Do the victims of bullying remain victims?

Bully by Trix0r (http://www.flickr.com/photos/trixer/3531445744/)Being bullied can lead to a number of pretty serious problems for some kids – an article in the June issue of Archives of General Psychiatry reported a link between being bullied and psychotic symptoms in pre-teens! The first reaction of parents and school staff members when a child is being bullied is often to punish the bully and to work to prevent bullying in the future. But what about the victims? At least one school psychologist believes that working with victims is more important than punishing the bullies! An article in the current issue of the British Journal of Developmental Psychology looked at factors that might put kids at risk for ongoing victimization – and a major risk factor is being a girl.

Dieter Wolpe, Sarah Woods, and Muthanna Samara surveyed 6 to 9 year olds about their experience of being bullied, and questioned them again 2 or 4 years later. They looked at a range of bullying behaviours that can be divided into two categories. Direct bullying refers to verbal or physical aggression and threats, whereas indirect bullying is more social in nature, involving (among other things) exclusion and spreading gossip.

The researchers found that indirect bullying occurred more often in classes where there was a strict social hierarchy – classrooms in which students can be clearly ranked according to their status. They also found that indirect bullying increased as children grew older. Students who were victims of indirect bullying were more likely than non-victims to transfer to another school. However, being a victim in the early school years didn’t necessarily predict being indirectly bullied years later. Indirect bullying wasn’t stable, according to the findings of the study, meaning that the victims changed over time.

Direct bullying, on the other hand, was more likely to continue; in fact, victims of direct bullying were twice as likely to continue to be victims. But there’s a catch: direct bullying was only stable for girls! Male victims changed over time, and being a boy was not considered to be a risk factor for later bullying. Girls, especially those who received few positive descriptions from their classmates, were far more likely to continue to be a target for bullies if they were being picked on at the beginning of the study.

The authors proposed a few explanations for this finding. For one, boys are more likely to be involved in physical aggression than girls are, so girls who are being directly targeted may be highly visible to their classmates. They might therefore be more likely than boys to develop a reputation as a victim. Another possible reason for the increased risk is that girls’ friendship groups tend to be tighter and more stable than boys’ are (according to previous research), which could make it more difficult for a female victim to escape her aggressor. Finally, some researchers have reported that girls who are directly bullied are often more impulsive than other girls. Their tendency to act without considering the consequences might put them into situations where bullying could occur, and could leave them with fewer close friends to defend them from attackers. Any one or a combination of these factors might account for girls’ increased risk.

What are the implications for parents? For one, it might be a relief to know that a son who is bullied early in his school career will not necessarily continue to be a victim (if these findings can be applied to the general public). For parents of girls, the results are probably more alarming. The findings highlight the importance of intervening early, and decisively, and with the victim as well as the perpetrator. Assertiveness skills might be helpful in avoiding the development of a victim reputation. Making it easier for daughters to have a diverse group of friends might also help them to escape the victim role; this could be accomplished by encouraging extracurricular activities and by developing relationships outside of school. Impulsive kids, whether they’re male or female, can have a number of difficulties at school, so a behaviour plan aimed at encouraging them to stop and think before acting might be valuable. These ideas might also reduce indirect victimization, possibly eliminating the need to take the drastic step of changing schools!

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