Risk Factors for Bullying (part 2)

John Bailey
9 min readMay 4, 2021

Last time, I shared the idea that the three A’s of bullying behavior — taking Advantage of power, using Aggression, and Accepting mistreatment — can be found more often at the upper and lower extremes of ranking systems like physical size, intellectual ability, popularity, etc.

I invited you to look at your own experience with bullies and bullying to notice how often that rings true. I wonder what you discovered…

That’s why it’s time to reveal the specific emotions adults should be looking for in the context of bullying. We should do this always, but especially in people who appear near the ends of any ranking system like those I mentioned last time.

RULE ONE: Emotions are biologically faster than rational thought.

We are always playing rational catch-up to our feelings. This is part of what makes them useful for signaling in reliable ways. Anger can be masked by a smile, but not before providing a warning glimpse of itself to those who are paying attention…

Can you notice that someone was sad or afraid, just by the way they walk, or the expression on their face? So can an aggressive person looking for a “safe” target. These emotions are not only feelings; they are powerful communications that most often occur outside conscious awareness. This is part of the signaling system we use to sort our roles and find our places in the social order.

With that in mind, let’s pay special attention to these five emotions and the roles they play in the bullying system, either by inspiring or triggering reactions in bullies and targets:

  • Fear
  • Frustration
  • Anger
  • Shame
  • Sadness


Once in a state of fear, we’re likely to react in more extreme ways (more aggressively or more submissively) to new input. Fear can inspire target behavior (submitting or fleeing) or trigger bullying behavior (posturing or fighting). There are a variety of factors that decide which, and when.

And, the behaviors may BOTH happen in the same person and in a very short time frame: A child is menaced and punched by a stronger one. Within moments, the targeted child may menace and punch a weaker one.

Fear can be a risk factor for being targeted — or even the instrument of bullying: A child with an intense fear is vulnerable to abuse of that fear — whether it is about insects or snakes — or even something actually life-threatening such as a food allergy. (Food allergy bullying is becoming commonplace.)

I had a client, “Larry” who came to me in his 40’s for a roller coaster phobia. As a child, little Larry had his first roller coaster experience while seated next to an older and more aggressive boy. When the older boy recognized Larry’s fear, he used that fear and threatened to throw Larry from the car on one of the high turns. As Larry clung to the safety bar for his life, the older boy violently rattled the bar and screamed that the tracks were broken and everyone was going to die, terrifying Larry (to the older boy’s great amusement).

This case illustrates several things, including the way a person in an already fearful state is more vulnerable to being further frightened. It also shows how fear can be attached to whatever we notice during the emotion: Larry came away from his experience terrified — not just of the other boy but of roller coasters as well.

Pre-existing fear may advertise a child as a “better target” because they may be more submissive. Or a fearful person ashamed of their fear may conceal it with aggression — triggering bullying behavior.

This is why it’s important to monitor for fear, especially fear that seems to be ongoing or regular. The source of the fear isn’t important unless it is related to an existing bullying problem because any consistent state of fear places a child at increased risk of bullying — or being bullied. It’s especially important to watch for fear in children who are outliers on the status-related scales I outlined last time:

• Physical size and ability
• Economic status
• Popularity
• Intellectual ability
• Health and Handicaps


Frustration is the emotion of unfruitful efforts and unmet needs. Many people, Americans in particular, have a low tolerance for it — maybe due to marketing propaganda that suggests unpleasant emotions are either intolerable or are a symptom of a mental disorder.

Think about something that frustrates you. Think about the last time you were frustrated by it. Imagine yourself back in that situation, and notice the emotion that came to you right after the frustration.

Based on our studies, the emotion that most often follows frustration is anger; the second-most common is a feeling of defeat or surrender. Have you noticed a tendency to react more strongly when you’re frustrated? That’s normal.

Like fear, frustration magnifies reactions. It can inspire target behavior (submitting or fleeing) based on a feeling of defeat — or trigger bullying behavior (posturing or fighting) based on feelings of anger.

Frustration in others can be interpreted as a sign of incompetence. And, our awareness of that can lead us to feel shame about being frustrated. And, shame is the super-bully-fuel…

It’s important to monitor for frustration, especially in children who haven’t learned to navigate it well. Anyone who has a low tolerance for frustration — is frustrated quickly or easily — who reacts to it with distressing anger, sadness, or apparent shame — is at increased risk of bullying — or being bullied. It’s especially important to watch for frustration issues in children who are outliers on the status-related scales.

