8 Reasons Why Teens Bully Others

Girl getting bullied in high school hallway
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Why do kids bully others? In order to help both bullies and their targets, it's important to understand bullying behavior. But to do so, adults need to move past the usual assumptions (say, that all bullies are loners or lack self-esteem).

Research shows that the reasons behind bullying can run the gamut from lack of impulse control and anger management issues to revenge and a longing to fit in. Knowing more about why bullies do what they do can guide the way this behavior is addressed.

Power

Teens who want to be in control or have power are prone to bullying. This may be because they do not feel any power in their own life, which makes obtaining it in social interactions more appealing.

These teens may prefer to only interact with others when it is on their terms. If things do not go their way, they may resort to bullying. Tweens and teens engaging in relational aggression (often called "mean girl" behavior) also may be seeking power.

Despite the prevalence of the "mean girl" trope in our culture, girls aren't the only ones who bully by using gossip, put-downs, social pressure, exclusion, and other indirect social tactics to pursue social dominance. In fact, research shows that boys are just as likely to engage in relational aggression as girls.

Athletes and physically strong students (or kids with other types of perceived power) may resort to bullying because of the power they have over weaker or smaller students. Additionally, some athletes bully each other in an attempt to eliminate competition on the team.

Popularity

Sometimes, bullying can be a manifestation of social status. Kids who are popular often make fun of kids who are less popular by perpetuating relational aggression. Popularity also can lead kids to spread rumors and gossip, engage in slut-shaming, and ostracize others.

Meanwhile, kids who are trying to climb the social ladder at school or gain some social power may resort to bullying to get attention. They also might bully others to diminish the social status of another person.

Payback

Some teens who have been victims of bullying to look for ways to retaliate or to seek revenge. These kids are often referred to as "bully-victims," and they often feel justified in their actions because they too have been harassed and tormented.

When they bully others, they may feel a sense of relief and vindication for what they experienced. Sometimes, these kids target someone weaker or more vulnerable than them. Other times, they will even go after the person who bullied them.

Problems at Home

Teens who come from abusive homes are more likely to bully because aggression and violence are modeled for them. Kids with permissive or absent parents also may resort to bullying. It gives them a sense of power and control, which is lacking in their own life. And kids with low self-esteem may bully as a way to cover for a low sense of self-worth.

Sibling bullying also can lead to bullying at school. When an older brother or sister taunts and torments a younger sibling, this creates a sense of powerlessness. To regain that feeling of power, these kids then bully others, sometimes even emulating the actions of their older sibling.

Pleasure

Kids who are bored and looking for entertainment will sometimes resort to bullying to add some excitement and drama to their lives. They also might choose to bully because they lack attention and supervision from their parents. As a result, bullying becomes an outlet for getting attention.

Meanwhile, kids that lack empathy often enjoy hurting other people's feelings. Not only do they appreciate the sense of power they get from bullying others, but they may find hurtful "jokes" funny.

Prejudices

It's not uncommon for teens bully peers who are different in some way. For instance, kids may be targeted because they have special needs or food allergies. Other times, kids are singled out for their race, religion, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Some sort of prejudice is often at the root of bullying.

Peer Pressure

Sometimes, kids bully others to fit in with a clique, even if it means going against their better judgment. Often, these kids are more concerned with fitting in and being accepted than they are worried about the consequences of bullying.

Other times, kids will bully because they are simply going along with the group. Fear of not being accepted or fear of becoming the next target can lead kids to bully in groups.

How to Help

If your child is being bullied, get them help. Contact their school (if it's taking place at school) and a counselor, if needed. Listen to them and let them know you are there for them. Emphasize that it's not their fault. Make a plan to keep them safe.

If your child is bullying others, step in to stop the behavior and address any underlying issues. Be sure to guide your child to take responsibility for their actions as well as to reflect on what motivated them to engage in bullying.

A Word From Verywell

Making sense of why kids bully others can help victims, parents, and perpetrators alike better understand what is going on—and provide insights into how to stop it. While this does not in any way excuse the behavior, rarely is the bullying really about the person who is getting bullied. Instead, the behavior is often a reflection of the struggles the person who is bullying is going through.

10 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon is a published author and a bullying prevention expert.