5 Consequences Bully-Victims Experience

School boys (10-13) in classroom fighting, one boy hitting the other, bullying

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Even though there are various types of kids who bully others, perhaps the most perplexing are those who are bully-victims. Not only have they been victimized by bullies—sometimes ruthlessly—but they also bully others as well.

Most parents might assume that a target of bullying would instead have empathy for others and not inflict pain on those who are more vulnerable. But this is not always the case. Here is what you need to know about bully-victims, including the unique consequences they deal with as well as what you can do to help if your child is caught in this cycle.

What Is a Bully-Victim?

Bully-victims are kids who have not only been targeted by bullies but have also bullied others. Their bullying behavior emerges after being repeatedly bullied since many times, likely in an attempt to regain a sense of power in their lives. The people they target are often more vulnerable than them, which allows them to feel powerful and in control.

"It is common to see victims of abuse want to assert power and control over others in order to gain back some kind of control in their own life," says Erica Laub, MSW, LICSW, a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in child development, parenting, anxiety, depression, and toxic friendships.

What's more, bully-victims are more common than you might think. Bullying other kids is a way for them to retaliate for the pain they experienced, says Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO, psychiatrist and chief medical officer for LifeStance Health.

Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO

"While it may seem counterintuitive to perpetuate the same negative behaviors inflicted upon them, bully-victims see this as a solution to avoid being the victim again."

— Anisha Patel-Dunn, DO

"While it may seem counterintuitive to perpetuate the same negative behaviors inflicted upon them, bully-victims see this as a solution to avoid being the victim again," says Dr. Patel-Dunn. "In their eyes, bullying is an effective tactic to avoid victimization, so they resort to doing the behaviors that hurt them previously."

Overall, bullying is a learned behavior and a bully may be hiding behind this behavior rather than addressing their own insecurities, says Dr. Patel-Dunn. For instance, bully-victims might come from homes filled with abuse and domestic violence. Or they may suffer abuse at the hands of an older sibling.

"Bullies may [also] have poor models of parenting or authority at home, lack boundaries, be insecure, or have experienced bullying or abuse themselves," says Laub.

Consequences They Experience

Being both a bully and a victim is a complicated situation and often results in significant suffering. In fact, bully-victims generally experience more problems than pure victims or pure bullies and have the highest risk of adverse outcomes. Here are five ways bully-victims can be impacted by their situation. 

Psychological Stress

Bully-victims often suffer more mental health issues than any other type of bully or victim. For instance, they may suffer more from anxiety, depression, and loneliness and may be at a greater risk for emotional problems including psychosis, substance abuse, and anti-social personality disorder.

"Bully-victims [also] may harbor higher levels of guilt or anxiety than normal bullies because they know how it feels to be on the receiving end of malicious behavior," says Dr. Patel-Dunn. "Depending on their past experiences being a victim, they also may have unresolved trauma that is influencing their behavior as well. It’s important to realize, especially as a parent or caregiver of a child who is exhibiting bullying behavior, that they also may be experiencing emotional hardships that they are acting out on."

Trouble Fitting In

Bully-victims often have a harder time socially than their peers. They also are less cooperative and less sociable than those around them. And, they are more likely to be avoided by their peers.

Most of the time, bully-victims appear to be loners because they often have a few, if any, friends. In fact, one study found that while "pure bullies" may be perceived as more popular, bully-victims often have the lowest social standing.

Bully-victims also tend to be the most ostracized by their peers and their bullying of others is frequently ineffective at getting them the same perceived popularity as a pure bully. In fact, researchers have noted that bully-victims are less accepted and more rejected than bullies.

Emotional Volatility

Often, bully-victims may unintentionally prompt children to bully them again because they react intensely to name-calling, threatening behavior, and conflict by lashing out. Because they struggle to manage emotions, control anger, and deal with frustration, they are often predisposed to be bullied over and over again. They then turn and inflict pain on others, and the cycle continues to repeat itself.

