What Makes a Bully? Looking into the Parent-Child Relationship

This article is authored by Minna Sarwar and Danny Rahal and is part of the 2020 pre-graduate spotlight week. 

            Bullying has always been a negative but pervasive facet of childhood, and rates are highest during adolescence. In fact, one study reports that up to 30% of teens disclose being victims of bullying (Salmivalli & Peets, 2018). Victims may be targets of physical aggression, name-calling, cyberbullying, and exclusion, which is especially problematic during adolescence when teens orient more towards their peers instead of family and become especially sensitive to the evaluation of others (e.g., Brown & Larson, 2009; Fuligni & Eccles, 1993). Taken together, they form a strong need for a sense of belonging with peers around their age (Newman, Lohman, & Newman, 2007). Because developmental changes during adolescence prompt teenagers to be especially sensitive to peers and what peers think of them, bullying may be incredibly detrimental to the mental health of teenagers. Youth who experience more bullying show greater depressive symptoms, heightened anxiety, physical health complications, and compromised academic achievement (Espelage & Holt, 2001; Gini & Pozzoli, 2009; Nishina, Juvonen, & Witkow, 2005). The prevalence of bullying and its detrimental effects have motivated researchers to better understand the factors that cause some children to become bullies and others to become victims.

            Adolescents can be involved in bullying both as a bully and as a victim, and many are involved in both. It is widely accepted that bullies target others to cope with their own low self-esteem (O’Moore & Kirkham, 2001). For instance, a bully may call another classmate ugly because they are projecting their own feelings of physical unattractiveness onto someone else. One study found that 62% over half of bullies have been victims of bullying (Haynie et al., 2001). Victimization can promote poorer mental health and more negative self-image, and youth may project their insecurities onto others and consequently become bullies themselves.

Although some youth may be motivated to bully because of low self-esteem, another factor to consider is how youth learn to interact with others. Children imitate what they observe at home—specifically, how their parents interact with one another and with other family members. Parents who assert dominance over their children may be teaching them to seek power and control in relationships rather than liking or respect. Children may in turn practice applying this lesson to peers at school. Indeed, youth of domineering parents value power and status, and children who are motivated by power tend to bully others more often (Juvonen & Schacter, 2017). This trend has been termed the “cycle of violence”— derisive parenting can prompt children to become bullies themselves (Curtis, 1963).

It is important to consider how household factors may also leave certain youth susceptible to bullying, as either a victim or a bully. Specifically, derisive parenting involves parents demeaning and humiliating the child, such as by using threats, emotional withdrawal (e.g., ‘the silent treatment’), and inducing fear to ensure good behavior. For instance, let’s say a child is underachieving in school. Parents may respond with curiosity, ask the child about their experience, and express nurturance and support that the child has the ability to succeed. In turn, a derisive parent may respond by insulting the child’s intelligence and punishing the child until they see improvement. Children in these circumstances may normalize hostile behavior and the need to dominate others. In fact, bullying is 50% higher amidst youth whose parents are cold and non-supportive (Wang, Iannotti, & Nansel, 2009).

Derisive parenting may promote the cycle of bullying by impairing children’s ability to regulate their own emotions. Pubertal changes during adolescence can promote shifts in adolescents’ emotions throughout the day and how strongly they experience them (Bailen, Green, & Thompson, 2019; Larson, Csikszentmihalyi, & Graef, 1980), and adolescence is a pivotal time for youth to learn to regulate their emotions and explore different regulatory strategies (e.g., Cracco, Goossens, & Braet, 2017; Zimmermann & Iwanski, 2014). However, youth who experience derisive parenting may experience heightened negative emotions at home and less emotional support from their parents. Taken together, derisive parenting may cause children to have more negative emotion and more stunted development of emotion regulation, such that they are less able to actually cope with these emotions. Although this emotional dysregulation may develop initially in the home, it can spillover to relations with peers in various ways. For instance, emotion dysregulation can cause some children to be more depressive others to lash out at others (e.g., Wills, Simons, Sussman, & Knight, 2016). These different emotional responses can both prompt children to be exposed to violence as the victim and as the bully, respective. Children who are demeaned at home may begin to expect and accept this treatment from others, such that they are less able to reach out to peers as friends and become easy targets for school bullies. In contrast, other children may respond to their poor treatment at home by exerting dominance over others. By promoting children to be both the perpetrators and the victims of bullying, poorer emotion regulation may predispose youth to poorer, more dangerous outcomes.

