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Guest Column: Dr. Missy, Feelings Helper

What Makes a Bully?

There is no one cause of bullying, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. Bullying behaviors begin to develop due to multiple factors in various environments: home, school, and community.

Family Factors

Children who live with frequent yelling, name-calling, callous criticism, or relentless anger may respond in the same way with peers and act out at daycare, school, or other places. A sibling may bully a physically weaker sibling. Kids who watch a parent commit domestic violence may become a bully to gain a sense of power and control.

A teen may frequently humiliate a younger sibling in front of friends. Permissive caretakers may allow adolescents “to run the show” and eventually teens may even bully the parents.

Peer Factors

Children may hang out with neighborhood pals that engage in bullying behaviors. Peer pressure to belong to a group is strong, especially when kids perceive they do not belong at home due to physical abuse, neglect, or a rejecting parent or stepparent. While some bullies have low self-esteem others feel superior to peers.

School Factors 

Children take their behaviors to school. When the school administrators and teachers ignore bullying behaviors in (classrooms, bus, playground, bathroom, cafeteria, hallways) without immediate and clear consequences, it thrives. Telling a kid to ignore being bullied is not the answer. The negative bullying behaviors may be reinforced and become more intense.

Younger students are more likely to be bullied than older students according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Physical bullying increases in elementary school, peaks in middle school and declines in high school whereas verbal abuse remains constant.

How do Kids become Bullies?

Bullies tend to have the following in common: immature social skills, lack of compassion and empathy, and poor impulse control. “The most obvious signs of bullying are hostility and aggression – either physically, verbally, emotionally or sexually – that is directed toward another child who is physically and emotionally weaker,” according to www.KidsHealth.

Dan Olweus, the “founding father” of research on bullying, identified the common characteristics of a bully in his book, Bullying at School: What We Know and What We Can Do. Bullies have a strong need to dominate and get their own way; are impulsive and easily angered; are often defiant and aggressive toward adults, including parents and teachers; show little empathy toward students who are victimized; and the boy bullies are physically stronger.

“The typical girl who bullies is popular, well-liked by adults, does well in school, and can even be friends with the girls she bullies,” according to the National Crime Prevention Council. The female bully spreads rumors, whispers about peers in front of them, excludes peers from parties and groups, and makes hurtful comments. She uses peer pressure to manipulate others into joining in on her bullying.

What if Your Child is the Bully?

Read the PBS Parents article, What to do if your Child is a Bully? at

Educate yourself on bullying.

Children deserve second chances. Youth who bully need help. Seek family counseling with a child therapist. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association reported that adolescents who bully are at increased risk for substance abuse, conduct disorders, depression, and suicide.

A child therapist will conduct a mental health intake to assess for signs and symptoms of depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, trauma, alcohol or drug abuse, or a mental disorder. The counselor, parents, and youth will develop a behavioral contract with clear consequences for bullying behaviors at home, at school, and in the community. The counselor may consult with the child’s school principal, school counselor, and teachers. A treatment plan may include psycho-education about bullying along with taking responsibility for behaviors, anger management, power and control issues, emotional regulation, problem-solving skills, social and communication skills, empathy skill-building, improving self-esteem, identifying and changing faulty beliefs, and restitution for the victim.

Dr. Missy, Ph.D., is a feelings helper, child therapist, play therapist, and child trauma therapist. She provides therapeutic services at Affirmations, Columbus, Ohio.



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