Bullies and Victims

Updated on Feb 4, 2010

Bullying perpetration and victimization was brought to the attention of U.S. researchers by Dan Olweus, who spearheaded a nationwide Scandinavian campaign against bullying. Referring to bullies as “whipping boys” in the 1970s, Olweus set forth the following definition of bullying that continued to be consistently used into the early 2000s: “A student is being bullied or victimized when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more students” (Olweus, 1993, p. 318). It often involves an imbalance of strength and power between the bully and the target and is repetitive in nature. Children and adolescents may experience isolated acts of aggression, but children who have been bullied live with the ongoing fear of the recurring abuse from the bully, which is usually more damaging than an isolated and unpredicted aggressive event. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, scholars have recognized that bullying can be verbal, physical, and social in nature. Smith and Sharp noted: “A student is being bullied or picked on when another student says nasty and unpleasant things to him or her. It is also bullying when a student is hit, kicked, threatened, locked inside a room, sent nasty notes, and when no one ever talks to him” (Sharp & Smith, 1991, p.1).


Bullying is thought to be one of the most prevalent types of school violence. Students assume roles, including bully, victim, bully/victim, and bystander. Estimates in the early 2000s suggest that nearly 30% of American students are involved in bullying in one of these capacities (Nansel et al., 2001). Specifically, findings from this nationally representative sample indicated that among sixth through tenth graders, 13% had bullied others (bullies), 11% had been bullied (victims), and 6% had both bullied others and been bullied (bully-victims). Worldwide incidence rates for bullying victimization in school-aged youth range from 10% of secondary students through 27% of middle school students who report being bullied often (Whitney & Smith, 1993). When peer, teacher, and self-reports were used to classify a sample of sixth graders (N = 1,985), the authors found 7% of the sample were bullies, 9% were victims, and 6% were bully-victims (Juvonen, Graham, & Schuster, 2003).

The delineation of these bully and bully-victim groups has direct implications for prevention and intervention efforts because these subgroups not only display different patterns of aggression, but they also have different emotional and psychological profiles. First, bullies exhibit a more goal-oriented aggression, entailing more control and planning. In contrast, bully-victims tend to display a more impulsive aggression with concurrent poor emotional and behavioral regulation, which is perceived as particularly aversive by their peers and contributes to their own victimization (Schwartz, Proctor, & Chien, 2001). Second, bully-victims are at-risk for greater social maladjustment than bullies and have been found to experience victimization in other domains, including childhood sexual abuse and sexual harassment (Holt & Espelage, 2005).


Aggression, like other forms of behavior, is often conceptualized as emerging, being maintained, and modified as a result of a child's personality characteristics and the interactions between these characteristics and social contexts (e.g., peers, family, schools). This perspective has been called a social-ecological theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979) and includes microsystems, which contains structures with which the child or adolescent has direct contact, including parents, siblings, peers, and schools. The mesosysytem comprises the interrelations among microsystems, such as an adolescent's family and peers. For example, attachment to one's parents might contribute to a willingness to connect with a teacher at school. The social-ecological framework has been extended to predictive models of bullying victimization and perpetration, which are discussed briefly next.

Bullying can be verbal, physical, and social in nature.Bullying can be verbal, physical, and social in nature.©GIDEON MENDEL/CORBIS.

Individual Risk Factors. Certain individual characteristics heighten one's risk for being victimized or perpetrators. In demographic terms, boys are more often victimized and perpetrators than girls (Espelage & Holt, 2001), although this depends somewhat on the form of victimization; whereas boys are more likely to experience physical bullying victimization (e.g., being hit), girls are more likely to be targets of indirect victimization (e.g., social exclusion). In one of the few studies addressing the influence of race on bullying, Black students reported less victimization than White or Hispanic youth (Nansel et al., 2001). Juvonen and colleagues (2003) found that Black middle-school youth were more likely to be categorized as bullies and bully-victims than White students. Another study found that Hispanic students reported somewhat more bullying than Black and White youth (Nansel et al., 2001).

A wide range of personality characteristics has been associated with either pro-social behaviors or bullying victimization/perpetration. First, empathy is consistently negatively associated with aggression and positively associated with prosocial skills (Miller & Eisenberg, 1988). The inverse correlation between aggression and empathy was stronger in studies that focused on the emotional component of empathy rather than the cognitive aspects of empathy. This might be especially relevant in the case of bullying in which the aggressors might be able to understand others' emotional states without sharing the victims' feelings. Bullies' careful selection of victims who are vulnerable and disliked by their peers reflects good perspective-taking. However, the fact that they use violence to achieve their goals, disregarding the pain that they inflict on their victims suggests that perspective-taking (e.g., cognitive empathy) does little to inhibit aggression.

