What Are the Risk Factors for Becoming a Bully?

A Checklist of Risk Factors for Teachers and Administrators

Middle school boy being bullied at school

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Some bullies are big. Some bullies are popular. And some bullies are loners. As a result, there is no one type of bully and there is no one single cause of bullying. Instead, a host of factors put children at risk for bullying their peers. Sometimes temperament, size and self-esteem play a role. Other times, family background increases the likelihood of bullying. Still other times, kids resort to bullying because they are bullied themselves.

Here is a list of the most common factors that influence bullying. Familiarizing yourself with these factors will not only help you identify why bullying is occurring, but also help you improve your school's climate and prevent bullying when addressed.

Family Risk Factors

Sometimes a person's family will influence their bullying behavior. Here are a few family issues that contribute to bullying.

Witnessing or Experiencing Abuse

Children from abusive homes are more likely to bully than other children because aggression, violence and manipulation are modeled for them. If you have a student that is angry a lot and lashing out at other students, do not automatically assume the worst. Dig a little deeper to find out what is going on at home. They may need more support and guidance than disciplinary action for their bullying behaviors.

Having Permissive Parents

When parents do not establish rules for their children or provide adequate supervision, their children often resort to bullying. What's more, permissive parents are less likely to institute consequences or attempt to stop the bullying. If you have a student that seems to have very little parental involvement or supervision, be on alert. The lack of relationship between the child and their parent can create all types of issues, including bullying behavior.

Seeing or Experiencing Bullying by Siblings

When an older brother or sister puts a younger sibling in a head lock or twists an arm behind the back, this creates a sense of powerlessness. It also is sibling bullying. To regain that feeling of power, these kids may bully others, sometimes even emulating the older sibling.

Personality Risk Factors

Kids who possess certain personality traits are more prone to bullying. Here is a list of contributing factors that may influence a child's tendency to bully.

Exhibiting Low Self-Esteem

Kids with low self-esteem are prone to bullying because it gives them a sense of power and control, which is something they find lacking in their own life. They may also brag about their exploits and abilities in order to cover for a low sense of self-worth. Remember, even though bullying attracts negative attention, it is still attention.

Relating to Others Negatively

Bully-prone kids often make negative comments about a person's appearance, intelligence or abilities. They may also be intolerant of other races, cultures or lifestyles. Much of this prejudicial bullying comes from fear, a lack of understanding and is often learned at home. Work with students to learn how to be more accepting of one another.

Craving Power

Children who always want to be in charge are also prone to bullying. They only work with others when it's on their terms. If things don't go their way, then they resort to bullying. Additionally, teens who are striving to be popular also are prone to bullying. If you have a student that is bossy, controlling or demanding, look for outlets in the classroom. Teach the student how to be a leader in a respectful way.

Showing Little Empathy

Children who have not learned to be empathetic may also resort to bullying. They are either unable or unwilling to understand how a person might feel when cruel things are said or done. They also blame the victim in some way. For example, a child might say, "he needs to learn to take a joke" instead of acknowledging the victim's pain. The key to working with these kids is to get them to imagine what it might be like to be in another person's shoes. One way this is often accomplished is by encouraging service projects or volunteer hours.

Exhibiting a Low Tolerance for Frustration

When a situation doesn't turn out as expected, this can cause frustration. For most children, they learn to adapt to the situation and the frustration subsides. But for some children, not getting what they want feels unbearable. As a result, they bully others to force the desired outcome. Typically, perfectionism is at the root of frustration levels. Talk to him about the fact that situations do not have to be perfect.

Behavioral Risk Factors

Sometimes kids exhibit certain behaviors that put them at risk for solving issues through bullying rather than healthy forms of communication and collaboration. Check out this list of behavioral risk factors as they relate to bullying.

Acting With Aggression

Aggressive children often have poor impulse control and a quick temper. Rather than using reasoning, they resort to coercion and dominance. They also may hit and kick instead of using words. Strategize with the student on ways to control impulses and become more patient.

Using Physical Strength to Intimidate

Children who use their size and their strength to get what they want often resort to bullying. They control situations by making other children feel weak or powerless. The goal with physically aggressive students is to get them to channel their strength in healthy ways. For instance, strong and powerful students can become very good at standing up for people weaker than they are. Work with this student to become a mentor or buddy to other students who need extra support.

Excluding Other Children

Every child wants to have close friends. But bully-prone children may try to isolate people. Not only do they refuse to let another person participate, but they encourage other kids to ignore the person as well. Mean girls are especially known for excluding others. One practical way to end this type of behavior in the classroom is to assign seats and assign group projects. Allowing kids to pick not only their seat, but their teammates can create more exclusion. Additionally, be sure to foster an inclusive environment and stress the importance of including everyone.

Getting Harassed by Others

Often children bully others because they too are being bullied. These children are referred to as bully victims and suffer from the same characteristics as a victim. But to compensate for their painful feelings, they often bully other children. Anytime, a child bullies another you should thoroughly investigate the situation. Frequently, there is more at play than just the one bullying incident. If the child engaging in bullying behavior is also being bullied, he not only needs disciplinary action for his poor choices but support and intervention for the bullying he has experienced.

A Word from Verywell

If you recognize some of these risk factors in your students, do not assume it will go away or work itself out. Ignoring the risk factors won't help the situation nor will it improve your school climate. Remember, addressing bullying behavior early can prevent serious problems later. 

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon is a published author and a bullying prevention expert.