“Bully victims are the hardest type of bully to deal with because they exhibit behavior that is aggressive and unacceptable as bullies, but they are also vulnerable and easy to undermine as victims. Because they tend to bully mercilessly, it is often difficult to empathize with them when they themselves are bullied. Teachers and peers find it hard to treat them fairly as they see them inciting victimization on one hand, and victimizing others on the other.”
– Sullovan, Cleary & Sullovan (2004, pp. 16-17)
There are bullies and there are victims, and then there are a sizeable chunk of kids who are both. For example, one study found that 6.3% of kids were both frequent victims and perpetrators of bullying, compared to 13% who were frequent bullies alone. (Nansel et al., 2001) Put in other terms, almost exactly one-third of regular bullies are also victimized themselves.
Adults may have trouble understanding why someone who knows first-hand how horrible it is to be bullied could do the same to others in return. But this is actually a common human response to maltreatment of any kind.
What motivates the bully victim?
There are two basic responses that children exhibit when they experience pain. The first is to withdraw within and internalize symptoms in the form of anxiety or depression. The other is to externalize the pain by acting up, becoming aggressive, or exhibiting behavioral problems. The classic fight or flight response is not just about running from predators – the instinct carries over to how children respond to emotional threats. Bully-victims are those who gravitate towards the fight response, and so they respond to being victimized by lashing out at others in return.
When children are abused, there can be a strong inclination to pass on that abuse. As the old saying goes, “misery loves company.” Children who are punished harshly at home tend to carry over that aggression and punish others harshly in their peer interactions. Youth who are bullied may also respond in this manner. Though they may feel powerless against their own bullies, they respond by lashing out at others in return in an attempt to regain this empowerment.
In addition to the anger motive, bully victims may come to believe that these tactics are a normal way of exerting power. That’s what others do to them when they’re in a position to do so, why should it be different for them? Some see it almost like asking a child to enter a boxing match where the opponent is allowed groin shots and kicking but they are being told to only use open-handed slaps. Since others do it to them, it seems almost a violation of justice that they be asked not to do the same thing in return when they are the ones in the position of power.
Bully victims and social – emotional problems
Bully-victims are often children who had difficulty fitting in with their peers during elementary school. They may have had a learning disorder or other temperamental trait that set them apart from other kids in the class. Social disorders such as autism or Asperger syndrome can be another common trigger. Because these kids do not relate as well socially and often do things that are misunderstood by their peers, they can act in aggressive ways that resemble bullying. And because they are different, they are often singled out by their peers in return. This can set into motion a self-reinforcing cycle where a child is both victim and perpetrator.
Dealing with Bully victims
Bully victims need help realizing that kindness helps their cause in the long run better than recirculating the pain. Bully-victims are one of the few bullies who may respond to carefully administered compassion, and they respond especially well to a child who is able to deflect their best aggression’s while remaining composed and civil in return.
Most important, they are youth who need to be identified and helped through their own abusive experiences. Bully victims generally emerge form kids who were unable to find pro-social ways to work through their own negative experiences. They are the result of our failure to deal with bullying the first time around.