It Takes Two: Rethinking the Aggressor-Victim Relationship

By — Bullying Special Edition Contributor
Updated on Feb 11, 2009

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.

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