What's more, research has also shown that while anxiety, depression, and psychosomatic symptoms are common among bullies and victims, these conditions are the most common among bully-victims.

Aggressive Behavior

Because these kids have been bullied extensively, they often respond aggressively to stressful situations. In fact, they may have big stress responses that are similar to symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), says Laub.

Overall, kids who have become bully-victims have a general lack of trust in the goodness of other people and appear more high-strung in their relationships. Much like those with PTSD, a bully-victim lives in a heightened sense of awareness, waiting on another person to attack or bully them, and preparing to respond with aggression, says Laub. This makes them appear defensive, hostile, and unfriendly and isolates them further from others in school.

Low Self-Esteem

Bully-victims also experience all the dangers and risk factors that bullies experience. Likewise, they often experience the same effects of bullying as other victims. They may even struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, says Laub. And they may contemplate suicide.

"[Although] suicide is complex and involves many more risk factors than just bullying...those who are bullied may experience more severe issues with self-worth that goes beyond normal teenage struggles of doubt and acceptance," says Laub.  

"Bullying can have serious implications on children’s mental health and may contribute to increased feelings of depression, isolation, low self-esteem and self-worth, and anxiety," says Dr. Patel-Dunn. "If those feelings remain unaddressed, they can develop into even more serious concerns. Early intervention is always the best intervention. Should a victim channel those feelings into bullying others, they too can experience extreme guilt, depression, and anxiety while contributing to an ongoing cycle of bullying."

If you are having suicidal thoughts or know someone who is, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

How Parents Can Help

When it comes to bully-victims, it is important that parents intervene at the first sign of their child being targeted by bullies. If the situation is not addressed in a way that not only brings the bullying to an end but also helps them heal, there is a chance they could resort to bullying others as a way to cope.

And, once they begin bullying others, the chances of their behavior changing later is diminished. In fact, one study that followed kids from the fourth grade through sixth grade found that bully-victims rarely veered from the pattern of targeting others.

One way to keep this bully-victim cycle from beginning is to have open conversations with your child about bullying and let them know ahead of time what to do if they are ever bullied, says Laub. Children need to know that they have your support and that they can count on you to help them—there is no need for them to bully others in order to feel powerful and in control.

Erica Laub, MSW, LICSW

"Parents should also work with the school administration to work toward a resolution."

— Erica Laub, MSW, LICSW

"Parents should also work with the school administration to work toward a resolution," says Laub. "In severe cases, some states allow for victims to press criminal charges against their abusers because of the severity of physical or psychological harm."

If the child who was victimized begins engaging in bullying behavior, the key to stopping the cycle is helping them address the underlying issues driving their behavior, says Dr. Patel-Dunn. In addition to helping them heal and manage their emotions, you also need to work with them to take responsibility for their actions and change their behavior.

"It’s also helpful to remind kids that they can always turn to their support system and don’t have to navigate these challenges alone—they should never feel embarrassed or ashamed to reach out to a parent, trusted adult, teacher, or counselor," she adds. "Additionally, you can always reach out to a licensed therapist for support."

​A Word From Verywell

Being a bully-victim is not an easy situation for kids. If your child is being targeted and also targets others, it is important that you intervene right away. Get the school involved, talk to your child's pediatrician, and find a mental health professional to help your child deal with the conflicting emotions surrounding their situation. 

The sooner you help your child heal and learn more effective coping strategies, the sooner the cycle they are stuck in can be broken. It also may be helpful to help them redirect their thinking and find things they can pour their energy into.

You also can support them by helping them develop social connections and build their self-esteem. Overcoming bullying is a multi-pronged process, but with commitment and perseverance, your child will soon be feeling better and making better choices.

4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Leiner M, Dwivedi AK, Villanos MT, Singh N, Blunk D, Peinado J. Psychosocial profile of bullies, victims, and bully-victims: a cross-sectional studyFront Pediatr. 2014;2:1. doi:10.3389/fped.2014.00001

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Additional Reading

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.