Second, a positive attitude toward bullying is often a strong predictor of bullying perpetration. Espelage and colleagues found that a positive attitude toward bullying partially mediated the relation between empathic concern and bullying for males, and the relation between perspective-taking and bullying for both males and females (Espelage, Mebane, & Adams, 2003). From a slightly different angle, Boulton and colleagues (2002) investigated children's general attitudes toward bullying and their impact on bullying. Investigators found significant positive correlations between pro-attitudes and self-reported involvement in bullying (Boulton, Trueman, & Flemington, 2002).

Contextual Influences. Family, peer, and school contexts can exert positive or negative influences on bullying involvement. With respect to the family context, bullies often report that their parents are authoritarian, condone fighting back, use physical punishment, lack warmth, and display indifference to their children (Baldry & Farrington, 2000). In addition, children who have insecure, anxious-avoidant, or anxious-resistant attachments when 18 months old were more likely than children with secure attachments to become involved in bullying at ages 4 and 5 (Troy & Sroufe, 1987). Similarly, middle school students classified as bullies and bully-victims indicated receiving substantially less social support from parents than students in the uninvolved group (Holt & Espelage, 2005). McFadyen-Ketchum and colleagues (1996) found aggressive children who experienced affectionate mother-child relationships showed significant decreases in aggressive-disruptive behaviors over time.

The peer context is another salient contributor to bullying behaviors. Several theories dominate the literature, including the homophily hypothesis, attraction theory, and dominance theory (for review, see Espelage, Wasserman, & Fleisher, 2007). According to the homophily hypothesis, adolescent peer group members tend to have similar levels of aggression. In addition, peer group bullying is predictive of individual youths' bullying behaviors over time, even after controlling for baseline levels of bullying, a finding that holds true for both males and females (Espelage, Holt, & Henkel, 2003). This might in part be due to deviancy training, a process by which values supportive of aggression are fostered. Peer groups can also have a positive influence on youth. Further, peers can promote positive social functioning among youth; adolescents with low levels of prosocial behaviors in sixth grade relative to their friends demonstrated improved prosocial behaviors at the end of eighth grade (Wentzel & Caldwell, 1997).


One of the most salient and influential environments for children is the school (Eccles et al., 1993). A tremendous amount of research has tied schooling to both academic and personal outcomes. School contextual factors have been linked to children's mental health, achievement, self-concept, and ability to form social relationships. Understanding the school environment is an essential part of understanding a child's behavior. In addition, educators have long seen the classroom as having an important impact on children's well being. If a classroom does not meet the needs of a child, negative outcomes can occur and the child can be put at-risk for academic and social difficulties (Eccles et al., 1993).

Students involved in bullying reported more negative views of their school environment and positive school climate has been found to be vital to reducing bullying behaviors. Classroom practices and teachers' attitudes are also salient components of school climate that contribute to bullying prevalence. Aggression varies from classroom to classroom, and in some classrooms aggression appears to be supported. Bullying tends to be less prevalent in classrooms in which most children are included in activities, teachers display warmth and responsiveness to children, teachers respond quickly and effectively to bullying incidents (Newman, Murray, & Lussier, 2001), and parents are aware of their children's peers relationships (Olweus, 1993). It is well accepted that when school personnel tolerate, ignore, or dismiss bullying behaviors, they implicitly convey messages that students internalize. Conversely, if staff members hold anti-bullying attitudes and translate these attitudes into behaviors, the school culture becomes less tolerant of bullying.

Kasen and colleagues' 1994 study is perhaps the most comprehensive examination of the impact of school climate on changes in verbal and physical aggression, anger, and school problem indices. In this study, 500 children (and their mothers) across 250 schools were surveyed at the age of 13.5 and 16 years across a two-and-a-half year interval. A 45-item school climate survey included multiple scales assessing social and emotional features of the school environment, including a conflict scale (classroom control, teacher-student conflict), learning focus scale, social facilitation scale, and student authority scale (student has a say in politics and planning) as predictors. Outcome measures included a wide range of scales, including school problems, deviance, rebelliousness, anger, physical and verbal aggression, and bullying. School context can influence engagement in bullying and more positive social interactions. Results found that students in high-conflict schools had an increase in verbal and physical aggression, after controlling for baseline aggression. In contrast, attendance at schools that emphasized learning resulted in a decrease in aggression and other school-related problems. Of particular interest was the finding that schools high in informal relations had increases in bullying perpetration over the two-and-a-half year interval, and schools with high conflict and high informality combined had the highest increase in bullying over time.


