Exploring the Nature and Prevention of Bullying

Bullying incidents tend to involve three different groups of students: Bullies, Victims, and Bystanders. While the young people within each of these groups share many similarities, each group can be further divided into subgroups of students with different personalities, motivations, and behaviors. It is important to understand the nature and range of the young people who fall into each of these three groups in order to effectively plan and deliver bullying prevention activities.


In a 1978 study, Olweus described three different types of bully: the aggressive bully, the passive bully, and the bully-victim. These characterizations still hold true today.

  • Aggressive bullies are the most common type of bully. Young people who fall into this category tend to be physically strong, impulsive, hot-tempered, belligerent, fearless, coercive, confident, and lacking in empathy for their victims. They have an aggressive personality and are motivated by power and the desire to dominate others. They are also likely to make negative attributions, often seeing slights or hostility in those around them where neither actually exists. According to Olweus, the aggressive bully tends to be most popular in the early school years and then less so in the upper grades — perhaps because young children are more likely than older students to admire the macho image. As students get older, they become better able to think critically about peers and "leaders."

    Surprisingly Skilled

    In contrast to the popular notion that bullies lack social skills, research has shown that bullies are actually quite adept at reading social cues and perspective-taking. Rather than using these skills prosocially, such as to empathize with others, they instead use them to identify and prey on peer vulnerabilities.

    "All data point in the same direction … that bullies have no problem with self-esteem."

    – Dan Olweus, 2002 OSDFS National Technical Assistance Meeting

  • Passive bullies, unlike the ultra-confident aggressive bullies, tend to be insecure. They are also much less popular than the aggressive bullies and often have low-self esteem, few likable qualities, and unhappy home lives. Passive bullies also appear to have difficulties concentrating and focusing their attention at school, as well as violent outbursts or temper tantrums that lead to problems with their peers. Rather than initiating a bullying interaction, passive bullies tend to hang back until one is already under way — usually at the instigation of an aggressive bully. Once a bullying incident begins, passive bullies become enthusiastic participants. In fact, passive bullies are very quick to align themselves with and display intense loyalty to the more powerful aggressive bullies. Some researchers refer to this group as anxious bullies.
  • Bully-victims represent a small percentage of bullies who have been seriously bullied themselves. Bully-victims are often physically weaker than those who bully them but are almost always physically stronger than their own victims. They possess some of the same characteristics as provocative victims (described below); they are easily aroused and sometimes provoke others who are clearly weaker than they are. Bully-victims are generally unpopular with their peers, and they are more likely than other types of bullies to be both anxious and depressed.
  • Dieter Wolke, of the University of Hertfordshire, England, identified a fourth group of bullies: pure bullies. "It appears that pure bullies are healthy individuals, who enjoy school and use bullying to obtain dominance," says Wolke, who labels these children "cool operators." Pure bullies have not been victimized themselves, and they are rarely absent from school — presumably because they enjoy victimizing their peers.


Bullies do not randomly attack their peers; instead, they target a specific subgroup of students who are often victimized over the course of several years. Just like bullies, victims are a heterogeneous group. Olweus describes three types of victim: the passive victim, the provocative victim, and bully-victim (described above).

  • Passive victims do not directly provoke bullies and represent the largest group of victimized children. They are socially withdrawn, often seem anxious, depressed, and fearful, and have very poor self-concepts. When compared with their non-victimized peers, passive victims have fewer if any friends, are lonely and sad, and are more nervous about new situations. This cluster of symptoms makes them attractive targets for bullies who are unusually competent in detecting vulnerability. In the early grades, initial responses to bullying among passive victims include crying, withdrawal, and futile anger. In later grades, they tend to respond by trying to avoid and escape from bullying situations (e.g., being absent from school, running away from home).

While there is evidence that some of the characteristics of passive victims precede and contribute to their victimization experiences, it is also clear that many of their personal attributes also result from being bullied. According to Swearer and colleagues (2001): "The victims' behaviors and emotional states may make them vulnerable to bullying. The bullying behavior towards them may perpetuate their issues with low-self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and loneliness, which may make them increasingly vulnerable to bullying."

Click here for some possible signs of victimization.

