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This month Douglas Holwerda, American trained and licensed mental health counsellor, talks about why people bully and how bullying can be prevented


Dear Douglas,


I am a middle school student who has an assignment to write a report on human behaviour. I recently read a news article about a 12-year-old girl who committed suicide after having been bullied for a long time, and no-one stopped it. I want to know many things, especially why people bully. I also want to know about how to handle it if someone tries to bully me or my friends. What can people do to stop it? Should adults do more or is it up to the kids to handle it? Also, how does it affect people who are bullied? Are they damaged in the future? — Linh


Hello Linh,


Thank you for asking very good questions about an important topic. Bullying is something that happens universally — everywhere in the world, in every culture. The answers I will give you are from the point of view of psychology. Whenever we try to answer the question “why?” we are creating theories to explain the way things are.


Bullying has to do with power. It is when one or more people misuse power to intimidate or hurt someone else. One theory is that when a person has self-confidence, self esteem or self respect, they feel good about themselves. They are empowered. That means they have power on the inside, power over themselves. They don’t want power over other people. They want to empower other people.


When people are lacking in self-confidence, self esteem, and self respect, and don’t feel very good about themselves they tend to be in one of two categories.


1) Some feel weak or not confident in themselves. Sometimes they try hard to fit in, or do things to win approval. Or they might withdraw and separate themselves from the group feeling more comfortable on their own.


2) Some who lack confidence try to increase the feelings of approval by being more powerful than those around them. They might cover up their low esteem with a “mask” of over-confidence and this can lead to abusing power and bullying. The feeling of power can be addictive.


So the answer to why people bully is that they are trying to make up for feeling “not good enough” by getting a good feeling that comes from being powerful over someone else. When we are already confident, we don’t feel the need to put someone else down to put ourselves up.


Assertiveness is when we are able to stand up for ourselves and to not allow someone to have power over us. It comes from the understanding that we all have equal rights and that we are not more important or less important than anyone else. For most people it takes a while to feel strong and assertive. We also need to understand that it is important to ask for support. We can’t always solve every problem alone so we need to turn to friends, brothers and sisters, parents, teachers and counselors for support. The other part is to create atmospheres in schools and working environments where cooperation and connection is more important than competition and separation. Bullying can come out of environments where it feels like people are against each other — power is that way that they ‘win’.


Stopping someone from the behaviour that is bullying has two parts. One part is to set limits and make it clear that bullying behaviour is not acceptable. Sometimes it means they will need to suffer consequences. Often we need adults to help us with that. The other part is to see beyond the behaviour to the person inside.


Maybe people who bully are seeking attention and approval in the wrong way, but they probably need acceptance and inclusion as much as anyone. Only seeing them as bad people feeds the low esteem that drives their need for power. Even people who do bad things are not bad people — if we take the time to know them.


Your last questions are good questions and important for people to understand. At the core of every human there is a sense of our self worth, self esteem and self respect, our ability to love ourselves in a healthy way, not better or worse than anyone else. So, all of the things that influence that part of us are very important. Bullying can cause people to feel bad about themselves and sometimes it can take a long time for a person to get the confidence they deserve. The worst scenario is when they become helpless and hopeless and decide it is better to escape life than to live in the pain they are in. That is why it is so important that  we understand and stop bullying.


Thank you, Linh, for raising awareness about bullying.


— Douglas


Do you have a question you would like Douglas’s help with? You can email him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. . Personal details will not be printed 


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