When bullies get bullied by others: Understanding bully-victims

© 2008 - 2017 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.

The “pure" bullies 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

  • anxious
  • depressed
  • lonely
  • high-strung

Bullies who are also victims suffer higher injury rates (Stein et al 2007). And they may pose a greater danger to their peers.

For example, a recent study tracking thousands of adolescents found that bully-victims engage in more frequent acts of bullying than do pure bullies (Kochel et al 2015).

Here is the background on aggressive victims--the bullies who get bullied.

Victimized bullies 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 2007).

Victimized bullies 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).

Victimized bullies 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 on.

When people are in low states of arousal, they may find it easy to control their emotions.

When 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 unrewarded.

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.

In everyday terms, these kids were high “strung." In fact, over 23% of bully-victims had arousal levels in the clinically high range (Woods and White 2005).

Victimized bullies 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).

These 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 2003).

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).

Victimized bullies 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).

And a 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 2004).

Perhaps these studies reflect real differences in attitude between victimized bullies 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, victimized bullies 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).

But other research suggests a different pattern. A Finnish study tracked boys from age 8 to early adulthood and found that pure bullies--not victimized bullies-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.

References: Bully-victims

Andreou E. 2004. Bully/victim problems and their association with Machiavellianism and self-efficacy in Greek primary school children. Br J Educ Psychol. 74(Pt 2):297-309.

Glew GM, Fan MY, Katon W, Rivara FP, and Kernic MA. 2005. Bullying, psychosocial adjustment, and academic performance in elementary school. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 159(11):1026-31.

Glew GM, Fan MY, Katon W, and Rivara FP. 2008. Bullying and school safety. J Pediatr. 152(1):123-8.

Juvonen J, Graham S, Schuster MA. 2003. Bullying among young adolescents: the strong, the weak, and the troubled. Pediatrics. 112(6 Pt 1):1231-7.

Kochel KP, Ladd GW, Bagwell CL, Yabko BA. 2015. Bully/Victim Profiles' Differential Risk for Worsening Peer Acceptance: The Role of Friendship. J Appl Dev Psychol. 41:38-45.

O’Connell, P., Pepler, D., and Craig, W. (1999) Peer involvement in bullying: insights and challenges for intervention. Journal of Adolescence, 22, 437-452.

Nansel TR, Craig W, Overpeck MD, Saluja G, Ruan WJ and Health Behaviour in School-aged Children Bullying Analyses Working Group. 2004. Cross-national consistency in the relationship between bullying behaviors and psychosocial adjustment. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 158: 730-736.

Perren S, Alsaker FD. 2006. Social behavior and peer relationships of victims, bully/victims, and bullies in kindergarten. J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 47(1):45-57.

Schwartz D. 2000 Subtypes of victims and aggressors in children’s peer groups. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology 28:181–192.

Sourander A, Jensen P, Rönning JA, Elonheimo H, Niemelä S, Helenius H, Kumpulainen K, Piha J, Tamminen T, Moilanen I, and Almqvist F. 2007a. Childhood bullies and victims and their risk of criminality in late adolescence: the Finnish From a Boy to a Man study. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 161(6):546-52.

Sourander A, Jensen P, Rönning JA, Niemelä S, Helenius H, Sillanmäki L, Kumpulainen K, Piha J, Tamminen T, Moilanen I, and Almqvist F. 2007b. What is the early adulthood outcome of boys who bully or are bullied in childhood? The Finnish "From a Boy to a Man" study. Pediatrics. 120(2):397-404.

Stein JA, Dukes RL, Warren JI. 2007. Adolescent male bullies, victims, and bully/victims: a comparison of psychosocial and behavioral characteristics. J Pediatr Psychol. 32(3):273-82.

Unnever, James D. 2005. Bullies, aggressive victims, and victims: Are they distinct groups? Aggressive Behavior 31(2): 153-171.

Woods S and White E. 2005. The association between bullying behaviour, arousal levels and behaviour problems. J Adolesc. 28(3):381-95

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