No parent wants their kids to be bullies, and it’s upsetting to find out that your child has been doing the bullying. This can be hard for parents to understand. Most parents believe that they’ve taught their children to be polite, kind, and respectful of others.
So why would your teen resort to bullying behaviors? Don’t they know better?
The truth is that there are a lot of reasons that teens might behave like bullies. Getting to the root of your teen’s motivations can help you address the behavior and enable your teen to make changes.
Take a look at some of the reasons why teens bully and how you can help.
Teenagers are at a time in their development when their relationships with their peers are some of the most important relationships in their lives. Their level of popularity in their peer group and their perceived social standing among their friends and classmates are very important to them, and teens who feel like they’re lower on the social ladder will look for ways to move up.
Sometimes, teens decide that their path to a higher social status depends on bringing others down. They may focus on someone whose social status seems to be on shaky ground and bully them in order to pull that person further down and give themselves room to move up.
Or bullying may be performative – they may bully a peer who has a lower social status than themselves while other people are watching in order to assert their own status.
Social hierarchies are real and feeling inferior can be painful. But it’s important to encourage teens to be themselves and connect with people whose company they enjoy and who they can relate to without worrying about status.
Another common reason for bullying is revenge. What many people don’t realize is that there is often overlap between teens who bully and teens who are bullied. It’s relatively common for teenagers who have been bullied to lash out themselves.
A bullied teen might go after the person who bullied them, especially if they’re now feeling more secure in their own position in their social hierarchy than they did when they were being bullied. However, some bullied teens act out by bullying someone else – typically someone more vulnerable than themselves. Doing this may make them feel stronger and help them cope with their feelings of powerlessness surrounding their own bullying.
Intervention in bullying situations is important. Giving your teen resources and coping skills to empower them when they’re being bullied can prevent them from resorting to bullying behaviors themselves.
The teenage years are a strange time. While teens are beginning to look like adult versions of themselves and often feel very grown-up – and even begin taking on certain adult responsibilities, like driving and holding a job – they’re legally still children and are treated as such on a variety of fronts such as:
- They have curfews.
- They have to attend school whether they want to or not.
- They have to follow rules that they may not agree with.
Parents or other adults still control many aspects of a teenager’s life, sometimes including who they can see and where they can go. All of this can cause teens to feel powerless.
Bullying may be a teenager’s attempt to assert some type of power in their lives. If a teenager feels out of control, bullying a peer may make them feel like they have some control over another person.
They can elicit a reaction from the person that they’re bullying. They can cause pain. They may be able to make the person they’re bullying change behavior or do something in order to make the bullying stop.
For teens who are feeling powerless, the power that comes along with bullying can be attractive.
It’s important to help teenagers find ways to assert their independence and take on appropriate responsibilities for their ages. This can help them feel more powerful in healthy ways that don’t harm others.
Bias and Prejudice
Often, when teenagers bully, it’s because of biases or prejudices that they’ve learned or developed over the years.
It’s not unusual for people to fear or dislike someone that they perceive as being different or “other”. They may choose targets based on race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. Kids with special needs or disabilities of some kind are also frequent targets for young bullies.
Children often pick up biases and prejudices from their families or from the community around them. Engage your teen in frank, honest discussions about race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and other differences to help them understand others better and overcome prejudices before they can take root.
Bullying isn’t always a solo activity – it’s fairly common for bullies to target in groups. And teens who are participating in a group bullying session may not necessarily be doing so because they want to bully.
They may feel pressured to join in on the bullying or risk losing their place in a clique or social group. They may worry that they will become the target for bullies themselves if they fail to participate. Or they may simply go along with whatever the crowd is doing without thinking very much about it at all, even if they wouldn’t have chosen to bully anyone when on their own.
Teens often tout their own individuality when what they really mean is that they’re differentiating themselves from their parents and family but working very hard at conforming within their peer group.
It’s important to support your teen in becoming their own, separate individual while reminding them to use their better judgment and maintain their individuality when it comes to their friends as well.
Remind your teen that they don’t need to go along with the crowd – they should be confident enough in themselves to listen to their better judgment when their peers are engaging in bullying behaviors.
Bullying is a problem in and of itself, but it can also be a symptom of other problems as well. Understanding your teen’s motivations and addressing their concerns can be one way to help your teen stop bullying and make better choices.