Bully and Victim: Possible Causes

Most people are familiar with the school shootings at Columbine High school in Colorado in April 1999, and the incident in Atlanta one month later. What they may not know is that violence is the second leading cause of death among adolescents (p. 9). Over three million crimes (about 11 % of all crimes) were committed in United States’ schools. Fifty percent of arrested criminals in America are teenagers (Day, 1996). Ten children under sixteen are killed every day by handguns in the United States (Silverstein, 1997, p. 9). What are the reasons for youth violence? What can be done to decrease the number of crimes committed by children or adolescents? This paper explores the portrait of a typical bully and a typical victim, and briefly discusses possible causes. The humanistic approach of the family as a possible cause for youth violence and prevention as a solution will be explored in detail. The paper closes with future aspects.


Bullies can be found in every age, race, and sex. The usual bully can be characterized as confident and impulsive with low verbal intelligence. He displays a lack of empathy towards his victims. In general he is aggressive in his social environment and surrounded by a group of people who think in similar terms (p. 28). A male bully attacks his victims physically and directly, whereas the female bully assaults her victims in a more indirect and subtle way. A female bully may use languages such as spreading rumors in order to isolate the victim socially (p. 31). However, there is one common characteristic among male and female bullies which is the problematic interaction among the family members which will be discussed later in this paper. This results in the development of aggressive behavior from an early age on (Zarzour, 2000).

Trevor Romain (1997) added that bullies like to be in charge and drain the self-esteem of their victims (p. 7). Bullies harm people not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well (p. 10). Bullies have a very competitive nature and do not like to lose. They will bend the rules to win (p. 20). Bullies also love power and feel superior when the victim starts crying (which is their ultimate goal) (p. 23). On the other hand bullies have problems making friends. Sharing, caring about others, and getting along with their environment are other difficulties (p. 12). They take their anger out on everyone and everything who is weaker than they (p. 14).

Who is a usual victim? Romain (1997) states that the victim is usually of the same age or younger than the bully. The victim tends to be an “anxious, sensitive, quiet, shy, or cautious” person (p. 16). To be physically smaller than the offender could be another reason why a bully especially chose this person to pick on (Romain, 1997). According to Kim Zarzour (2000), researchers have determined that 45 % of the studied children were found to be in both roles: bully and victim. Shyness and fear could be compensated with aggression, and kids who got bullied may take their anger out on weaker peers (p. 41). Zarzour (2000) admitted that it is not always clear why someone is chosen to be a victim for a period of a few days or for years (p. 72). While physical differences play an important role, it is usually not the only reason for bullying. In addition to the mentioned characteristics, the victim often feels stupid and unattractive, and usually considers himself as a loser or failure. The typical victim breaks out in tears, does not fight back, and does not report the bullying to adults such as teachers or parents (Zarzour, 2000).

What bullies, victims and many other students have in common is their feeling that their parents don’t care. The children and teenagers of today fell frightened, lonely, and they face “a tremendous amount of pressure and temptation” (Vaughn, 2001). If the child feels abandoned and neglected it develops a hole in the heart. This hole makes them numb and careless of what happens. Kids who lash out and kill “have damaged souls unable to connect with love to the world around them” (Pennington, 2003).

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs the need for safety is not met. Safety needs are one step above the physiological needs. They are made up of “physical security, stability, dependency, protection, and freedom from such threatening forces as illness, fear, anxiety, danger, and chaos” (p. 494). In times of threats such as injuries, natural disasters, war, or accidents, these needs become activated. Threats from fellow peers fall into this category, too.

Other areas of the Hierarchy of Needs that could help explaining youth violence are the striving for love and belongingness. If the urge for acceptance and friendship does not get satisfied or only partly, loneliness and emptiness will occur. Kids become outsiders. Another hurdle is the esteem need. Self-respect, confidence, acceptance and status (recognition from others), competence, and self-esteem are included in the esteem needs. Inferiority and discouragement take place when this specific need is not satisfied (Feist & Feist, 1998). Kids who are outsiders and feel like losers, and who live in an environment that feels unsafe to them can be seen as being at risk to become a bully or a victim or even both.


