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. But what about the relationships between aggressors and victims? What happens when we think of aggression in terms of multi-faceted interactions between children who possess specific and identifiable characteristics and behaviors?
A Relationship Perspective: It Takes Two
Research that focuses on 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. Aggression, however, always involves at least two individuals, an aggressor and a victim. Also, 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 the relationships (e.g. the pairings of specific aggressors with specific victims) between children have the strongest affect on occurrences of aggression. The bullying dynamic, then, appears to have much more to do with a mutually reinforcing relationship between an “aggressor” and a “victim” than simply the result of one child who indiscriminately picks on every one he or she comes into contact with. To fully understand the numerous and varied components that make up a bullying dynamic, it is important to think of this type of aggression as a two-person phenomenon, rather than the random cruelty of one aggressive bully.
This view is supported by empirical research. Coie and colleagues (1) observed third grade boys interacting in laboratory-based playgroups, coding the occurrence of aggression among the boys. Using statistical procedures, the researchers identified the extent that occurrences of aggression are due to individual differences among aggressors (some boys enacting a lot of aggression and others enacting little), individual differences among victims (some boys being frequently and others rarely victimized), and relationships (stable pairings of specific aggressors targeting specific victims). They found these relationship pairings had the strongest effect, meaning that occurrences of aggression were largely due to certain stable aggressor-victim relationships.
Card and Hodges (2) recently conducted a similar study investigating aggression among boys and girls occurring within schools. Analyzing middle-school children’s responses to questions such as “I hit or push him/her around.” and “He/she threatens and bullies me.”, we found that the majority of variability in the occurrence of aggression is due to specific pairings of aggressor and victims. In other words, aggression appears to be largely a dyadic relationship phenomenon in schools for both boys and girls.
Causes of Aggressor-Victim Relationships
In order to think of bullying in terms of a two-person relationship we must consider different causes of aggression, especially in terms of how the two children involved relate to one another. Although research is limited in this specific area, current studies point to four identifiable causes of the aggressor-victim relationship:
1) Preconceived Opinions: The opinions and beliefs children have of one another directly affects their treatment of each other. Aggressors hold specific beliefs about specific victims, and these beliefs predict patterns of aggression (3).
2) Social/Physical Hierarchy: A second potential cause is a difference in power between the aggressor and victim. Current studies shows that children who bully are often physically stronger, more popular, and less anxious or depressed than their targeted victims (4). This research suggests 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 him or her , and shows signs of suffering (such as crying). Potential aggressors may even “shop around” for victims until they find peers they can dominate before engaging in lasting aggressor-victim relationships.
3) Mutual Dislike: A third potential cause of aggressor-victim relationships is the presence of mutual dislike (or enemy relationship) between the two children. Our research has shown that children are about five times more likely to report that an enemy victimizes them than a friend or acquaintance (5). Moreover, victimization from enemies appears to be more strongly related to maladjustment than victimization that does not involve enemy relationships. This suggests that these aggressive, negative relationships may be especially upsetting for children.
4) Peer Influence: A fourth potential cause is the influence of friends. It is well known that friends influence each other in many ways, and our research has shown that friends often share the same targets for aggression (6). If one aggressor targets a particular victim, it is likely that the aggressor’s friends will target that victim. It is possible that children may encourage their friends to bully or pick on a specific victim by describing the child as weak or deserving of abuse, laughing at the targeted child, or jointly bullying, or trading stories of bullying, the victim.
This perspective of aggression as a relationship between specific aggressors and victims not only leads us to investigate different causes of the 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, coalition building (such as getting aggressors and victims to engage in cooperative activities) and conflict management strategies (such as helping both parties negotiate peaceful coexistence) might be useful in resolving these relationships.
What this Means
Attention to the aggressor-victim relationship is by no means a replacement for examining and helping individual aggressors and victims. As other scholars in this arena have noted, considering why some children are aggressive while others are victimized is a valuable area of study. Rather, there needs to be a focus on the relationships between aggressors and victims that runs parallel to the examination of the individual children involved in the bullying dynamic. A holistic view of this complex phenomenon will surely assist teachers, parents, and other caregivers in providing children with thoughtful and well-rounded solutions to the complex, painful issues surrounding bullying.
- 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.
- Card, N. A., & Hodges, E. V. E. (under review). 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 under review.
- 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.
- 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. (2007). Victimization within mutually antipathetic peer relationships. Social Development, 16, 479-496.
- Card, N. A., & Hodges, E. V. E. (2006). Shared targets for aggression by early adolescent friends. Developmental Psychology, 42, 1327-1338.
- 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.
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.
Correspondence regarding this article should be addressed to Noel Card (firstname.lastname@example.org), Family Studies and Human Development, 1110 E. South Campus Drive, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ 85721-0033.