When bullies get bullied by others: Understanding bully-victims

© 2008 – 2017 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Bully-victims: A special type?

Some kids occupy the middle of the bullying food chain. They get bullied by dominant individuals, but they also perpetrate bulling themselves. Rejected, victimized, and aggressive, these “bully-victims” tend to have more psychological problems than either “pure bullies” or “pure victims.”

We can’t expect them to “grow out” of their problems, not if we don’t intervene. Can we do something to help them change course? We’d better. Because we can’t afford to ignore the problem. Here’s a closer look at the evidence.

How bully-victims differ from “pure” bullies

Modern research recognizes two types of bullies. 

Both types may suffer from psychiatric disorders, and both are at increased risk for committing severe, violent offenses as they get older (Sourander et al 2007a; Sourander et al 2007b; Sourander et al 2011; Luukkonen et al 2011; Klomek et al 2015; Sourander et al 2016). 

Both face higher odds of having employment difficulties, and a greater likelihood of failing to honor financial obligations (Wolke et al 2013).

But they also differ in important ways.

The “pure” bullies are the confident aggressors. They dish out intimidation and harassment. In general, they don’t get victimized by other bullies, and they tend to have high esteem.

The “bully-victims,” by contrast, are both bullies and the victims of bullying. They suffer from a distinctive set of problems. For example, compared with pure bullies, they may be more

  • anxious
  • depressed
  • lonely
  • high-strung
  • impulsive

They are more likely to suffer injuries, including self-inflicted injuries (Stein et al 2007; Ford et al 2017). They may engage in more frequent acts of bullying than pure bullies do (Kochel et al 2015), and, as adults, they experience worse outcomes.

When researchers tracked kids from the age of 9, they found that bully-victims were less likely than pure bullies to graduate from high school. As adults, they were also less likely to have a friend or confidante, and more likely to have a poor relationship with their parents (Wolke et al 2013).

If we want for kids to grow out of it, will they spontaneously change course? That seems like wishful thinking, and research suggests it’s an unlikely outcome, at least in the short term. When researchers in Beijing followed kids from the the 4th through 6th grades, they found that bully-victims didn’t veer from the pattern of victimizing others (Pan et al 2017). 

Victimized bullies are at a greater risk for emotional problems

An international survey of 11- to 15-year olds found that bully-victims experienced worse emotional adjustment in all 25 countries surveyed (Nansel et al 2004).

Other studies confirm this trend.

  • In studies of adolescents in the United States and Macau, bully-victims report more intense feelings of anxiety and depression than other students do (Juvoven et al 2003; Stein et al 2007; Kowalski and Limber 2013; Weng et al 2017). 
  • A longitudinal study tracking Finnish boys from age 8 to early adulthood found that bully-victims were at an especially heightened risk for developing emotional disorders, including anxiety, depression, psychosis, substance abuse, and anti-social personality disorder (Sourander et al 2007b).
  • A study of Australian adolescents reports that bully-victims had the highest rates of self-harm, plans for suicide, and attempted suicide (Ford et al 2017).

Victimized bullies may have more trouble fitting in

Pure bullies often enjoy high social status (Andrews et al 2017). By contrast, bully-victims are more often rejected by peers.

For instance, research indicate that kids attribute more antisocial characteristics to bully-victims, and fewer friendly, prosocial characteristics (van Noorden et al 2017).  And this pattern emergences early. In one study, A Swiss study has reported that kindergartners identified as bully-victims by their peers were less cooperative and less sociable (Perren and Alsaker 2006). 

Other studies suggest that bully-victims are more likely to be avoided by their peers (Nansel et al 2004; Juvoven et al 2003). They are also more likely to feel lonely and to have difficulty making friends (Nansel et al 2001; Juvoven et al 2003). In one study, approximately 45% of bully-victims had no friends at al (Kochel et al 2015).

Victimized bullies may be more likely to suffer from over-arousal and impulse control

Arousal is the degree to which we are engaged, or responsive to the environment. It describes our state of excitement about what is going on.

When people are in low states of arousal, they may find it easy to control their emotions.

When they are in very high states of arousal, they may be tense and overreact to potentially stressful situations. High arousal is also correlated with an elevated sensitivity to being overlooked or going unrewarded.

A British study measured the arousal levels of 13- and 14-year old students (Woods and White 2005). Kids who were pure bullies had rather low levels of arousal.

By contrast, bully-victims had higher levels of arousal than all other groups, including passive victims.

In everyday terms, these kids were “high strung.” In fact, over 23% of bully-victims had arousal levels in the clinically high range (Woods and White 2005).

Another study — this one involving a sample of 1400 Greek adolescents — found that impulsivity was predictive of bully-victim status. The same wasn’t true for pure bullies (Fanti and Kimonis 2013).

Victimized bullies have more difficulty in school.

An American study of young school kids (aged 8 to 13) has reported that bullies who were also victims were more likely to feel unsafe and feel they didn’t belong at school (Glew et al 2005).

These findings are confirmed by the perceptions of teachers. In an American study of young adolescents, teachers reported that bully-victims had more conduct problems and were less engaged in school than was any other group—including both pure bullies and passive victims (Juvoven et al 2003).

There is also evidence that bully-victims are less successful academically. In the study conducted by Gwen Glew and colleagues, victimized bullies were more likely to be low achievers (Glew et al 2005). Similar findings have been reported by other researchers (Schwartz 2000; Wolke et al 2013). 

Victimized bullies are more likely to express Machiavellian attitudes.

Several lines of evidence suggest that bully-victims are more likely than pure bullies to express cynical attitudes.

For example, the Glew study found that bully-victims were much more likely to endorse cheating than were other kids (Glew et al 2005).

And a study of Greek primary school children found that, compared with pure bullies and passive victims, bully-victims were more likely to endorse Machavellian beliefs and show a lack of faith in human nature (Andreou 2004).

Perhaps these studies reflect real differences in attitude between victimized bullies and pure bullies. But we have to remember that these differences are based on what kids voluntarily report to researchers. So it’s possible that bully-victims are simply more candid (or less crafty) when discussing themselves. Studies indicate that pure bullies are more careful and risk-aversive (Poon 2016), and better able to conceal their aggressive tendencies from teachers (Dawes et al 2017).

Are bully-victims more dangerous?


As noted in the introduction, there is evidence that victimized bullies engage in more frequent acts of aggression or violence (Kochel et al 2015). 

In addition, compared with pure bullies, they may be less likely to mend their ways. A longitudinal study in China found that whereas many pure bullies eventually stopped bullying, bully-victims tended to continue (Pan et al 2017).

When researchers analyzed studies published in the United States, they found that victimized bullies are more likely than pure bullies to carry weapons (van Geel et al 2014; Stein et al 2007).

Bully-victims may also be more likely to believe that it’s acceptable to bring a gun to school (Glew et al 2008). And according to one study of middle school students in the U.S., these kids were more likely to commit major acts of violence against other children (Unnever 2005).

But other research suggests a different pattern. A Finnish study tracking boys from age 8 to early adulthood found that pure bullies–not victimized bullies–were the most likely to get convicted of violent crimes (Sourander et al 2007a).

And of course it depends on how we measure “dangerous.” It seems likely that most of the world’s dictators would be classified as pure bullies. To the degree that pure bullies are more likely to rise to great political power, they have the potential to harm a larger number of individuals.

What we can do

Some of the research on bullying sounds ominous–like the findings that 

But research also suggests how we can stop bullying and bullies to change their ways. For details, see this article on how to prevent bullying.

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Content last modified 11/2017