Bulllies & Their Victims: More Similar Than They Think?

October 15, 1996

Waltham, Mass. -- Assumptions that schoolyard bullies and their victims are as far apart psychologically as "A and "Z" may be wrong, a Brandeis University researcher says.

"Children in both groups may have similar deficits in problem-solving abilities," said Judith Y. Bernstein, a graduate student in Brandeis' psychology department who specializes in childhood bullying and victimization.

"Bullies likely learn from playground or other experiences that they can get what they want by picking on other kids, while victims repeatedly find themselves in situations where they're being bullied. Both groups end up establishing a thought pattern of limited responses to conflict that eventually may become part of the child's personality," she said.

Severe bullying behavior in childhood is linked statistically with alcoholism, violent crime, family abuse, failed relationships and difficulty in keeping a job as an adult, while victims of childhood bullying often suffer low self-esteem well into adulthood.

"It's a vicious circle for kids who just don't know how else to solve conflicts," Bernstein affirmed.

Bernstein's hypothesis emphasizes the need for parents and teachers to intervene early in the victim or bullying behavior patterns.

Intervention could include components as simple as role-playing to teach children non-violent solutions to playground conflicts.

Bernstein stresses the importance of not blaming children who end up in the victim's position.

"Bullies leave other children with no choice but to submit; it isn't a simple matter of victims for 'not standing up for themselves,'" Bernstein said, noting that the best intervention teaches alternative conflict resolution for both bullies and victims alike.

Bernstein also noted that bullying takes different forms: while boys tend to bully their victims with confrontations, girls often practice "relational aggression," in which bullying takes more social forms such as excluding a victim from a birthday party or playground game.

Brandeis University

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