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When Your Child is the Cyberbully

“A lot of parents think that bullying is a problem, but not their kid’s problem.” ~ Elizabeth Englander

There are many manifestations of bullying rippling through our society each and every day, but none is more disturbing than the ongoing presence of cyberbullying in the lives of our young. Even if this scourge somehow hasn’t touched your family personally, every day the mass media and e-media give accounts of the devastating effects of bullying on our youth. The impacts range from embarrassment to anxiety, stress, and/or depression, and in too many situations, escalations to suicide. And what makes cyberbullying particularly heinous is the Internet’s anonymity, which despite the best efforts of legislators, the courts and law enforcement, makes it easier to commit harmful acts and avoid accountability.

While conducting extensive research for our upcoming publication on workplace bullying, we came to realize that much of the current breadth and depth of knowledge regarding cyberbullying focuses on identifying the behaviour and providing valuable information from the perspective of reducing the probability of children becoming a target or victim. Some of the most analyzed and discussed cyberbullying themes are:

  • Types of cyberbullying.

  • The debilitating social and health effects of being cyber bullied.

  • Tips on identifying a cyberbully.

  • Steps that parents can take to prevent it from happening to their child.

But far less attention is given to what a parent should do if they discover that their child isn’t a target of cyberbullying but is the actual cyberbully. One would expect that the parental duty of care would carry the parent(s) past their initial shock and disappointment to assess the situation, and then seek out ways to effectively attend to the needs of their child. While occasional bouts of mischief are admittedly a normal part of childhood, parents need to realize that cyberbullying is a far more serious matter and can be an early behavioral manifestation of underlying mental health problems in their child. If overlooked or ignored, mental health disorders that begin in childhood can be carried into adulthood with negative and often costly impacts.

Although not every act of cyberbullying by a young person is necessarily tied to an emerging mental health condition, nonetheless such a possibility should never be discounted. Better to err on the side of caution for the sake of the child’s future quality of life rather than pretend no such issue exists. Some examples of mental health disorders that research tells us are strongly associated with bullying and which can have early detectable signs in youth are:

Antisocial Personality Disorder (APD)

The criteria for diagnosing an adult with APD include some, but not necessarily all, of the following traits:

  • Habitually unlawful.

  • Deceitful.

  • Impulsive and fails to plan ahead.

  • Irritable and aggressive, resulting in physical and verbal altercations.

  • Ignores their own safety and that of others.

  • Consistently irresponsible.

  • Lack of remorse.

This disorder is identified as being predisposed toward aggression, including bullying and cyberbullying, even when unprovoked. APD diagnosed in adulthood is often preceded by a history or diagnosis of Conduct Disorder in children, before the age of 15. Conduct Disorder has the same attributes as APD, including bullying behaviour as a part of an individual’s aggressive activities.

Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD)

The diagnosing criteria for NPD in adults are as follows:

  • Grandiose and self-important demeanor.

  • Fantasizes about power, success, brilliance and love.

  • A sense of being special and unique.

  • Demands excessive admiration.

  • Feels entitled.

  • Exploits and manipulates others.

  • Unwilling to feel empathy.

  • Envious and jealous.

  • Arrogant and selfish.

  • Underlying feeling of inadequacy.

Research has found that narcissistic individuals tend to resort to activities such as cyberbullying as revenge for a real or perceived blow to their ego. Parenting styles which include overstatements about a child’s specialness in combination with criticisms of a child’s perceived underperformance, may contribute to the development of NPD. Living up to being special while nursing wounds of low self-esteem caused by excessive criticism is a difficult task that may result in the development of NPD behaviors as coping strategies.

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

BPD is diagnosed in adults using the following criteria:

  • Fear of abandonment, real or perceived.

  • Unstable or intense relationships that shift between ideal and unacceptable.

  • Poor sense of self.

  • Impulsive.

  • Self-destructive.

  • Moods swing between depression and irritability.

  • Chronic feeling of emptiness.

  • Regular inappropriate outbursts of anger with verbal and physical altercations.

  • Paranoia.

The following symptoms, if present in a child, may indicate a significant issue, including BPD at a future time in their lives:

  • Volatile emotions.

  • Temper tantrums.

  • Impulsive.

  • Self-destructive.

  • Destructive toward others.

  • Unreasonable.

  • Doesn’t get along well with other children or family members.

To reiterate, not every child that cyberbullies necessarily has a mental health problem but they do have a behavioral problem at the very least. Many psychiatrists are reluctant to diagnosis personality disorders in children because a variety of mental health and behavioral issues present with similar symptoms. Instead, diagnoses are often withheld until more discernible patterns emerge through adolescence to young adulthood. Nonetheless, earlier intervention could deliver healthier mental health and quality of life prospects for a child’s future by identifying, mitigating and managing negative behaviors. A more proactive approach to this aspect of the cyberbullying issue is a solid reason why parents should lobby for increased funding dedicated to address all mental health issues impacting children and adolescents.


For more in-depth reading about the themes in this article, please refer to the following publications:

American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.).Jun 21, 2016

Baughman, H.M., Dearing, S., Giammarco, E. and Vernon, P.A. (2012) ‘Relationships between bullying behaviours and the dark triad: A study with adults’, Personality and Individual Differences, 52(5), pp. 571–575. doi: 10.1016/j.paid.2011.11.020.

Friedel, Robert O. Borderline Personality Disorder Demystified. New York: Marlowe & Co., 2004. Print.

Goodboy, A.K. and Martin, M.M. (2015) ‘The personality profile of a cyberbully: Examining the dark triad’, Computers in Human Behavior, 49, pp. 1–4. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2015.02.052.

Henschel, Carrie. (2014) ’The Effects of Parenting Style on the Development of Narcissism’, Ubrica global journal system. Available at (ISSN: 2331 – 7582 ONLINE) BEHAVIORAL HEALTH, VOLUME 1, NUMBER 1

Li, Q. (2007) ‘Bullying in the new playground: Research into cyberbullying and cyber victimisation’, Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 23(4). doi: 10.14742/ajet.1245.

About the Authors

Ruth and Phil MacNeill bring combined professional experience of over 50 years in the public and private sectors to bear on issues that spark their interest. Ruth’s education and training includes Socio-cultural Anthropology, Public Policy and Organizational Management while Phil focused on Political Science, Issues Management/Public Policy, and Marketing. Grounded in their own experiences, observations and extensive research, they have delved into the issue of workplace bullying. Identifying a need for straightforward, “in the moment” advice for those targeted for workplace abuse, Ruth and Phil will soon release a plain speaking guide. You are invited to visit and follow Ruth and Phil at their anti-bullying Twitter account, @HarassNoMore.

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