In a future installment I’m going to reveal how completely necessary frustration is to our mental health, overall well being, and success — or how it becomes a trigger for dangerous addictions. I’ll show how you should be facilitating healthy doses of frustration often, and how you can be more effective yourself as you model skillful navigation of this normal and vital human emotion.


Anger is the extra-strength-potion emotion. It tends to cause tunnel vision for whatever we think caused the need for extra strength. When studying anger we must keep rule #1 in mind. Emotions are biologically faster than reasoned thought:

First we feel the emotion. Second we try to make sense of it.

Because of biology, we will always be behind in this. That’s why we usually think the “cause” is outside ourselves — which means we are not in control of the problem. The extra strength and focus anger that anger gives is supposed to help fix that — to overcome, and to seize control.

Anger in others can be a warning sign: that they are in a state of elevated strength; that they will be less open to reason and more prone to action; and that they are seeking something to focus that strength against to get or demonstrate control.

These are also the reasons anger may lead to bullying behavior — and why the real “source” of the emotion doesn’t matter. Once someone enters the state of anger, mission #1 will be to make sense of it through “blame” or targeting for the actions they will take.

A “need for extra strength” is the definition of “weakness”.

Thus, biologically, all anger springs from weakness, consciously perceived or not. Thirst and hunger are biological weaknesses we know make people prone to anger. A perception of weakness relative to another (on any of the social scales I’ve mentioned) may also encourage anger. And, shame is also a type of perceived weakness especially prone to activating anger. Finally, one of the recognized “stages of grieving” (a weakened state) is anger.

Anger is a common response or “next emotion” for ALL FOUR of the other emotions in the bullying system.

While anger erupting from fear or frustration usually gives some warning, anger that follows shame or sadness can be especially explosive and unexpected.

It’s especially important to watch for anger in children who are outliers on the status-related scales. Angry upper-end outliers will find it easier to blame — and abuse those below themselves. And, just being a lower-end outlier on any of those scales is likely to trigger anger — especially if there are other weak-making factors like poor sleep, poor nutrition, poor hydration, illness, or other stressors.

A child who shows patterns of anger may be experiencing the emotion in response to one — or many of these things — and like everyone else will be playing rational brain “catch up” to the faster emotional system. So, they are most likely not able to be aware of all the real factors involved.

In an upcoming installment I’m going to reveal how anger can turn dangerously into a self-sustaining system that works almost like an addiction — and what you can do to prevent or escape it.


Shame is a key state for understanding bullying. Shame will commonly follow other bully system emotions, especially Fear, Frustration, or Anger. Shame is the belief that one is bad, or unworthy — and is the “super-fuel” of bullying problems.

Shame is the most concerning of all the risk-factor emotions.

Shame may be difficult to detect for those who are not skilled at non verbal signals, partly because it is “the secret emotion” — people do their best to hide it, often behind anger or aggression. So, shame may be a trigger emotion for bullies.

Shame, like fear, can be used by a bully against a target — by threatening to reveal something like a secret crush — or an aspect of themselves like gender identification or orientation. People who believe themselves unworthy are also often welcoming of mistreatment. So, shame is a very high risk factor for targets of bullying.

Intense shame is closely associated with intense violence — toward the self or others.

We must watch for shame in children who are outliers at either end of the status-related scales — and look behind the emotions of Anger and Sadness, particularly, for an underlying shame that can dramatically increase the risk of participating in the bullying system — or of injury from that participation.

In a future post, I’m going to reveal how Shame interacts with some of the other emotions, how it can turn dangerously into a self-sustaining system, and what you can do to prevent or escape it.


Sadness may come from many life experiences — including the choice to give up something due to overwhelming Frustration or Fear. Sadness is also related to Shame — the bullying super-fuel, and prolonged sadness — especially when related to bullying — may be a risk factor for harm to self or others.

Sadness offers a rather clear set of non-verbal communications that may also make a sad person vulnerable as a target for bullying, although there is risk for the bully in the form of social blow-back, depending on the situation.

We need to watch for Sadness in children who are outliers on the status-related scales — especially at the bottom end. Sad lower-end outliers may be easier targets, and may also be suffering shame. And, just being a lower-end outlier on any of those scales is likely to inspire Sadness. This is especially the case if the child doesn’t enjoy a higher position on one of the other scales to balance out their experiences.

Remember again that Anger is one of the main emotions people use to escape weak feelings like sadness. So, a chronically sad youngster may show explosive Anger at some point.

Sadness is a risk emotion for potential targets — and also a warning emotion that someone may be getting bullied. If a youngster you know is displaying sadness (and especially if they’re trying to hide it) — consider deepening your conversation with them — or seeking professional help to resolve it.