Bullying as a Relationship between Aggressor and Victim

Bullying, aggression, and victimization are common problems among schoolchildren with negative consequences for everyone involved. Considerable attention has been devoted to understanding the causes and consequences of children who are aggressive and/or victimized. In this article, I focus on the relationships between aggressors and victims. Next, I describe the rationale and support for this view, likely causes of these relationships, and how this view can guide efforts to reduce aggression among schoolchildren.

Why a relationship perspective?

Research investigating why some children are aggressive whereas others are not, and why some children are victimized whereas others are not, emphasizes the role of the individual child in the occurrence of aggression. However, aggression is necessarily a phenomenon occurring between at least two individuals, an aggressor and a victim. Moreover, aggressors do not select their targets indiscriminately, but rather select certain peers for their aggressive acts. Similarly, victims are usually not targeted by all peers, but rather specific aggressors who repeatedly bully and torment them.

Research has shown that there are three main factors involved in the occurrence of aggression:

  1. Some children engage in a lot of aggression whereas others do not;
  2. Some children are frequently victimized whereas others are seldom victimized;
  3. There seem to be fairly stable “pairings” between bullies and victims.

This third point is particularly meaningful. Occurrences, and re-occurrences, of aggression were largely due to certain stable aggressor-victim relationships (Coie et al., 1999; Card & Hodges, in preparation).

Causes of aggressor-victim relationships

Realization that aggression occurs within specific aggressor-victim relationships suggests that we consider different causes of aggression, specifically in relation to what occurs between the two children that leads to this relationship. Although research is limited, there is some evidence to suggest four causes.

  1. Aggressors hold specific beliefs about specific victims. One recent study showed that aggressors believed that certain peers were hostile toward them and that they could obtain rewards for aggressing against certain peers. These beliefs about specific peers, or relationship-specific social cognitions, predicted aggression toward these peers (Hubbard et al., 2001).
  2. There is a difference in power between the aggressor and victim. Card and Hodges (2005) presented preliminary results showing that aggressors are often physically stronger, more popular (i.e., well-liked by peers), and less anxious or depressed than the victims they target. These findings suggest that aggressor-victim relationships may form when a potential aggressor finds a victim who can be successfully dominated because the victim is weaker, has few friends who will stick up for the victim, and shows signs of suffering (such as crying) relative to the aggressor. We speculated that potential aggressors may ‘shop around’ for victims until they find peers they can dominate, and then engage in lasting aggressor-victim relationships.
  3. There is often mutual dislike (or an enemy relationship) between the two children. Our research (Card & Hodges, 2007) has shown that children are about five times more likely to report that an enemy victimizes them than a friend or acquaintance. Moreover, victimization from enemies is more strongly related to maladjustment than is victimization from other peers, suggesting that these aggressive enemy relationships may be especially upsetting for children.
  4. Friends influence each other in many ways, and our research has shown that friends often share the same targets for aggression (Card & Hodges, 2006). If one aggressor targets a particular victim, it is likely that the aggressor’s friends will target that victim. We speculated that friends may encourage aggression toward a specific victim by describing the child as weak or deserving of abuse, laughing at or trading stories of aggression toward a particular victim, or jointly bullying the victim.

Implications of a relationship perspective

This perspective of aggression as a relationship between specific aggressors and victims not only leads us to investigate different causes of this problem, but also implies that we should consider different solutions.

  • One implication is that we should view the occurrence of aggression not just as a problem of the aggressive child, or of the individual victim, but as a problem in the relationship between the aggressor and victim.
  • This view leads us to consider whether relationship-focused interventions with both the aggressor and victim might be feasible.
  • For instance, getting bullies and victims to engage together in cooperative activities and conflict management strategies (such as helping both parties negotiate peaceful coexistence) involving both the aggressor and victim might be useful in resolving these relationships.

My focus on aggressor-victim relationships is not meant to replace attention to individual aggressors and victims. As the other articles of this issue make clear, considering the reasons why some children are aggressive and some children are victimized is valuable. Instead, I wish to highlight the perspective of aggressor-victim relationships as an additional focus for understanding and reducing this serious problem.


Card, N. A., & Hodges, E. V. E. (2005, April). Power differential in aggressor-victim relationships. Paper presented at the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Atlanta, GA.

Card, N. A., & Hodges, E. V. E. (2006). Shared targets for aggression by early adolescent friends. Developmental Psychology, 42, 1327-1338.

Card, N. A., & Hodges, E. V. E. (2007). Victimization within mutually antipathetic peer relationships. Social Development, 16, 479-496.

Card, N. A., & Hodges, E. V. E. (in preparation). It takes two to fight in school too: A social relations model of the psychometric properties and relative variance of dyadic aggression and victimization in middle school. Manuscript in preparation.

Card, N. A., Isaacs, J., & Hodges, E. V. E. (in press). Aggression and victimization in children’s peer groups: A relationship perspective. In A. L. Vangelisti (Ed.), Feeling hurt in close relationships. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Coie, J. D., Cillessen, A. H. N., Dodge, K. A., Hubbard, J. A., Schwartz, D., Lemerise, E. A., & Bateman, H. (1999). It takes two to fight: A test of relational factors and a method for assessing aggressive dyads. Developmental Psychology, 35, 1179-1188.

Hubbard, J. A., Dodge, K. A., Cillessen, A. H. N., Coie, J. D., & Schwartz, D. (2001). The dyadic nature of social information processing in boys’ reactive and proactive aggression. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 80, 268-280.

Acknowledgments: The research by the author described here was conducted in collaboration with Ernest V. E. Hodges (St. John’s University). I thank Ernest for commenting on a previous version of this article.

Biographical Statement: Noel Card is an Assistant Professor in Family Studies and Human Development at the University of Arizona. His research focuses on child and adolescent peer relations in general, and on aggression, victimization, friendship, and antipathetic relationships in particular. His research has been published in both developmental and quantitative psychology journals, as well as several edited books. He is currently on the editorial boards of Child Development, Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, and Journal of Research on Adolescence.