Bullying and victimization are problematic behaviors with negative consequences for everyone: the victims, the bullies, the other students in the classroom and school, the teachers, the parents of the bullies and the victims, and perhaps even the neighborhood in which the school is located. Thus, much is at stake to reduce bullying. Yet, we find that the roles that children and adolescence have in their peer group, and bullying and victimization specifically, can be quite stable over time. Without intervention, there seems to be little change in the occurrence of bullying and victimization. We have also examined the reasons why bullies and victims do not change easily. Understanding these reasons is necessary to create change.
Stability of Peer Reputations
The reputation of a child or adolescent in the peer group tends to be stable over time. Reputations of being well-liked or popular, but also aggressive, rejected, or victimized are quite consistent over multiple years, even when children or adolescents move to new schools and the peer group changes (1).
In one study, we followed children from age 9 (the end of elementary school) to age 18 (the end of high school). The most aggressive 9-year-olds tend to be the most aggressive 19-year-olds (2). Children who are victimized as youngsters also tend to be victimized as they get older (3). For victims of bullying, it is difficult to improve their position from one school year to the next.
The Rewards of Bullying
Why do bullying and victimization repeat themselves? One reason for the stability of bullying are the rewards that bullies get for their behavior. Bullying is power (4). Being aggressive to others is reinforced by becoming dominant in the peer group (5).
Bullies do not work alone. Some peers assist the bully; others watch and do nothing (6). The bully forms a coalition with the assistants that increases their status and helps the bully stay in charge (7). Because of such rewards, the bullying continues.
What Peers Expect of Bullies and Victims
Second, children’s perceptions of themselves and others contribute to the stability of bullying and victimization. Children expect their peers to behave in the same way they always do and thereby help them to continue their behavior (8). Problem children such as bullies often do not perceive their own behavior very accurately (9). Instead, bullies may think that they are cool and entitled to their behavior (10). Victims inaccurately believe that they cannot escape their fate (11). Peers’ expectations of bullies and victims, and bullies’ and victims’ expectations of themselves, help to continue their roles in the peer group, even across school transitions (12).
Is Change Possible?
The story of stability may suggest a bleak picture. Is change ever possible? Change is possible (13), but to create it, the factors that contribute to stability need to be taken into account. The rewards for the bully in the peer group need to be counteracted. It is also necessary to change how bullies and victims see themselves: to make bullies aware of their aggression and its consequences on their peers, and to make victims understand that change can happen.
Bullying and victimization have system-wide negative consequences. The natural tendency of a social group is to perpetuate itself. There are hidden forces in the peer group that make bullies stay bullies and victims stay victims. Intervention has to overcome these forces. Interventions with one bully or one victim will not be successful if the rest of the group is left untouched. It is also necessary to address the reward value of bullying. This may be the biggest challenge, because society at large often reinforces aggressive and controversial tactics as means to become dominant and successful.
Antonius Cillessen is professor and chair of developmental psychology at the Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, The Netherlands, and senior research scientist at the University of Connecticut. His research focuses on peer relationships, aggression, and research methods for developmental psychology. Correspondence may be addressed to Antonius H. N. Cillessen, Behavioural Science Institute, Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, P.O. Box 9104, 6500 HE Nijmegen, The Netherlands, or electronically to firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
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- Cillessen, A. H. N., & Laszkowski, D. K. (2006, March). Stability, correlates, and long-term consequences of victimization from age 9 to age 18. Society for Research on Adolescence, San Francisco, CA.
- Paul, J. J., & Cillessen, A. H. N. (2003). Dynamics of peer victimization in early adolescence: Results from a four-year longitudinal study. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 19, 25-43.
- Vaillancourt, T., Hymel, S., & McDougall, P. (2003). Bullying is power: Implications for school-based intervention strategies Journal of Applied School Psychology, 19, 157-175.
- Cillessen, A. H. N., & Mayeux, L. (2004). From censure to reinforcement: Developmental changes in the association between aggression and social status. Child Development, 75, 147-163.
- Salmivalli, C., Lagerspetz, K., Björkqvist, K., Österman, K., & Kaukiainen, A. (1996). Bullying as a group process: Participant roles and their relations to social status within the group. Aggressive Behavior, 22, 1-15.
- Garandeau, C. F., & Cillessen, A. H. N. (2006). From indirect aggression to invisible aggression: A conceptual view on bullying and peer group manipulation. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 11, 612-625.
- Cillessen, A. H. N. (1991). The self-perpetuating nature of children’s peer relationships. Kampen, The Netherlands: Mondis.
- Cillessen, A. H. N., & Bellmore, A. D. (2002). Social skills and interpersonal perception in early and middle childhood. In P. K. Smith & C. H. Hart (Eds.), Blackwell handbook of childhood social development (pp. 355-374). Malden, MA: Blackwell.
- Rodkin, P. C., Farmer, T. W., Pearl, R., & Van Acker, R. (2006). They're cool: Ethnic and peer group supports for aggressive boys and girls. Social Development, 15, 175-204.
- Bellmore, A. D., & Cillessen, A. H. N. (2006). Reciprocal influences of victimization, perceived social preference, and self-concept in adolescence. Self and Identity, 5, 209-229.
- Cillessen, A. H. N., & Mayeux, L. (2007). Expectations and perceptions at school transitions: The role of peer status and aggression. Journal of School Psychology, 45, 567-586.
- Swearer, S. M., Haye, K. M., Cary, P. T., Brey, K., & Frazier-Koontz, M. (2002, November). The ecology of peer victimization in middle-school youth: An examination of the transitional years and internalizing difficulties. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy, Reno, NV.