Why do children and adolescents bully their peers? A critical review of key theoretical frameworks

  • Hannah J. ThomasEmail author
  • Jason P. Connor
  • James G. Scott
Invited Reviews


Bullying is a significant public health problem for children and adolescents worldwide. Evidence suggests that both being bullied (bullying victimisation) and bullying others (bullying perpetration) are associated with concurrent and future mental health problems. The onset and course of bullying perpetration are influenced by individual as well as systemic factors. Identifying effective solutions to address bullying requires a fundamental understanding of why it occurs. Drawing from multi-disciplinary domains, this review provides a summary and synthesis of the key theoretical frameworks applied to understanding and intervening on the issue of bullying. A number of explanatory models have been used to elucidate the dynamics of bullying, and broadly these correspond with either system (e.g., social-ecological, family systems, peer-group socialisation) or individual-level (e.g., developmental psychopathology, genetic, resource control, social-cognitive) frameworks. Each theory adds a unique perspective; however, no single framework comprehensively explains why bullying occurs. This review demonstrates that the integration of theoretical perspectives achieves a more nuanced understanding of bullying which is necessary for strengthening evidence-based interventions. Future progress requires researchers to integrate both the systems and individual-level theoretical frameworks to further improve current interventions. More effective intervention across different systems as well as tailoring interventions to the specific needs of the individuals directly involved in bullying will reduce exposure to a key risk factor for mental health problems.


Bullying Adolescents Children Review Theory 



HJT is supported by the Bryan Foundation in partnership with ClearThinking Queensland, JPC by a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) of Australia Career Development Fellowship (1031909), and JGS by a NHMRC Practitioner Fellowship Grant (1105807).

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors have no conflict of interest to declare.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Medicine, Centre for Clinical ResearchThe University of QueenslandHerstonAustralia
  2. 2.Queensland Centre for Mental Health ResearchThe Park Centre for Mental HealthWacolAustralia
  3. 3.Faculty of Health and Behavioural Sciences, Centre for Youth Substance Abuse ResearchThe University of QueenslandSt LuciaAustralia
  4. 4.Discipline of Psychiatry, Faculty of MedicineThe University of QueenslandHerstonAustralia
  5. 5.Metro North Mental HealthRoyal Brisbane and Women’s HospitalHerstonAustralia

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