Brutal Boys: Why (and How) Do Boys Bully, and What Can Parents Do about It?

By: Steve Palmer

In this blog –part one of a two-part series– we examine why and how boys might bully other boys, and present some action steps for adults to take against bullying behavior. These action steps will work with both boys and girls. Subscribe to the ParentFurther Blog to stay tuned for part two in this series, which will focus on girls and bullying behavior.


Most people assume that boys are more likely to be involved in bullying – as both perpetrators and victims – than girls. There is some truth to this idea, but it may have more to do with what we consider bullying than with a statistical truth. Boys are, in fact, more likely to be involved in bullying behavior that plays out physically. This type of behavior can include intimidation, harassment, humiliation, and physical violence. On the other hand, girls are more likely to engage in bullying behaviors that include social tactics such as spreading rumors, name calling, or excluding from groups – so-called “relational bullying” (Wang, Ianotti & Nansel, 2009).

The big question we usually have is Why do kids bully at all? Well, the answer to this question is complex, and there are likely individual, family and/or peer group dynamics at work. A summary of research (Swearer, 2012) suggests seven factors that are associated with why people bully:

    1. modeling (having parents or peers who engage in coercive or aggressive behaviors);

    2. insecurity (kids feel unsure of their social position and engage in bullying to try to feel better about themselves or impress others);

    3. revenge (they are angry at being victims themselves and lash out at others);

    4. belonging (the bully perceives he will gain acceptance or approval through showing dominance);

    5. attention-seeking;

    6. expectations (the bully may feel this sort of behavior is his or her role);

    7. power (dominating another may feel like a way to be stronger oneself).

Given these various perceptions and motivations, some boys find themselves in a position of feeling that bullying another is the way to gain the social or personal situation they desire. If your child is bullying other kids, it’s important to step in and teach your child proper ways to behave with others, and to figure out what may have caused the behavior in the first place. Regardless of the intensity of your child’s bullying, it should be stopped as soon as possible, not only because it is hurtful to others but because it may indicate that your child is hurting as well.

BUT, before you step in...

...it is also important to note that as adults – whether parents, school officials, or community members – we need to recognize that some of what we call “bullying” may actually be developmentally appropriate conflict and is a normal part of growing up. It is our job to hold children accountable for their actions, correct their misbehavior, and help them how to make better choices in future situations, but it can do more harm than good if we begin to categorize developmentally appropriate conflict as "bullying". Click on the link below to learn more about recognize bullying when you see it.

How to recognize bullying behavior >

That said, here are some everyday ideas, for both parents and caring adults to use in order to help us raise our boys to be sure they are not the kids who end up engaging in bullying or violent behavior. Or, if they end up being victims of bullying, they can rise above the immediate situation, and know that it does, indeed, get better.

  • Engage in positive (authoritative) parentingLots of research suggests that this parenting style – with balance between firmness and high expectations on the one hand, and kindness, empathy and flexibility on the other – is the most likely to result in kids who are both well-behaved and developing into responsible, empathetic kids. This style of discipline is likely to benefit kids both in terms of their own developing conscience and behavioral skills, but is also the best way to model handling conflict and being assertive in ways that work for everyone involved.
  • Learn more about positive parenting >
  • Train our children in empathy – Making connections between their actions and the feelings of others, and seeing the value of recognizing these connections (both good and bad) helps kids develop and attend to the importance of empathy. Research suggests that some bullies may lack this crucial human quality to some degree.
  • Empathy: Why It's Important, and Why We Should Nurture It in Our Kids >
  • Help kids develop social skills that are effective – Given that so many of the motivating factors for bullying behaviors are associated with social interaction, social status and trying to fit in, it is imperative that kids learn how to pursue these important goals in ways that bring them success, without having to resort to aggression. Learning how to make friends, how to deal with rejection, has to engage with others in play, etc., are all important skills we can learn over time. Kids need support in developing these skills sometimes. Get help (by age) here.
  • Get kids the support they need – A fair amount of research is also suggesting that kids with bullying behaviors are dealing with developing mental health challenges, including misconceptions about others, high levels of stress and quick stress-responses, and social anxiety. Recognizing the needs our kids have and getting them the school, social, or professional support they need to deal with these issues can really help us help them. Learn more about what's normal and what's not (by age) here.
  • Foster resilience in all kids – When we teach resilience characteristics, we are able to change the life trajectories of kids from risk to resilience, but it has to be taught to them by the adults in their families, their schools, and their communities. Attend our free webinar to learn more about how you can raise resilience in all kids.

Raising Resilience: How All Adults Can Help Kids to Rise above Bullying

For more on bullying and resilience, watch this archived webinar presented by Dr. Doug Coatsworth, Resilience Expert and Expert in Family Based Prevention Science Learn more >

___________________________________________________________________________________________________ Sources:

1. Dewar, G. (2008-2011). Bullying in school, online, and on the savanna: A guide for the science-minded. From her blog: Parenting Science.

2. Swearer, D. (2012). Bullying prevention and intervention: Realistic strategies for schools. A full day workshop.

3. Ttofi, M. M. & Farrrington, D. P. (2011). Effectiveness of school-based programs to reduce bullying: A systematic and meta-analytic review. Journal of Experimental Criminology 7, 27-56. doi: 10.1007/s11292-010-9109-1 Wang, J., Ianotti, R. J., & Nansel, T. R. (2009). School bullying among adolescents in the United States: Physical, verbal, relational and cyber. Journal of Adolescent Health, 45, 368-375.

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