            Recently, researchers have found evidence that derisive parenting may reduce middle schoolers’ ability to regulate their anger, and this emotional difficulty may predispose youth to be involved in bullying. To test this pathway, Dickson and colleagues collected data over the course of three years from 7th, 8th, and 9th grade students at a school in Sweden (2019). Each year, students completed questionnaires regarding how often they bullied others, how often they were victims of bullying, their ability to regulate their anger, and their parents’ parenting style (e.g., parental warmth, control, and abuse) so that they could examine whether children who experience derisive parenting become bullies, victims, or both.

            Results from this longitudinal study indicated that children who experience derisive parenting do indeed have more difficulty regulating their anger. They were able to model their data to link the reports of parenting with emotion regulation the next year and then to link reports of emotion regulation with the degree to which they bullied others and were bullied the following year. In this way, they could test whether derisive parenting is followed by poorer emotion regulation, and whether youth with poorer emotion regulation become more involved in bullying over time. This approach provides an idea of temporal precedence; we cannot truly run an experiment of these constructs in humans, but we can develop a sense of what factors tend to precede others and potentially place youth at risk for violence.

The results convincingly suggest that derisive parenting support the hypothesis that derisive parenting reduces adolescents’ ability to regulate their own feelings of anger, which increases rates of bullying and victimization. Teenagers who experienced more derisive parenting were found to bully others more often at school and engage in other violent acts outside of school, and greater dysregulation of anger explained the relationship between derisive parenting and bullying. Similarly, they found that derisive parenting was also linked with more frequently being bullied by others outside of school, partly because they were less able to regulate their anger.

Finally, they tested these findings together. Again, children often turn to bullying because they themselves are bullied. Derisive parenting was linked with being a bully-victim, meaning these children both bullied others and experienced bullying from others, and again this association was driven by the effects of derisive parenting on the regulation of anger. Taken together, the interactions a child has with their parents may cultivate traits that sabotage their relationships with their peers. Derisive parenting may cause adolescents to have problems establishing social relationships with peers in school.

            Now that we know that parenting and emotion regulation can contribute to children’s roles as bullies, victims, and even bully-victims, what can we do to address these issues? First, school-based programs must be implemented to decrease bullying among youth. Victims of bullying are more likely to bully others, so we can stop some children from becoming bullies by stopping them from getting bullied in the first place. One effective program is the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program (OBPP), which trains staff to enforce a zero tolerance policy regarding bullying and actively intervene when they witness bullying on school grounds. Increased supervision also enables staff to be cognizant of the individuals who are not complying to no-bullying guidelines. Once bullies and victims are identified, school staff develop personalized intervention plans for each of them. Importantly, these plans involve both the child and their parents. OBPP is a well-rounded program that addresses the school at large, individual bullies and victims, and parents. This comprehensive program has shown to be successful in decreasing rates of bullying and victimization in middle school and high school youth (Gaffney, Farrington, & Ttofi, 2019).

            In addition to programs that monitor youth and instances of bullying at school, parent-focused interventions may decrease bullying by addressing parenting style. Clearly parenting can influence adolescents’ emotions and social interactions, and parents can play an integral role in promoting and preventing bullying behaviors in their children. These interventions aim to help the parent identify strengths and weaknesses in their parenting style in order to promote positive relationships with their children. For example, one bullying prevention model emphasizes the role of parents in preventing bullying by having school counselors work with parents of children who bully or are bullied to establish more adaptive communication styles (Kolbert, Schultz, & Crothers, 2014). This work involves identifying previous interactions with the child, and constructive conversations to facilitate new perspectives regarding past situations. The counselor also promote the parent’s ability to solve issues at home, identify their own goals for their children, and recognize when the child meets the parents’ expectations and relay this recognition to their children in order to promotes these behaviors. The counselor guides the parent in identifying strategies that are adaptive for interacting with their child. By promoting positive expectations and communication between parents and children, parent-focused interventions can promote youths’ abilities to regulate negative affective states and reduce children’s need for over others. Interventions may address a root issue of bullying, parenting style, and in doing so can help the child to develop a healthier view of relationships and to have more normative interactions with peers.

            The research on parenting and bullying sheds light on how influential the relationships at home are on the relationships formed elsewhere. Positive social relationships are invaluable for normative development among adolescents (Bakalım & Taşdelen-Karçkay, 2016). The reduction in bullying may start in the home; by interacting with their children with kindness and warmth, parents model positive behavior that their children may imitate in their own social relationships. Children are often taught to speak to others as they would like to be treated. Despite the best of intentions, parents may unintentionally be overly harsh or inconsistent in their discipline of children. By being present and understanding rather than critical, parents can validate, acknowledge, and reassure their children to promote positive outcomes at home, which can impart beneficial lessons to foster positive social relationships. Developing youth require validation and emotional support, just as adults do, so it is important to teach through example and to speak to your child with the care you would speak to a friend.



