Who Are the Bullies?

John Bailey
5 min readFeb 2, 2021

Say the word “bully” and most people picture this sort of thing. They imagine one big bully kid who terrorizes everyone and takes everyone’s lunch money — like Nelson on the Simpsons.

If people were that one-dimensional, life would be very simple: We’d just identify all the bullies and kick them out of school. The problem would be solved completely in a week’s time and we’d all go about our lives.

But, that’s not any more real than a cartoon because people are more complex and interesting than Dudley Doright and Snidely Whiplash.

There are examples of psychopaths who perceive other humans as objects for their amusement, and who take genuine joy in toying with, humiliating and harming others. However, the extreme “Halloween version” of bullies are thankfully rare cases and not the general rule — and I’m going to write accordingly.

Because “bullying” is mostly the protection and advancement of social status through aggressive means, there’s a good chance the majority of people who are honest with themselves would confess to doing things they would call “bullying” — if those things were done to them. Things like harming someone else’s reputation or social connections qualify. I’ll bet you can’t get through an evening of prime-time television programming without witnessing “adults” doing this to each other…

Where the bullies are…

In the spring of 1998, a survey of 15,686 sixth through tenth graders who completed the World Health Organization’s Health Behavior in School-aged Children survey answered questions about bullying behaviors. A study of that data published through the National Institutes of Health showed that 29.9% of those children admitted to some kind of involvement in bullying.

Thirteen percent (13.0%) of them admitted to bullying others, while 6.3% admitted to playing the roles of both bully and target, for a total of 19.3% admitting to bullying others.

But, only 10.6% admitted to being the target of bullying. Add the 6.3% who played both roles and only 16.9% of the children admitted to being bullied at some point.

This makes me curious about whether there are 2.4% more bullies than there are targets, or is it just more humiliating to admit being a target than it is to admit being a bully. Which do you think is more likely?

Regardless, nearly 20% of our “little angels” will admit to bullying behavior against others. (And, I wonder how many others wouldn’t admit it — or didn’t recognize they’d done it…)

It is important to allow this actual measure of the real world to destroy our “adult” fantasies about who the bullies are. Because they aren’t just the big, dumb, poor, or ethnic kids. Bullies are the “nice” kids you think you know.

If your child has nine friends, the above study suggests at least two of them are engaged in some kind of bullying. And, your child has a 20% or greater chance of being one of them — even if your child has also been a target of bullying.

Does this inspire curiosity — or denials and rationalizations?

The math above is important for more than to escaping counterproductive fantasies. It is important to understand the problem as it faces the teachers. If a group of ten students is likely to have two who use bullying tactics, then a classroom of thirty will average six kids who bully.

Imagine doing all the planning, teaching, assigning, quizzing and question-answering required to teach subject matter — and also be vigilant enough to monitor several kids who may be doing everything from giving dirty looks to throwing furtive punches.

How does this change your perceptions, and maybe even your expectations about how schools are supposed to solve the bullying problem?

What can I do?

Wake up to the reality that the challenges your kids face aren’t what you imagine. Try to be more empathetic with the kids’ reality.

Remember that kids who are secure in their social status and self-image are far less likely to bully or to be targeted. Protect your children by helping them build emotional resilience. Remind them that stuff happens accidentally more often than intentionally, and that due to math someone has to be picked last for the team. Help them to NOT take things personally.

Help them assign useful meanings to their experiences:

I saw a toddler fall down and skin his knee. It bled. His mother flew into hysterics as though the event were life-threatening. What meaning does that child now give to seeing blood? A different reaction from the mother installs a different meaning for the child…

Don’t talk at kids with useless philosophies or platitudes about “being nice” — or always expecting consideration from others. Be realistic in expecting that people are distracted by their own needs in life. And, teach empathy for this simple truth by modeling it yourself when you give others the benefit of the doubt.

Be frank about the fact that life is a contact sport: Feelings will get skinned like knees do. And, just like knees, feelings will also heal.

Creating great drama over every owie doesn’t teach resilience; it can condition fragility. One way to help prevent continual re-injury is with the protective power of humor (I’ll cover other methods in future posts). Humor evolved for this. Model having a sense of humor about things that go poorly for yourself — and then encourage them to approach life with a sense of humor about their own challenges.

Encourage young people to build resilience and creative strategies for resolving every kind of “bullying” short of credible risk of physical injury. Help them understand that as a bright line where you will be there to support them 100%. Confidence in that will help them feel secure enough to develop competence in coping with other issues. Encourage them to be personally resourceful, knowing you will have their back if it comes to it.