How to Deal with and Understand a Bully

Chances are that many of you have probably encountered a bully of some sort, somewhere in your life. Bullies are people who push other people around, make fun of them, make them feel uncomfortable, and can be self-destructive. Bullies can be found at school, the workplace, at big events, on the internet… or even at home. I know this because I live with a bully.

He is a young boy who was taken from his family for bullying behaviors at the tender age of 10. He had already had years of bullying behaviors under his belt. My wife and I took guardianship over him three years ago. His go-to overriding default reaction to almost anything challenging or stressful is to try and get his way by inflicting emotional or physical drama or pain on those around him. Extreme acting out.

How do you recognize these overreactions from those of normal kid behaviors who are just pushing their boundaries? It’s when the following behaviors become more habitual and regular responses vs a one or two-time occurrences. They include:

  • Impulsiveness and getting angry quickly
  • Taking out frustrations by pushing or hitting others
  • Hanging out with others who behave and plan aggressively
  • Fighting bitterly or physically with your siblings and parents
  • Has difficulty understanding how his actions affect others
  • Gets in trouble at school frequently
  • Is defiant in his responses to most everything

I believe the first step to dealing with a bully in your life is to understand why people act like this.

  1. They’re looking for attention. Most bullies have no idea how else to make people listen to them except creating drama and chaos.
  2. They need to feel important and/or in control. Usually this is because they feel unimportant and weak on the inside. They have not developed skills to accept honest criticism, blame, or responsibility. When confronted with reality or truth, they often respond overly aggressive.
  3. They are not sure how else to get what they want. If a bully wants respect, a lot of times they don’t know anything about earning it legitimately. They often receive “fake respect” by being mean and aggressive to others. This behavior derives from not having good boundaries/limits set for them growing up. They’ve acted out to get what they want, when they want, starting at an early age. They continue to ramp up their acting out to get their respect. The unfortunate thing is that fake respect isn’t respect at all. It’s just people being afraid.
  4. They’ve been bullied themselves. Many times a bully is someone who used to be bullied and is now afraid of being bullied again. They just bully everyone else first. They have learned in a dysfunctional manner that the strongest person in the group is the one in control.
  5. Oftentimes they have a distorted sense of reality. For whatever reason – upbringing, chemical imbalance, medications, etc. – they often develop an almost paranoid perception. They see or assume the worst-case scenario in many situations that surround them. They often overreact in an aggressive manner to what they anticipate is a threat. They seem to operate in a “fight or flight” mode. Unfortunately, 90% of their choices are “fight.”
  6. It becomes normal for them. It’s sad to say, but the biggest reason bullies are the way they are is because they come from a family of constant fighting and they don’t know anything else. This becomes a learned habit of social behavior at a young age. Also, unfortunately, it is validated within a peer group.

So what can you do about a bully?
In general, you need to throw the bully off their game (redirect) and make them stop acting this way towards you. Understand, you’re not going to change the bully’s long term behavior right off the bat, but it’s important that you change the nasty bullying situation that you are in now. The hope is that over the long run when the bully receives a number of these redirecting and resisting responses, they will begin to change.

I believe the first step to dealing with a bully in your life is to understand why people act like this.

I believe the first step to dealing with a bully in your life is to understand why people act like this.

First off, in all bully situations, remember you have to learn to stand up for yourself – respectfully and assertively – all the time. It is not easy to do and requires boldness on your part. You need to understand that you are going to set limits and boundaries for yourself when you recognize you’re being bullied. These responses will vary, of course, depending on “when & who” is doing the bullying. But the universal, most basic response will usually include just unquestioningly saying “I don’t want to fight with you. I think I should leave,” and walk away. No drama. No attention. Avoid retaliation and physical altercations. Just a sincere desire to leave a situation before it elevates. If the bullying continues to elevate, it’s important to tell or include someone else in the situation. The police, your teacher, your supervisor, your spouse, your parents… someone right away. Again, always remembering to be respectful and assertive.

Now there are many different relationships where bullies will appear. You will have some unique abilities to influences the situation depending on your relationship with the bully. In my case, I live with a child bully. It is important for me to set the limits and boundaries, take parenting responsibility and provide consequences to the bully when the behavior occurs. Yes, I can overpower the bully in my life, but what message am I sending? The meanest & toughest guy in the room wins!

Again, I always try to be respectful and assertive. If I am not, I’m returning and validating the bully’s behavior. But I have the power to remove privileges in this relationship, which is where consequences for bullying behaviors begin.

In conclusion, bullying can come happen in many relationships: child-child; child-adult; adult-child. It reveals it’s self in habitual behaviors of physical, verbal and emotional misplaced and unacceptable levels of aggression. Depending on your relationship with the bully, there will be different abilities to influence the situation. But always remember to act respectfully and assertively. And in some manner, express that you don’t want to fight and it would be better if you walked away. You are worth setting that limit and removing yourself from the immediate situation before it elevates into something more harmful! If that doesn’t work, tell someone with greater authority of the situation as soon as possible. They hold more influence over the situation. Be respectful, be assertive, bold, and be safe – today and the rest of your life.

Author: Brian Daugherty