Bailen, N. H., Green, L. M., & Thompson, R. J. (2019). Understanding emotion in adolescents: A review of emotional frequency, intensity, instability, and clarity. Emotion Review11(1), 63-73. https://doi.org/10.1177/1754073918768878

Bakalım, O., & Taşdelen-Karçkay, A. (2016). Friendship quality and psychological well-being: The mediating role of perceived social support. International Online Journal of Educational Sciences8(4). https://doi.org/10.15345/iojes.2016.04.001

Brown, B. B., & Larson, J. (2009). Peer relationships in adolescence. Handbook of adolescent psychology2.

Cracco, E., Goossens, L., & Braet, C. (2017). Emotion regulation across childhood and adolescence: evidence for a maladaptive shift in adolescence. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry26(8), 909-921. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-017-0952-8

Curtis, G. C. (1963). Violence breeds violence perhaps? American Journal of Psychiatry, 120, 386-387. https://doi.org/10.1176/ajp.120.4.386

Dickson, D. J., Laursen, B., Valdes, O., & Stattin, H. (2019). Derisive parenting fosters dysregulated anger in adolescent children and subsequent difficulties with peers. Journal             of Youth and Adolescence48(8), 1567–1579. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10964-019-01040-z     

Espelage, D. L., & Holt, M. K. (2001). Bullying and victimization during early adolescence: Peer influences and psychosocial correlates. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 2(2-3), 123-142. https://doi.org/10.1300/J135v02n02_08

Fuligni, A. J., & Eccles, J. S. (1993). Perceived parent-child relationships and early adolescents’ orientation toward peers. Developmental Psychology29(4), 622.

Gaffney, H., & Farrington, D., & Ttofi, M. (2019). Examining the effectiveness of school-bullying intervention programs globally: A meta-analysis. International Journal of Bullying Prevention. https://doi.org/10.1007/s42380-019-0007-4

Gini, G., & Pozzoli, T. (2009). Association between bullying and psychosomatic problems: A meta-analysis. Pediatrics, 123. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2008-1215

Haynie, D. L., Nansel, T., Eitel, P., Crump, A. D., Saylor, K., Yu, K., & Simons-Morton, B. (2001). Bullies, victims, and bully/victims: Distinct groups of at-risk youth. The Journal of Early Adolescence21(1), 29-49. https://doi.org/10.1177/0272431601021001002

Juvonen, J., & Schacter, H. L. (2017). Bullying in school and online contexts: Social dominance, bystander compliance, and the emotional pain of victims. The Wiley‐Blackwell handbook of groups processes in children and adolescents, 317-332. https://doi.org/10.1002/9781118773123.ch15

Kolbert, J., Schultz, D., & Crothers, L. (2014). Bullying prevention and the parent involvement model. Journal of School Counseling, 27, 35-44.

Larson, R., Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Graef, R. (1980). Mood variability and the psychosocial adjustment of adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence9(6), 469-490. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF02089885

Newman, B., & Lohman, B., & Newman, P. (2007). Peer group membership and sense of belonging: Their relationship to adolescent behavior problems. Adolescence, 42(166), 241-63.

Nishina, A., Juvonen, J., & Witkow, M. (2005). Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will make me feel sick: The psychosocial, somatic, and scholastic consequences of peer harassment. Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 34(1), 37-48. doi: 10.1207/s15374424jccp3401_4.

O’Moore, M., & Kirkham, C. (2001). Self-esteem and its relationship to bullying behavior. Aggressive Behavior, 27(4), 269-283. https://doi.org/10.1002/ab.1010

Salmivalli, C., & Peets, K. (2018) Bullying and victimization. In W.M. Bukowski & B. Laursen, K. H. Rubin, (Eds). Handbook of peer interactions, relationships, and groups. (Vol. 2).

Wang, J., Iannotti, R. J., & Nansel, T. R. (2009). School bullying among adolescents in the United States: Physical, verbal, relational, and cyber. Journal of Adolescent Health, 45(4), 368-375. 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2009.03.021.

Wills, T. A., Simons, J. S., Sussman, S., & Knight, R. (2016). Emotional self-control and dysregulation: A dual-process analysis of pathways to externalizing/internalizing symptomatology and positive well-being in younger adolescents. Drug and Alcohol Dependence163, S37-S45. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2015.08.039

Zimmermann, P., & Iwanski, A. (2014). Emotion regulation from early adolescence to emerging adulthood and middle adulthood: Age differences, gender differences, and emotion-specific developmental variations. International Journal of Behavioral Development38(2), 182-194. https://doi.org/10.1177/0165025413515405