Kansas Safe and Secure Schools / Bullying Awareness and Prevention

Victims of Bullying

Bullies do not randomly attack their peers.  Instead, they target a specific subgroup of students who are often victimized over the course of several years. Just like bullies, victims are a heterogeneous group. Olweus describes three types of victim:

See Bullying Circle


Passive victims

Passive victims do not directly provoke bullies and represent the largest group of victimized children. They are socially withdrawn, often seem anxious, depressed, fearful and have very poor self-concepts. When compared with their non-victimized peers, passive victims have fewer if any friends, are lonely and sad, and are more nervous about new situations. This cluster of symptoms makes them attractive targets for bullies who are unusually competent in detecting vulnerability. In the early grades, initial responses to bullying among passive victims include crying, withdrawal, and futile anger. In later grades, they tend to respond by trying to avoid and escape from bullying situations (e.g., being absent from school, running away from home).

While there is evidence that some of the characteristics of passive victims precede and contribute to their victimization experiences, it is also clear that many of their personal attributes also result from being bullied. According to Swearer and colleagues (2001):

"The victims' behaviors and emotional states may make them vulnerable to bullying. The bullying behavior towards them may perpetuate their issues with low-self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and loneliness, which may make them increasingly vulnerable to bullying."

Other researchers have described some subgroups that may be present within the broad category of passive victims:

  • Vicarious or surrogate victims
    Vicarious victims, or surrogate victims, either witness or hear about bullying incidents at school. They are victims of the school's climate of fear and worry about their own potential to become targets of bullying. As a result of this perceived vulnerability as well as concern about direct retribution from bullies, they choose not to help bullying victims or report bullying incidents even though they often feel sympathetic — which often leads to feelings of guilt (Besag, 1989).
  • False victims
    False victims represent a small group of students who complain frequently and without justification to their teachers about being bullied by their classmates. This behavior seems to be a bid for attention and sympathy from the teacher. This is problematic for two main reasons: these children should learn that there are legitimate ways to get attention, and teachers who may be unsympathetic about the problem of bullying could use this behavior as an excuse to ignore all complaints about bullying (Besag, 1989).
  • Perpetual victims
    Perpetual victims are those victims who are bullied all of their lives. While "perpetual" refers to the duration of bullying rather than a subgroup of victim, it is interesting to consider the possibility that some children may develop a victim mentality whereby the victim role becomes a permanent part of their psyches (Elliott, 1993).

Provocative victims

Provocative victims represent a small group of children who often behave in ways that arouse negative responses from those around them, such as anger, irritation, and exasperation. They possess a cluster of characteristics that are likely to disrupt a classroom and lead to social rejection by peers, including irritability, restlessness, off-task behavior, and hostility. Although they are a distinct subgroup, provocative victims often display characteristics of other groups of children as well — including pure bullies (i.e., they have elevated levels of dominant, aggressive, and antisocial behavior and low levels of tolerance for frustration) and passive victims (i.e., they are socially anxious, feel disliked by others, and have low self-esteem).

Nathan, aged 10, was described by his class teacher as a child who lived "on the edge of his nerves," never still, and with "his brain disconnected from his mouth." The latter trait made it likely that he would make loud remarks about other children's appearance or their work that would make them angry. He would then say to them, "What are you going to do about it then?" whereupon two or three of them might show him, violently. Nathan was described as the most unpopular child in the school, as the one "everybody loves to hate" (Randall, 1997, p. 94).

It is important to keep in mind that students who fall into this category may possess a disability of some sort (e.g., a learning disability, attention deficit disorder) that contributes to their provocative behavior. In addition to helping these young people deal with the consequences of their victimization, it would also be helpful to assess the potential causes of their challenging behavior. If a disability is present, then an accurate diagnosis followed by targeted services could go a long way toward preventing further victimization.

Multiple factors contribute to a bully's selection of victim, including the complicated interplay of a bully's motivation, a victim's characteristics, and the specific circumstances of the bullying situation. For example, availability may be a key factor in victim selection if a bully simply wants to elevate his or her status with peers. However, if a bully is looking for some sort of tangible payoff, then he or she might choose a target who is known to have money and likely to be submissive. If a bully wants to display power, then he or she might target a provocative victim who is noted for fighting back ineffectively.


For more information, contact:

John Calvert
Head School Safety Specialist
Safe and Secure Schools Unit
(785) 296-7056

John Calvert and Jim Green

The Kansas State Department of Education's Safe and Secure Schools Unit, John Calvert (left) and Jim Green, retired (right).

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