As a high school mathematics teacher I have regretfully witnessed many bullying situations. It is of particular concern to me, because it can have such a profound impact on classroom performance. I am reminded of a student, Renee (pseudonym), that I recently had in one of my classes. Renee's story reflects many of the points raised in Espelage's entry on bullying.

As Espelage defined bullying in this chapter, two ideas emerged that are reflected in Renee's story. One was the idea that bulling is repeated over time, and often is not just a one time occurrence. The second idea is that bullying is not always a physical act; it also occurs via social interactions and dialogs between students. Both of these were apparent in the case of Renee. Renee was a student of mine in a freshman algebra class. She was in a unique situation because she was a sophomore. She had transferred from a different school and she was lacking her required algebra credit, so she was the only sophomore in the algebra class. Initially this did not seem to be a problem for Renee. She was a very happy and sociable student. She was friendly and would talk with everyone and she would laugh often. After several weeks it appeared she was developing some friendships. She was also an academically strong student; during class she was focused on the task at hand and she worked well with her classmates.

As the year progressed, there was a group of four boys that would commonly joke around with Renee. They would tease her by pretending that one of their group was dating her. They would say things like, “where are the two of you going tonight?” or “is your old boyfriend mad you left him for me?” These conversations usually occurred in the transition between classes and when I heard these comments, I quickly redirected the students to the tasks of the day. Renee would usually laugh at the group of boys and always seemed to have a quick-witted response. From my vantage point it genuinely seemed like a group of friends having fun and enjoying each others' company.

My feelings about the situation changed when I noticed Renee missing several class sessions. She did not turn in her homework, and when she did attend class she did not perform as well as she had previously. I investigated her poor performance and why she had been missing class, and I found that the boys were the reason. Renee told me she had not been coming to class because she did not want deal with the groups of boys teasing her. Sometimes bullying is difficult for an outsider to detect. It is difficult to determine if kids are having good natured fun, or if someone is being victimized. As a teacher the best way I have seen to deal with these hard to distinguish situations is to build strong relationships with the students. The better you know the student the easier it will be to determine if they are actually being victimized. In Renee's case I did not see her as a victim of bullying initially, but her missing class and turning in poor work were immediate red flags.

After I realized that Renee was a victim of bullying by a peer group, I immediately confronted the four boys, called their parents, and notified the assistant principal of the situation. Renee began coming back to class and the boys seem more respectful toward her, but, on occasion, they would make the same type of comments to her, usually in the hallway before class so I was not aware. It was difficult to change the nature of the boys' interactions with Renee. On one occasion, I was working with a group of students and one of the boys made some remarks to Renee. I was unaware of the initial exchange, but I quickly noticed Renee aggressively react to their comments. She became extremely agitated and began yelling explicatives at the boys. As Espelage mentioned in this chapter, victims of bullying are often impulsive and lack behavior regulation, which can been seen in Renee's reactions.

The bullying between Renee and the boys was not immediately corrected but after time, consistent monitoring of interactions, parent conferences, and consultation with the assistant principal, the students developed a respectful relationship. Renee's performance returned to the level I had come to expect from her and the boys developed a more mature relationship with their classmate.

The bullying situation with Renee helped remind me, as a classroom teacher, that bullying is not always obvious, and that teachers have to know their students well to understand if bullying is occurring. As a teacher, it also is important to realize that bullying can profoundly influence a student's performance and achievement.

Anthony Durr

Bullies and Victims Across the Lifespan

Victims, bullies, and bully-victims often report adverse psychological effects and poor school adjustment as a result of their involvement in bullying. For example, targets of bullying reveal more loneliness and depression, greater school avoidance, more suicidal ideation, and less self-esteem than their non-bullied peers (Hawker & Boulton, 2000).

Findings have been mixed about the stability of bullying behavior over time. In one study, bullying perpetration and victimization at age 8 were related to bullying perpetration and victimization at age 16, with particularly strong associations emerging for victimization patterns and for the experiences of boys (Sourander, Helstela, Helenius, & Piha, 2000). Similarly, in a later study, girls and boys classified as victims in Grade 4 were significantly more likely than their peers to be identified as victims in Grade 7 (Paul & Cillesen, 2003).