Other researchers have described some subgroups that may be present within the broad category of passive victims:

  • Vicarious victims, or surrogate victims, either witness or hear about bullying incidents at school. They are victims of the school's climate of fear and worry about their own potential to become targets of bullying. As a result of this perceived vulnerability as well as concern about direct retribution from bullies, they choose not to help bullying victims or report bullying incidents even though they often feel sympathetic — which often leads to feelings of guilt (Besag, 1989).
  • False victims represent a small group of students who complain frequently and without justification to their teachers about being bullied by their classmates. This behavior seems to be a bid for attention and sympathy from the teacher. This is problematic for two main reasons: 1) these children should learn that there are legitimate ways to get attention, and 2) teachers who may be unsympathetic about the problem of bullying could use this behavior as an excuse to ignore all complaints about bullying (Besag, 1989).
  • Perpetual victims are those victims who are bullied all of their lives. While "perpetual" refers to the duration of bullying rather than a subgroup of victim, it is interesting to consider the possibility that some children may develop a victim mentality whereby the victim role becomes a permanent part of their psyches (Elliott, 1993).
  • Provocative victims represent a small group of children who often behave in ways that arouse negative responses from those around them, such as anger, irritation, and exasperation. They possess a cluster of characteristics that are likely to disrupt a classroom and lead to social rejection by peers, including irritability, restlessness, off-task behavior, and hostility. Although they are a distinct subgroup, provocative victims often display characteristics of other groups of children as well — including pure bullies (i.e., they have elevated levels of dominant, aggressive, and antisocial behavior and low levels of tolerance for frustration) and passive victims (i.e., they are socially anxious, feel disliked by others, and have low self-esteem).

Nathan, aged 10, was described by his class teacher as a child who lived "on the edge of his nerves," never still, and with "his brain disconnected from his mouth." The latter trait made it likely that he would make loud remarks about other children's appearance or their work that would make them angry. He would then say to them, "What are you going to do about it then?" whereupon two or three of them might show him, violently. Nathan was described as the most unpopular child in the school, as the one "everybody loves to hate" (Randall, 1997, p. 94).

It is important to keep in mind that students who fall into this category may possess a disability of some sort (e.g., a learning disability, attention deficit disorder) that contributes to their provocative behavior. In addition to helping these young people deal with the consequences of their victimization, it would also be helpful to assess the potential causes of their challenging behavior. If a disability is present, then an accurate diagnosis followed by targeted services could go a long way toward preventing further victimization.

Click here for a list of significant identifying characteristics for victims as rated by experts.

Click here to review some of the short- and long-term consequences for victims.

Multiple factors contribute to a bully's selection of victim, including the complicated interplay of a bully's motivation, a victim's characteristics, and the specific circumstances of the bullying situation. For example, availability may be a key factor in victim selection if a bully simply wants to elevate his or her status with peers. However, if a bully is looking for some sort of tangible payoff, then he or she might choose a target who is known to have money and likely to be submissive. If a bully wants to display power, then he or she might target a provocative victim who is noted for fighting back ineffectively.


While far too many students report that they are bullies, victims, or both, the vast majority of young people are neither bullies nor victims. Instead, most students fall into the category of bystander. This group includes everyone — other than the bully and victim — who is present during a bullying incident. According to John A. Calhoun, president and CEO of the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), 6 out of 10 American teenagers witness bullying in school one or more times each day. In addition to the terrible problems that bullying creates for those who are directly involved, student bystanders to bullying also experience feelings of fear, discomfort, guilt, and helplessness. According to the U.S. Department of Education, bystanders may experience the following:

  • Be afraid to associate with the victim for fear of either lowering their own status or of retribution from the bully and becoming victims themselves
  • Fear reporting bullying incidents because they do not want to be called a "snitch," a "tattler," or "informer"
  • Experience feelings of guilt and helplessness for not standing up to the bully on behalf of their classmate
  • Be drawn into bullying behavior by group pressure
  • Feel unsafe, unable to take action, or a loss of control

It is clear that bystanders display distinct patterns of behavior during a bullying incident; these responses represent students' attitudes toward the problem of bullying (e.g., positive, neutral-indifferent, negative) as well as the actions they are likely to take during an actual incident. The Bullying Circle below, based on Olweus' early research as well as the research of Salmivalli and colleagues, illustrate and describe each of these bystander roles.

