Truth about bullies

Last week, I posted about bullying and the need for parents to take the issue seriously. My husband and I sat down and had a long talk, and we examined the topic from several perspectives. In an effort to get to the problem’s source, he asked me a question that I can’t seem to shake:

How does a bully become a bully?

It’s a simple question with a tragically complicated array of answers, and I don’t pretend to know them all. But I have some ideas.

Most of us, in our formative years (and, if you’re like me, long after), struggle with selfishness and bossiness and self-control. However, I think relatively few of us instinctively humiliate or scare or hurt others in order to bring ourselves power. Behavior like that is either learned, or represents some sort of immature conclusion. This brings us to the shadow-ridden, ugly truth about the ways in which a bully is created.

When we (or our children) are faced with a bully, we don’t see his hurt – but on some level we perceive it. What would drive a child to harm or scare or shame another for their own gain?

Misguided revenge. Anger. Fear. Sadness. Loneliness. Rock-bottom self-esteem.

Over what? Maybe a horrible home life, or a high level of sensitivity, or perhaps it’s the result of having been bullied him or herself. Sadly, there are countless reasons. But the truth is that all of us, when backed into a corner physically or emotionally, we fight for our very lives. Our very self. Even if it means fighting the wrong person.

When we’re bullied, we are victims. But I would assert that bullies are victims, too – they’re just not our victims.

We don’t see the hurt. We see the meanness and the desire to inflict pain, and that’s hard to see past. But what if we did? What if we found it within ourselves to, for a moment, set aside our protective instincts and took a deeper look and asked some hard questions. Why is this person in such unimaginable pain that he or she would lash out at others? What if we knew the dark answer. Would that change things in any meaningful way?

Let me ask you this: if nothing changes for a bully, will that bully ever change? What if this bully received grace and understanding in favor of ridicule and exile?  I don’t have to be a trained psychologist to tell you with the utmost certainty that, without grace, that bully will (at best) never change and (at worst) grow increasingly worse. And the very fact that a bully is a bully tells me he’s not getting enough grace and understanding from…anywhere.

Now we’re getting to the hardest stuff. As parents (or as bullying victims ourselves), our instincts tell us to protect our children (or ourselves) above all else. It’s normal and natural and desirable to want to protect ourselves and our loved ones. It’s the natural order of things and our first responsibility. No question.

But does that have to be the end of it? Once we’ve gotten to the bottom of things, once we know the Who and the How and the When, once we’re aware and involved and our children are safe, can we not also reach out? Can we not also dig deep within ourselves and extend grace to the hurting, the injured, the lonely? Because that’s what these bully-kids are.


Out of self-preservation, abused dogs snap – yet we rescue them. We give them love and time to heal, and many of them do. What more, then, could we do for children?

So the real question is not how is a bully made? It is: how does a bully recover?


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