It does appear though that the psychological costs associated with involvement are not transient. Adults at the age of 23, who had been chronically victimized in their youth, had lower self-esteem and were more depressed than non-victimized members of their cohort who had not been bullied (Olweus, 1993). Whereas victims tend to report more internalizing behaviors, bullies are more likely than their peers to engage in externalizing behaviors, to experience conduct problems, and to be delinquent (Nansel et al., 2001). Furthermore, long-term outcomes for bullies can be serious; compared to their peers, bullies are more likely to be convicted of crimes in adulthood (Olweus, 1993). One study revealed that youth identified as bullies in school had a one in four chance of having a criminal record by age 30 (Eron, Huesmann, Dubow, Romanoff, & Yarnel, 1987). Finally, considerable research has documented that the most at-risk group of youth is bully-victims. Bully-victims demonstrate more externalizing behaviors, are more hyperactive, and have a greater probability of being referred for psychiatric consultation than their peers (Nansel et al., 2001).


Many school-based bullying prevention and intervention programs include training teachers to create bully-free environments. For example, bullying prevention programs generally encourage teachers to generate rules about bullying collaboratively with their students. These rules typically include variants of the following: (a) Bully is not allowed in the classroom; (b) If a child is being bullied, then students and teachers will help him or her; and (c) Students and teachers work to include students who are left out. These rules are often posted in the classroom. Students and teachers are also encouraged to generate potential sanctions for violating the rules, including an individual talk with the bully, taking away a privilege, etc. Teachers are encouraged to hold class meetings to review the rules and sanctions in weekly class meetings in which students and teachers sit in a circle and discuss incidents of bullying. Teachers should also use praise when students engage in pro-social or caring acts.

Teachers are often encouraged then to incorporate a prevention program that more specifically teaches about bullying and helps children develop skills to minimize the risk of involvement with bullying. One program that is relatively inexpensive and easily adopted by elementary and middle school classroom teachers is Bully Busters (Newman, Horne, & Bartolomucci, 2000). Unlike many bullying prevention programs, Bully Busters has strong empirical support for its efficacy. For example, teachers who were trained to implement the program reported significantly higher levels of self-efficacy for managing bullying behavior, demonstrated greater knowledge of classroom behavior management, and had fewer classroom behavior problems and office referrals than comparison teachers (Newman-Carlson & Horne, 2004).

In this program, teachers are encouraged to do the following:

  • Develop a definition of bullying collaboratively with students. Exercises are used to facilitate a conversation among students about who is a bully, what is bullying, and where it happens.
  • Facilitate activities with students to recognize how their words/actions can be hurtful, and then role-play more constructive ways of interacting.
  • Discuss with students how bullying develops and the variety of forms it can take. Activities could include viewing movies or reading books in which characters are victims or bullies.
  • Engage in conversations with students about the effects of victimization and challenge myths about victims.
  • Encourage bystander intervention and encourage students to break the code of silence and create a safer climate for all students.
  • Teach empathy skills training, social skills training, and anger management skills.
  • Assist victims in becoming aware of their strengths, viewing themselves in a positive manner, and building skills and confidence in joining groups.
  • Identify how their attitudes and behaviors influence student behavior and how school-level factors relate to bullying.

School-based bullying perpetration and victimization develops and is maintained as a result of various factors, including a child's personality, home environment, peers, and experiences at school. Children and adolescents are at-risk for developing aggression or are at-risk for being involved in bullying because they have multiple risk factors and few protective experiences. However, research suggests that involvement in bullying can be prevented. For example, social support, teacher attachment, supportive friends, a positive school climate, involvement in extracurricular activities, all serve to protect or buffer children from both experiencing and expressing bullying, and these factors also serve to minimize the psychological impact over time.

See also:Aggression


Baldry, A. C., & Farrington, D. P. (2000). Bullies and delinquents: Personal characteristics and parental styles. Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, 10, 17–31.

Boulton, M. J., Trueman, L., & Flemington, J. (2002). Associations between secondary school student's definitions of bullying, attitudes towards bullying, and tendencies to engage in bullying: Age and sex differences. Educational Studies, 28(4), 353–370.

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Eccles, J. S., Wigfield, A., Midgley, C., Reuman, D., MacIver, D., & Feldlaufer, H. (1993). Negative effects of traditional middle schools on students' motivation. Elementary School Journal, 93, 553–574.

Eron, L. D., Huesmann, L. R., Dubow, E., Romanoff, R., & Yarnel, P. W. (1987). Aggression and its correlates over 22 years. In D. H. Crowell & I. M. Evans (Eds.), Childhood aggression and violence: Sources of influence, prevention, and control (pp. 249–262). New York: Plenum Press.

Espelage, D., & Holt, M. K. (2001). Bullying and victimization during early adolescence: Peer influences and psychosocial correlates. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 2, 123–142.

Espelage, D. L., Holt, M. K., & Henkel, R. R. (2003). Examination of peer-group contextual effects on aggression during early adolescence. Child Development, 74(1), 205–220.

