The answer may surprise you!

If you ever watch TV or go online, you’ve probably been bombarded with the message that bullying is bad. It may even have sunk in. You may actually be aware of how bad bullying is and genuinely not want to be a bully. But you might be a bully anyway. Why? Because it’s easy to be hurtful without realizing it.


I had a long talk with anti-bullying guru Lisa Dixon-Wells about bullies. She’s been working in schools in Western Canada since 1990 and is now a facilitator for the Dare to Care antibullying program. When it comes to bullying, she’s see it all. Together, we worked out a list of features she’s seen in bullies and people who follow their lead.

You might be a bully if:

  • You’re sneaky — You’re always keeping an eye out for adults or people who might call you out for being nasty, or you’re looking for a supportive audience when you want to get a laugh at someone else’s expense.
  • You’re guilt-free — “Hey, it was just a joke!” is your mantra. You got a laugh from the crowd, so what if someone got hurt? Why can’t they just suck it up? Maybe you sometimes feel a twinge of remorse, but you’re quick to think up an excuse why it’s not really your fault.
  • You switch up your friends — You jump from group to group because after a while, the ones you’re with get sick of your performances.
  • You’ve got all the answers — No matter how much trouble you get into, it’s never your fault. You’re full of excuses, and you’re always pointing the finger at someone else.
  • You feel bullied yourself — “Bullying is a learned behaviour”, says Dixon-Wells. If you’re acting like a bully, you learned it somewhere, maybe your parents, siblings, friends, teachers, or someone else.
  • You get a kick out of violence — at least the type found in TV and in video games. No level of cruelty or gore is too much for you. Dixon-Wells admits this is a pretty broad category, since lots of kids like screen violence, but it’s a pretty universal feature of bullies.

Does any of this sound familiar?

If so, there’s a good chance you’re making a lot of people unhappy, maybe even yourself. That’s because most people who bully know in their heart it’s wrong. They’ve simply let the wrong people influence them. But how do you stop? Dixon-Wells has some suggestions:

  • Talk about your feelings — “We’ve become immune or desensitized to what is wrong in this world,” says Dixon-Wells. Many of us need to jump-start our compassion, and that means opening up to your feelings and talking about them instead of shoving them away in the back of your mind.
  • Try journaling — Another way to open your heart is to write about what’s going on in your life, and how you feel about it. You don’t need to show it to anyone, so you’re free to be brutally honest.
  • Write a letter of apology — Think about the people you’ve hurt most and write them a letter of apology. Cop to all the things you did wrong without making any excuses for your behaviour. If you have the guts to give people these letters, that’s awesome, but it’s a great heart-opening exercise even if you don’t.
  • Walk the walk — Once you’ve decided to change, you need to live your choices. Show people by your behaviour that you’ve changed.

For Parents

If your child is a bully, you probably know it. You’ll have heard from the school, a coach, or other parents that your child has caused trouble. If you really want to help your children grow into strong, compassionate adults, it’s time to stop making excuses for them and get tough.

“If you’re concerned your child is in the wrong group and involved in bullying others, take it very, very seriously,” says bullying expert Lisa Dixon-Wells of the antibullying program Dare to Care. “Be very firm that bullying behaviour will not be tolerated, ever. But stay calm. The last thing you want to do is cause a huge power struggle between you and your child.

Use short sentences like, ‘this will not be tolerated’ and ‘we will be watching you’.” Talk to your children’s school and let them know that you’re aware of their behaviour, that you’d like their support in keeping an eye on it, and that you’re willing to support any discipline they suggest.

There need to be solid consequences for bullying behaviour, and these need to be non-violent. Hitting as a punishment for hitting just doesn’t work. “The consequences need to have some sort of effort of learning, a connection to the reason why we don’t tolerate that kind of behaviour,” says Dixon-Wells. So, if your child destroys something that belongs to a classmate, a good consequence would be to work and earn the money to replace the object.

To develop their empathy, encourage your children to express themselves through activities like journaling and writing letters of apology, even if the letters are never sent.

“Expression of emotion of any kind is really important,” says Dixon-Wells.

Look for books about bullying or check online for videos made by people who have been bullied so that you child can learn how damaging their behavior can be. “We can lecture them all we want, and it’s in one ear and out the other, but when they see the actual impact it is having on kids, sometimes that’s enough,” says Dixon-Wells.

If particular children have been the victims of your child’s bullying, find out a little bit about those children and share what you learn with your child. The more you know someone, the harder it is to victimize them. Work with your child on a plan for making it up to them.

Most importantly, think about your own behaviour. Bullying is learned. Is it possible they learned it from you?