When bullies get bullied by others: Understanding bully-victims
© 2008 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
Bully-victims: A special type?
Kids who harass and
intimidate others were once lumped together. But today, researchers have
identified two different types of bully.
are the confident aggressors. They dish out intimidation and harassment. In general, they don’t get victimized by other bullies.
The “bully-victims," by contrast, are both bullies and the victims of bullying.
Such victimized aggressors suffer from a distinctive set of problems. Compared to pure bullies, they may be more
also suffer higher injury rates (Stein et al 2007). And—at least in
some places—-bully-victims may pose a greater danger to their peers.
Here is the background on aggressive victims-—the bullies who get bullied.
Bully-victims are at a greater risk for emotional problems
An international survey of 11- to 15-year olds found that
bully-victims experienced worse emotional adjustment in all 25 countries
surveyed (Nansel et al 2004).
Other studies confirm this trend.
A longitudinal study tracking Finnish boys from age 8 to early
adulthood found that bully-victims were at an especially heightened risk
for developing emotional disorders, including anxiety, depression,
psychosis, substance abuse, and anti-social personality disorder
(Sourander et al 2007b).
• A study of American adolescents found
that bully-victims suffered more psychological distress—-as measured by
their own self-reports and the judgments of their teachers (Juvoven et
al 2003). Compared to pure bullies, bully-victims suffered higher levels
of anxiety and depression.
• Another study of American teenage
boys found that bully-victims suffered the worst psychological health of
any group—including pure bullies and passive victims (Stein et al
Bully-victims may have more difficulty “fitting in"
A Swiss study has reported that kindergartners identified as
bully-victims by their peers were less cooperative and less sociable
(Perren and Alsaker 2006).
Other studies of older children have
reported that bully-victims are more likely to be avoided by their peers
(Nansel et al 2004; Juvoven et al 2003). They are also more likely to
feel lonely and to have difficulty making friends (Nansel et al 2001;
Juvoven et al 2003).
Bully-victims may be more likely to suffer from over-arousal
Arousal is the degree to which we are engaged or “turned on" to the
environment. It describes our state of excitement about what is going
When people are in low states of arousal, they may find it easy to control their emotions.
they are in very high states of arousal, they may be tense and
overreact to potentially stressful situations. High arousal is also
correlated with an elevated sensitivity to being overlooked or going
A British study measured the arousal levels of 13- and
14-year old students (Woods and White 2005). Kids who were pure bullies
had rather low levels of arousal.
By contrast, bully-victims had higher levels of arousal than all other groups, including passive victims.
everyday terms, these kids were high “strung." In fact, over 23% of
bully-victims had arousal levels in the clinically high range (Woods and
Bully-victims have more difficulty in school.
An American study of young school kids (aged 8 to 13) has reported
that bullies who were also victims were more likely to feel unsafe and
feel they didn’t belong at school (Glew et al 2005).
findings are confirmed by the perceptions of teachers. In an American
study of young adolescents, teachers reported that bully-victims had
more conduct problems and were less engaged in school than was any other
group—including both pure bullies and passive victims (Juvoven et al
There is also evidence that bully/victims are less
successful academically. In the study conducted by Gwen Glew and
colleagues, bully-victims were more likely to be low achievers (Glew et
al 2005). Similar findings have been reported by Schwartz (2000).
Bully-victims are more likely to endorse “Machievellian" attitudes.
Several lines of evidence suggest that
bully-victims are more likely than pure bullies to report cynical attitudes.
For example, the Glew found that bully-victims were much more likely to
endorse cheating than were other kids (Glew et al 2005).
study of Greek primary school children found that, compared with pure
bullies and passive victims, bully-victims were more likely to endorse
Machavellian beliefs and show a lack of faith in human nature (Andreou
Perhaps these studies reflect real differences in attitude
between bully-victims and pure bullies. But we have to remember that
these differences are based on what kids voluntarily report to
researchers. So it’s possible that bully-victims are simply more candid
(or less crafty) when discussing themselves.
Are bully-victims more dangerous?
In some places, like the United States, bully-victims
are more likely than pure bullies to carry weapons (Stein et al 2007).
They may also be more likely to believe that it’s O.K. to bring a gun to
school (Glew et al 2008).
And according to one study of American
middle school students, bully-victims were more likely to commit major
acts of violence against other kids (Unnever 2005).
research suggests a different pattern. A Finnish study tracked boys from
age 8 to early adulthood and found that pure bullies—-not
bully-victims—-were the most likely to get convicted of violent crimes
(Sourander et al 2007a).
What we can do
Some of the research on bullying sounds ominous--like the findings that
• Kids who bully on a daily basis are at a greater risk of developing psychiatric disorders, and
• Bullies are more likely to agree with statements of moral disengagement, like “some people deserve to be treated like animals"
But research also suggests how we can stop bullying and bullies to change their ways. For details, see this article on
how to prevent bullying.