolt of pleasure, regardless of whether or not their target has ever done anything to them. This is especially common among kids who come from abusive environments at home. Since they are powerless to lash out against their own aggressors, this sense of schadenfreude gets transferred against the world at large, and bullying can become a source of both pleasure and relief from this pent-up aggression.
Why kids bully: Social jockeying
Some children know precisely what they are doing when they bully, and have no qualms about bringing down others as a way to try and elevate themselves in the social hierarchy. This is not about a subconscious insecurity, but a very intentional and calculated social strategy. Thus, many kids will resort to the use of bullying as a means of gaining friendship alliances, out of a desire to manipulate group dynamics, or to otherwise serve their personal interests.
Reality TV shows such as Survivor or any of the other social contest programs send a horrible lesson to kids on this front, and are making this type of bullying far more common. Such “reality” contests encourage players to manipulate other contestants through deceit, backstabbing, and other not-very-noble behaviors in order to form alliances that will keep them in the game as others are voted out. These shows send a clear message that deceit, gossip, and verbal/physical aggression or intimidation are perfectly acceptable ways to manipulate your social world for your own personal gain. Given how popular such shows have become (there are literally dozens of such social contest shows on TV/cable at any given time), it’s no surprise that more and more teens see such narcissistic behaviors as both socially savvy and acceptable.