Who Are the Targets of Bullying?

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

It is no fun to be on the receiving end of bullying. The immediate effects-physical injury, humiliation, helplessness, rejection, unhappiness-are painful enough, but the knowledge that all this will soon be repeated multiplies the distress. Children who are harassed experience fear, anxiety, insecurity, oppression, depression, inability to concentrate in class, low marks, headaches, stomachaches, and nightmares. It is not surprising that they want to avoid school (Kochenderfer and Ladd, 1996). Being bullied has a devastating effect on self-esteem. It's hard for a child to stop thinking that she deserves whatever she gets (Boivin, Hymel, and Hodges, 2001; Rigby, 2001b; Wilczenski et al., 1994), and the worse she feels about herself, the more susceptible she becomes (Swearer, Song, Cary, Eagle, and Mickelson, 2001). Because perpetrators often deny they've done anything wrong, students who've been targeted by relational bullying even learn to mistrust the evidence of their own senses (Simmons, 2002).

How does a student become the target of bullying? What makes her vulnerable? Part of the explanation is temperament. Olweus (1993) has found that most children who are harassed are what he terms "passive victims": "cautious, sensitive, quiet, withdrawn, passive, submissive and shy, ... anxious, insecure, unhappy, and distressed" (p. 57). They may also be physically weak (Perry, Hodges, and Egan. 2001) and have what Olweus (1993) calls "body anxiety"; They're clumsy, afraid of being hurt, and weak at sports and fights. They are always the last ones chosen for the team.

Students who are bullied often have a history of insecure attachment, trouble separating from their parents, and a fear of exploring their surroundings. Their families tend to overprotect them, manipulate their thoughts and feelings, or use coercive and power-assertive discipline. These tactics threaten the development of the child's sense of self, undermine her confidence, and batter her self-esteem (Perry et al.,2001).

Sensing a child's vulnerability, a more powerful student or group may decide to tease or ridicule her (Rigby, 2002), and instead of standing up for herself, she feels threatened and scared, cries, or runs away, signaling that she's an easy mark. Because a child who's targeted usually has poor social skills and few or no friends, the student doing the bullying knows that no one will come to her defense (Egan and Perry, 1998; Hodges, Boivin, Vitaro, and Bukowski, 1999; Perry et al., 2001). Other students join in the attack, escalating the abuse and dampening concern and sympathy for the targeted child. Indeed, her peers will probably blame her for being bullied and isolate her even further (Oliver et al., 1994). Some students are so eager to belong to a group that they'll put up with any kind of abuse (Roberts, 2006).

Research suggests children get locked into the role of victim at 8 or 9 years of age (Pepler, Smith, and Rigby, 2004). Even when they enter a new classroom or school, they communicate their insecurity and fear to their classmates, setting themselves up for more victimization (Salmivalli, Kaukiainen, and Lagerspetz, 1998).

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