Espelage, D. L., Mebane, S., & Adams, R. (2004). Empathy, caring, and bullying: Toward an understanding of complex associations. In D. L. Espelage & S. M. Swearer (Eds.), Bullying in American schools: A social ecological perspective on prevention and intervention (pp. 37–61). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Espelage, D. L., Wasserman, S., & Fleisher, M. (2007). Social networks and violent behavior. In D. J. Flannery, A. T. Vazsonyi, & I. Waldman (Eds.), The Cambridge handbook of violent behavior. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hawker, D. S. J., & Boulton, M. J. (2000). Twenty years' research on peer victimization and psychosocial maladjustment: A meta-analytic review of cross-sectional studies. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 41, 441–455.

Holt, M., & Espelage, D. (2005). Multiple victimization of adolescents. In K. Kendall-Tackett & S. Giacomoni (Eds.), Victimization of children and youth: Patterns of abuse, response strategies (pp. 13–16). Kingston, NJ: Civic Research Institute.

Hoover, J. H., Oliver, R., & Hazler, R. (1992). Causal attributions: From cognitive processes to collective beliefs. Oxford: Blackwell.

Jvonen, J., Graham, S., & Schuster, M. A. (2003). Bullying among young adolescents: The strong, the weak, and the troubled. Pediatrics, 112(6), 1231–1237.

Kasen, S., Berenson, K., Cohen, P., & Johnson, J. G. (2004). The effects of school climate on changes in aggressive and other behaviors related to bullying. In D. L. Espelage & S. M. Swearer (Eds.), Bullying in American schools: A social-ecological perspective on prevention and intervention (pp. 187–210). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

McFadyen-Ketchum, S. A., Bates, J. E., Dodge, K. A., & Pettit, G. S. (1996). Patterns of change in early childhood aggressive-disruptive behavior: Gender differences in predictions from early coercive and affectionate mother-child interactions. Child Development, 67(5), 2417–2433.

Miller, P. A., & Eisenberg, N. (1988). The relationship of empathy to aggressive and externalizing/antisocial behavior. Psychological Bulletin, 103, 324–344.

Nansel, T. R., Overpeck, M., Pilla, R. S., Ruan, W. J., Simons-Morton, B., & Scheidt, P. (2001). Bullying behaviors among U.S. youth: Prevalence and association with psychosocial adjustment. Journal of the American Medical Association, 285, 2094–2100.

Newman, D. A., Horne, A. M., & Bartolomucci, C. L. (2000). Bully busters: A teacher's manual for helping bullies, victims, and bystanders. Champaign, IL: Research Press.

Newman, R. S., Murray, B., & Lussier, C. (2001). Confrontation with aggressive peers at school: Students' reluctance to seek help from the teacher. Journal of Educational Psychology, 93(2), 398–410.

Newman-Carlson, D., & Horne, A. (2004). Bully-busters: A psychoeducational intervention for reducing bullying behavior in middle school students. Journal of Counseling and Development, 82, 259–267.

Olweus, D. (1978). Aggression in the schools: Bullies and whipping boys. Washington, DC: Hemisphere.

Olweus, D. (1993). Bully/victim problems among schoolchildren: Long-term consequences and an effective intervention program. In S. Hodgins (Ed.), Mental disorder and crime (pp. 317–349). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Schwartz, D., Proctor, L. J., & Chien, D. H. (2001). The aggressive victim of bullying, emotional and behavioral dysregulation as a pathway to victimization by peers. In J. Juvonen & S. Graham (Eds.), Peer harassment in school: The plight of the vulnerable and victimized (pp. 147–174). New York: Guilford Press.

Sharp, S., & Smith, P. K. (1991). Bullying in UK schools: The DES Sheffield Bullying Project. Early Childhood Development and Care, 77, 47–55.

Shields, A., & Cicchetti, D. (2001). Parental maltreatment and emotion dysregulation as risk factors for bullying and victimization in middle childhood. Journal of Clinical Child Psychology, 30, 349–363.

Sourander, A., Helstela, L., Helenius, H., & Piha, J. (2000). Persistence of bullying from childhood to adolescence: A longitudinal 8-year follow-up study. Child Abuse & Neglect, 24, 873–881.

Troy, M., & Sroufe, L. A. (1987). Victimization among preschoolers: Role of attachment relationship history. Journalof the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 26, 166–172.

Wentzel, K. R., & Caldwell, K. A. (1997). Friendships, peer acceptance, and group membership: Relations to academic achievement in middle school. Child Development, 68, 1198–1209.

Whitney, I., & Smith, P. K. (1993). A survey of the nature and extent of bullying in junior/middle and secondary schools. Educational Research, 35, 3–25.

Add your own comment