Psychologists, criminologists, and even epidemiologists have not been very successful in determining the underlying causes of youth violence. Dr. Pedro Noguera (1996) thought that the inability of researchers is a consequence of misunderstanding the problem. Researchers try to find a singular reason which can be isolated and responded to. Youth violence may not be explainable by only a singular cause (Noguera, 1996). To understand bullying and youth violence it is necessary to take a close look at all possible causes. Most likely the truth is a combination of many of the following factors: Media, drugs, biological causes, and family background.


Laurent Belsie (1999) questioned the public’s right to know due to the shootings in Atlanta which took place exactly one month after Littleton. Reporting violence in the media seem to generate more violence. Discussions still continue whether informing the public helps to understand and learn about a problem or if it influences people to copy the crime (Belsie, 1999).

Closely related is the question on whether playing violent video games or watching violent TV shows increases aggressive behavior in children and adolescents. Do violent games cause aggressive behavior or do aggressive game players prefer aggressive games?


According to Herma Silverstein (1997) one in ten babies are addicted to crack (cocaine) before birth ( p.25). If these babies survive they show withdrawal pain, birth defects, learning disabilities, and behavioral abnormalities like aggressive behavior and impulsiveness (Silverstein, 1997). But drugs play a major role in adolescent years, too. Ken C. Winters (1998) stated that about 250,000 juvenile delinquents are also drug abusers, and that disruptive behaviors and drug abuse is ethologically related. Studies have revealed that minor delinquency is followed by alcohol use, while minor and serious delinquency occurs before the use of illicit drugs. On the other hand, there is evidence that drug abuse supports criminal behavior. The frequency of crimes was found by research to be six times higher during substance abuse than for “clean” delinquents. Furthermore the early onset of drug abuse leads to continued abuse and usually to later criminality. The results of these studies were shown in Corrections Today, October 1998. While substance abuse is one significant factor which may lead to violent behavior it often goes hand in hand with school failures, emotional distress, peer drug use, and parental conflicts (Winters, 1998).

Biological cause

Biochemical imbalances such as a low serotonin level or an overload of carbohydrates are considered by criminologists to be a cause for violent behavior (p. 26). Tests on juvenile delinquents showed a substantially low level of serotonin while an athlete has a high level. The reason is the difference in eating habits. Healthy food provides the body with sufficient nutrition while tremendous amounts of carbohydrates (fast food) do not supply enough protein (Silverstein, 1997).


Zarzour (2000) described that the parents of a typical bully as being hostile, rejecting, non-caring, negative, and/or authoritarian parents. It could also be that the parents are single, divorced, physically aggressive themselves or promote aggressiveness, and fight among each other (p. 38).

Parents who spank their children are actually teaching that it is acceptable to hit a weaker person (Zarzour, 2000). A poll which took place one day after the shootings in Littleton, Colorado, revealed that 53 % blamed the parents’ lax or inattentive attitudes for aggressive expressions of their children (Benedetto, 1999). Violence has become a part of the daily life for many children (Silverstein, 1997). A survey among school board members named broken and dysfunctional families as one of the two leading causes of youth violence (Day, 1996).

In humanistic psychology, the family has always been the biggest factor of influence in a child’s life. “Families are the building blocks of our society. Each home is a miniature civilization with authority figures, rules, and roles” (Huckabee, 1998). When that civilization crumbles, the children have nothing left to stand on. Children learn respect at home. They learn how to differ and feel between right and wrong and they mostly take over the parents’ values (Huckabee, 1998).