Cycle of Bullying

In addition to describing the various roles that students can play in a bullying situation, the Bullying Circle further depicts the importance of moving young people to the right — specifically away from the bullies and their supporters and toward defenders of victims. In a study by Boulton and Underwood (1992), middle school students responded to the question, "What do you do when you see a child of your age being bullied?" in the following manner:

  • 49 percent said they tried to help in some way.
  • 29 percent said they did nothing, but thought that they should try to help
  • 22 percent said they would not help because it was none of their business.

A full third of the young people in this study indicated that they could see why bullying happened, which seems to suggest that they — at some level — accept and/or condone bullying behavior among their peers. And, in another study by Whitney and Smith (1993), 18 percent of the participating middle and high school students said that they would join in if their friends were bullying someone. While most attempts to reduce youth violence have focused on the perpetrator or the relationship between perpetrators and victims, it is increasingly recognized that such interventions do not go far enough in creating safe schools and communities. It is also critical to consider the role of bystanders, whose influence in perpetuating or escalating violence has often been overlooked.

Bystanders clearly have a range of choices when it comes to bullying. They can passively accept it, overtly encourage it, or denounce a bully's actions and provide support to the victims. In fact, it is clear that many students who possess characteristics typical of victims are protected against bullying because of such social factors as peer acceptance and supportive friends.

Click here for some examples of how bystanders have either missed opportunities to prevent violence or have actually succeeded in averting tragedies at school.

Breaking the Bullying Cycle

Practical Handouts for Parents and Teachers

Youth Artwork:

  1. Why Bully?: This picture is from the Chill Out Space of the Bullying. No Way! Web site.
  2. Faces: This picture is from the Art Miles Mural Project and PapaInk, the Children's Art Archive.

  3. Stop: This picture is from Artwork Left on the Table, a privately held collection of student work assembled by Alternative Art Teacher Gayle Ann Beard, and PapaInk, the Children's Art Archive.


Besag, V. E. (1989). Bullies and Victims in Schools. Milton Keynes, England: Open University Press.

Boulton, M. & Underwood, K. (1992). Bully/Victim Problems Among Middle School Children. British Journal of Educational Psychology, 62, 73-87.

Caldwell, E. (Autumn/Winter 1997). Sticks and Stones. Perspectives: Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity at Ohio University. Available on-line at: www.ohiou.edu/perspectives/9702/bully2.htm. Retrieved January, 2004.

Elliott, M. (1993). Bullies, Victims, Signs, Solutions. In M. Elliott (Ed.), Bullying: A Practical Guide to Coping for Schools (pp. 8-14). Harlow, England: Longman.

National Crime Prevention Council (2003). Bullying, Not Terrorist Attack, Biggest Threat Seen by U.S. Teens (press release). Washington, DC: National Crime Prevention Council.

Olweus, D. (1978). Aggression in Schools: Bullies and Whipping Boys. Washington, DC: Hemisphere.

Olweus, D. (2001). Peer Harassment: A Critical Analysis and Some Important Issues. In J. Juvonen & S. Graham (Eds.), Peer Harassment in School: The Plight of the Vulnerable and Victimized (pp. 3-20). New York: Guilford Press.

Randall, P. E. (1997). Adult Bullying: Perpetrators and Victims. London: Routledge.

Ross, D. (2003). Childhood Bullying, Teasing, and Violence: What School Personnel, Other Professionals, and Parents Can Do (2nd ed.). Alexandria, VA: American Counseling Association.

Swearer, S. M., Song, S. Y., Cary, P. T., Eagler, J. W., & Mickelson, W. T. (2001). Psychosocial Correlates in Bullying and Victimization: The Relationship Between Depression, Anxiety, and Bully/Victim Status. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 2(2/3), 95-121.

U.S. Department of Education (1998). Preventing Bullying: A Manual for Schools and Communities. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Whitney, I. & Smith, P. K. (1993). A Survey of the Nature and Extent of Bully/Victim Problems in Junior/Middle and Secondary Schools. Educational Research, 35, 3-25.

Wolke, D. (December 24, 1999). In S. Cassidy, Beware the "Pure Bully" Who Never Takes Time Off. Times Educational Supplement, News Section, p. 3.