While most people think of bullies and their victims as opposites, studies show victimized children often begin as overly aggressive and that the same group of children who attracted bullies before they entered school continue to be targets throughout school and in later life.
Mara Brendgen, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Quebec in Montreal, studied 41- to 74-month old children and found the same characteristics among victimized infants as other studies found in school-aged children and adolescents.
“We asked the question: Does aggression influence victimization?” she said. “It looks like it does.”
Ms. Brendgen’s observations of children younger than 2 confirmed previous studies of older children that “aggressive behavior” and oversensitivity to criticism are predictors of victimization among kindergarten and preschool children, teens and adults.
Her study found three distinct groups of children. The largest, 71 percent, was not victimized regardless of age. About 25 percent “experienced increasing levels of peer victimization over time,” she explained.
But one group, at 4 percent, “were already highly victimized at 41 months and this continued through kindergarten, elementary and later school.
“It’s a sad group to look at,” she said.
Once the groups were identified, the study found behavior patterns among these children that acted as sparks or predictors of their victimization.
Because of poor social skills - often the result of a harsh home life of poverty, heavy-handed parenting and violence - victimized children start out as overly aggressive and hypersensitive to criticism. Their hyper-reactions to low-level teasing and criticism invites more taunting, makes them less popular among their peers and even dissuades adults from spending much time with children they consider whiny and annoying, she said.
All of this contributes to an ever-increasing level of victimization by bullies and others, she explained.
The Quebec study of nearly 2,000 children, which appears in the American Medical Association’s Archives of General Psychiatry, was unique in asking mothers to evaluate their child’s behavior and whether they reacted by yelling at or spanking the child. In other studies, children rated their own behavior and the reactions of other children.
Debra Pepler, a professor of psychology at Toronto’s York University who has studied bullying and victimization for 20 years, also found links between children’s early anti-social behavior and victimization.
As an example, she told of one child who said, “I want you to meet my friend” to another child, and then instantly called his friend “stupid.”
“In a single sentence, they would be both pro-social and anti-social, even before the other child has a chance to respond,” she said.
This aggressive, unpredictable behavior isolates these children from others and that “makes them more vulnerable,” she continued.
Because these children lack self-control, they attract bullies and repel friends, she said, and sometimes become bullies themselves.
Jean Decety, a neuroscientist and professor of psychiatry at the University of Chicago, recently completed a study that found teenagers with a history of aggressive behavior reacted to pictures of people in pain by lighting up parts of their brain associated with pleasure, rather than those brain regions associated with empathy.
For most people and even animals, the sight of another in distress usually causes the aggressor to lower aggression. For example, a person might stop yelling if the person they are yelling at starts crying, he said.
But among the 16- to 18-year-old boys in his study, showing them pictures of people in distress caused the reward centers of their brain to light up, suggesting to him these children enjoyed watching others suffer.
However, Mr. Decety agreed with the findings of the Canadian and other studies that showed bullies often begin as victims at home. When asked whether the teenagers’ reaction to the photos could be the result of their imagining revenge against those who have hurt them, and not an indicator of sadism, Mr. Decety agreed this could be a more plausible explanation.