For most people, when you talk about a child who gets bullied there is a clear mental image in their head of the ‘class’ school victim. The small, perhaps chubby, bespectacled individual. The truth is less clear cut.

Any pupil, through no fault of their own may be bullied. Anything, no matter how small, that sets the victim apart from the bully or bullies may be sufficient ‘justification’ in their eyes. For example they may claim they:

  • Have a different accent
  • Wear different clothes
  • Have a different religion
  • Come for a different country
  • Have a different social or economic background
  • Have a learning disability
  • Are gifted

In reality sometimes all it takes is for the child to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Indeed reasons may be ‘invented’ and labels given, ‘slut’, ‘retard’ etc. Therefore it is not unusual to find that there are many children victimised through bullying who are popular and socially well adjusted.

However while not all children who are bullied start out being different in any significant way, it is recognised that there are children and teens who are more likely to be targeted than others. They tend to have:

  • An anxious, sensitive, shy, insecure and cautious temperament
  • Fewer good friends
  • Low self esteem
  • A passive, non aggressive or non-assertive manner
  • An emotionally reactive manner
  • Clumsy entry behaviour when they try to join a peer group

The characteristics that have been found to increase the likelihood of being bullied fall into two categories:

  • Submissive/Passive
  • Provocative

The majority fall into the passive category and tend to be fearful, withdrawn, anxious, cautious and tend to show emotion when upset.  They are also less inclined to physical activity/sports than other students.  However, as mentioned jealousy can be a factor in bullying and high sporting achievement can also make a student a target.


As mentioned in the section on ‘Who Bullies?’  there are some children who unwittingly invite attacks by behaving in ways that cause tension and irritation in their immediate vicinity. Such children, often referred to as ‘provocative’ victims may have inadequate social skills or learning difficulties.

These make up the minority group of victims, and are found to tease and taunt yet are quick to complain of victimisation if they are retaliated against.  Much like their more passive counterparts they are found to be anxious, insecure, unhappy and distressed. However,  when insulted or attacked they would react in a hot tempered manner and fight back albeit ineffectively.  They can also bully those weaker than themselves, and in doing so they share characteristics with those who bully, leading to them now being referred to as bully-victims or aggressive victims.

Aggressive victims also have fewer friends than pure victims and because of their diminished peer group they have a tendency to bully more physically than verbally, as verbal bullying has been shown to be more dependent on a support group than physical bullying.

Assistants, Re-inforcers,  Defenders & Outsiders

Often operating alongside the bully and the bully victims there are what are known as assistants and re-inforcers. (Salmivalli, Karhune and Lagerspetz, 1996)

  • Assistants actively assist the person who takes the lead and initiates the bullying.
  • Re-inforcers act in ways which reinforces or incites the bullying behaviour, for example, by laughing .

Then there are Defenders who tend to be supportive and make active efforts to have the bullying stopped.

The Outsiders stay out of the bullying situation altogether.

Reasons why young people do not act more readily as a Defender can be many, ranging from the situational context to personal factors. The factors which have been identified (Thornberg, 2007) are:

  • Lack of empathy
  • Selfish motives (the risk to themselves from intervening)
  • Conflicting attitudes, social norms or moral ideas( loyalty to individual or group)
  • Group processes and social influence(authority influence, group pressure and the bystander effect, i.e. presence of other people serves to inhibit or stop the desire to help)
  • Lack of skills and competence (not knowing how to intervene)

Suggested Further Reading & Links

Understanding School Bullying (2010)  O’Moore, M. Veritas. Dublin
Being Different: Correlates of the Experience of Teasing & Bullying. (2001) Research Papers in Education, 16. pp,225-246.
A classmate in distress: schoolchildren as bystanders and their reasons for how they act. (2007). Thornberg, R. Social Psychology of Education, 10, 5-28.
How do victims respond to bullying? (1996).   Samivalli, C., Karhune, J. & Lagerspetz, K.M.J. Aggressive Behaviour, 22, 99-109.
The Four Pillars Of Action : The Role of Guidance Counsellors in developing and implementing the Whole School Community Approach in Tackling Bullying, both Traditional and Cyber. O’Moore, M.