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Who Becomes a Bully? Who Becomes a Victim?

Bullying, Cassie, age 14


It is important to remember that no child is predestined to be a bully, nor is any child predestined to be a victim. Some children will most likely always be more shy and reserved; others will always have more difficulty empathizing with others and crave control. However, this does not mean that they always have to become bullies and victims. It is when these aspects such as temperament, personal variables and behavior modeled for the children combine with other factors such as lack of school policy against bullying, or a teacher who looks the other way, that the bullying behavior may surface. Only if conditions are absolutely right, and all of these potentials come together will the relationship emerge.

Certain temperamental traits that may have been reinforced in the home--such as aggression--do increase the likelihood that a child might assume the role of a bully in the right circumstances. That is not to say that all children who bully come from homes in which aggressive behavior is modeled. Indeed, many children who bully come from homes in which parents are more permissive-who remain rather uninvolved in their children's lives, either out of choice or out of an inability to provide more guidance. Studies have shown that children with aggressive tendencies are less likely to demonstrate empathy, and more likely to attribute their motives to external events. Therefore, they are likely to believe that the victim "brought on" the bullying behavior himself or herself. It is also a myth that aggressors are trying to mask low self-esteem. Often, they are actually trying to maintain what is in fact a rather exaggerated sense of self-importance and entitlement for their peers (Baumeister, Bushman & Campbell, 2000). Because their behavior is usually socially motivated, aggressive children are more likely to find aggressive playmates who reinforce their behavior, increasing the potential bully's confidence and enabling the pattern to emerge. Sometimes, these peers may even assume the roles of "henchmen," who do the bully's "dirty work" as the bully directs them and looks on.

A victim also may display certain characteristics. Often, victims have not learned certain skills that one must have to stand up for oneself, such as appropriate eye-contact, or a knack for understanding and fending off teasing. Sometimes, children who tend to be victims interpret ambiguous signals as threats, and react with fear and avoidance, making themselves appear to be "easy targets." These children often attribute outcomes to "internal events," i.e. themselves, and the bullying dynamic can be very detrimental to self-esteem. This unhappy self-image, however, is easier to change. These children are likely to respond quite well to a social skills training program that would teach them the requisite skills that they need to survive the playground. There is also a category of "provocative victims," who overtly act in ways that provoke others to interact with them in negative ways (Smith, Bowers, Binney & Cowie, 1999). These cases are more complex, and changing this pattern of behavior is often more difficult. Remember, in the end, victims are not to blame for being attacked!

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