An Expert Finds That Bullies and Their Victims Are Linked in a Strange, Unconscious Courtship

updated 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/13/1987 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Some children hate to go to school, not because of teachers and tests but because a bully has turned every hall and stairwell, every courtyard and even classroom, into a place of fear. Victimization is not an isolated problem. In Sweden a pioneering study of the subject found that 20 percent of school-age boys were involved, half as bullies and half as victims. In this country no comparable studies exist. But based on his own experience studying more than 200 juvenile bullies and their victims as a psychologist with the Board of Cooperative Educational Services of Southern Westchester, in suburban New York, Nathaniel M. Floyd says that at least half of all boys are affected. Victimization is not just a teenage phenomenon, he says, but begins as early as age 3. Floyd says that bullies and victims are drawn to each other by deeply rooted personality traits—and that "the spiraling interaction that results cannot be understood by just looking at one side or the other." A 1964 Princeton graduate who earned his Ph.D. in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York, Floyd is single and lives in Manhattan. He spoke with Senior Writer Eric Levin.

What is most striking to you about the way bullies and victims interact?

The most striking thing is that it's not random violence. It's a relationship. The bully and the victim have a mutual need for each other; they can't leave each other alone. There's almost a dance that goes on between them.

Why can't they leave each other alone?

Because in the victim the bully sees a part of himself that he has had to renounce in order to survive at home—the part that needs attention and intimacy. The victim, on the other hand, sees the bully as someone who will punish him for being weak and needy. Victims are often boys who are overly attached to their mothers, and this attachment produces a lot of guilt. They feel that they deserve to be punished. All these emotions are unconscious, but they link the bully and the victim in a powerful way.

What sort of home produces a bully?

The key fact is that a bully at school is usually a victim of abuse or neglect at home. In growing up, children gain strength and independence. Normally they don't hate the vulnerable, dependent self they are outgrowing. But if they were humiliated and battered around just for acting their age—for spilling their milk, say, or not tying their shoelaces right—they may then begin to hate the vulnerable side of themselves. When they encounter another kid who's vulnerable, they feel a magnetism which stirs up all the old feelings of humiliation and shame.

Why does that provoke hostility rather than compassion?

Because at home the bully has identified with the aggressor. The physical abuse may or may not be directed against the boy—it can be against the mother. What the bully does is identify with the abusing father and assume that role in the outside world.

Why can't the bully just walk away from the victim?

It's psychologically important for the bully to have this person under his control, so that he can continually remind himself and others that he and that kid are different. Bullies seem to develop a possessive attitude toward their victims. They'll actually protect the victim from other kids, then hound him mercilessly themselves. Interestingly, in the origins of the word bully there's a component that has a definite love connotation.

How do boys get into this dilemma of having to choose between tenderness and aggression?

Boys and girls grow up attached to their mothers, and this is a very healthy thing. What happens is, little girls identify with their moms, which means they try to be like them and please them. Little boys do the same. But when a boy gets to be 6 or 7 he can't do that anymore. If he does, in our culture he will be called a sissy. This precipitates a very painful crisis for boys. They have to take Mom out of their heads and identify instead with their fathers. It's difficult. They get anxious, they get defensive, they get feisty. Ultimately most boys reintegrate their tender, so-called "feminine" feelings in order to become healthy men. When boys don't manage this crisis successfully, they often turn into bullies or victims.

What sort of family tends to produce kids who get picked on?

There are at least two patterns. In one, the boy or the mother or both is being abused. But instead of identifying with the aggressor, the boy identifies with the victim, and flees to his mother for comfort and support. In the other pattern, the boy is pampered and discouraged from gaining autonomy through physical competence and the general rough-and-tumble of growing up as a boy. A very dependent personality can result.

Do girls bully other girls?

Yes, but it's usually not physical. They'll cut them with a word, with a look, or not let them talk in a group or just exclude them.

What are the psychological effects of being picked on at school?

People say, 'Oh, boys will be boys.' But humiliation is a scarring thing. You don't even have to be victimized yourself. Just watching another kid being victimized is terribly upsetting to a lot of kids. Victims themselves can become rigid and defensive, unenthusiastic about learning and about life in general. Then they start thinking about revenge. Realizing that you're so angry you're capable of having a fantasy of killing someone is terrifying to a kid.

How do you help the victim?

I teach these kids how to walk in a direct, masculine way. I teach them not to be fidgety, not to do the things that trigger a bully's anger, such as asking for special privileges from the teacher or pleading all the time to go to the bathroom. I show them, then have them rehearse it.

Should the boy ignore the bully?

No. If you try, he'll keep taunting you until you do respond. One of the ways a bully asserts power over someone is to force eye contact. The victim has to learn to say something like, "Get the hell out of my life!" break eye contact and walk away. You have to be able to get ugly and swear, and show you mean it, then leave the fie firm, dignified way.

If it comes to a confrontation, should the victim stand and fight?

No. That's foolish. If somebody means to inflict serious bodily having you'd better wear your sneakers run for safety. Once physical harm is done, it's a criminal issue, and I would urge parents to call the police. Get an injunction against the bully to stay away from your kid. I do talk to adolescents about physical development: Karate, pumping iron. The important is not actually defending yourself projecting the confidence that you.

How do you discipline a bully?

You have to let him know that there are going to be consequences if he continues and that no exceptions be made. They're the worst candid for psychotherapy, because they don't recognize that they need help, and asking them about their feelings on makes them contemptuous. So you provide a structure of rules that helps them control their impulsiveness.

Should they be suspended from school?

Many psychologists believe that suspending a boy gives him a day off and reinforces the behavior you are trying stop. We recommend in-school suspension, meaning the bully has to spend his day in a supervised study hall. His class-work, and his lunch, is brought to him there. It can be effective, especially if his parents support you.

What happens to bullies and victims when they grow up?

Some of the major data on this comes from two researchers at the University of Illinois in Chicago. In a study that's lasted 22 years, involving hundreds of boys, they found that children who were identified as troublemakers at age 8 were more likely at age 30 to batter spouses, commit crimes, be unemployed. I don't know of any data on victims, but they tend to accept adults as role models and sources of wisdom and to perform far better than bullies academically. The lesson is, we can't just intervene on behalf of the victims. We also have to save the bullies from themselves.

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