Abraham Maslow (1970) stated that children need an organized and structured home with limits. If parents quarrel, physically assault, separate, or even divorce, a child will feel terrified. “Also parental outbursts of rage or threats of punishment directed to the child, calling him names, speaking to him harshly, handling him roughly, or actual physical punishment sometimes elicit such total panic and terror that we must assume more is involved that the physical pain alone (p. 40)” (Maslow, 1970). If a kid has been insulted and does not show obvious signs of hurt or hostility, the kid has repressed feelings. Against the common belief that those feelings should fade away, the repression keeps on working in the unconsciousness. If more insults or hurt feelings are added, an outburst is almost unavoidable (Jourard & Landsman, 1980). Another pressure point for a child is the load of activities well meaning parents put on them. Too many commitments cause a huge amount of stress. Even though parents are well meaning and don’t want their children to miss out on activities, many children have no time to relax at all. “They have no time to call on their own resources and be creative” (Elkins, 2003). Today the children have great opportunities to explore their interests. They do need time to explore them on a deeper level. Families can help easing the load for their children and reduce the children’s stress level. They need to spend more time together as a family. They need to talk more and balance activities (Longo, 2000). Activities in moderation can be very positive for a child’s development. Balance is important. The town of Ridgewood, New Jersey, has set a good example. A certain day of the year is dedicated to the family. There are no sport events, no homework, and no church services in order to bring families to spend time together. The result was overwhelming. Ninety-one percent of families participated (Elkins, 2003). A balanced child will be less hostile (Maslow, 1970, p. 40).


What can be done in order to reduce and prevent further outbreaks of youth violence? Nancy Day (1996) stated that the list of programs which have been developed for this specific purpose is long. It includes “security measures, disciplinary actions, conflict resolution training, peer mediation programs, parent involvement, educational programs, sensitivity training, and support groups (p.73).” Many programs are based on the humanistic approach.

At some schools, mostly elementary and secondary schools, students learn in health or social studies class how to perform nonviolent behavior and how to solve conflicts peacefully (p. 81/82).

Peer mediation, another program, works best for daily problems. The mediator makes sure that the conflicting parties keep talking to each other until they understand the other party’s point of view (Day, 1996). Then they work out a settlement and both parties sign it. This system is also being used in high schools for disputes between teachers and students (Day, 1996). While some programs are only costly for district and community, simple efforts like rewarding good behavior with a sticker seem to work well. Since 1993, Cleveland Elementary School in Tampa, Florida, teaches their students social skills and sportsmanship for about 20 minutes a day. The school hands out red stickers for good behavior. As a result, the number of disciplinary referrals dropped within two years from 358 to 85 (Kiefer & Irwin, 2000).

Besides such criminal prevention programs there are intervention programs existing which were created to participate in the life of children who are at risk of becoming criminals. These programs are intense in their daily practices and contacts, including family counseling, after-school activities, and tutoring. Adult volunteers encourage the adolescents and build up their confidence (p. 92). Another type of prevention is called Mentoring program. Mentoring programs train adults to become role-models for teenagers in order to help them to live a good and nonviolent life (Silverstein, 1997).

Outstanding projects like “the Garden of Hope” in South Los Angeles show that it is possible to build better neighborhoods. The project was an idea of a biology teacher and brought peace into the lives of many students in a racially rioting area (p. 113). The kids grow flowers, herbs, and vegetables which are flourishing (Silverstein, 1997).

The contribution of the family to a child’s well being is major, too. The family needs to get involved. They need to show “love, talk openly and frankly about sex, love, abortion, disease; recognize and address warning signs; seek professional help when needed; be a teen’s best role model; and most of all, don’t lecture, listen” (Vaughn, 2001). After all, the parents need to raise their children to become assertive from an early age on (p. 197). They also need to teach them how to handle anger and aggression effectively and in a nonviolent way (Zarzour, 2000).


The prediction for the future is depressing and alarming: If the statistics do not change, homicides committed by adolescents will increase by 25 % until the year 2005 (Silverstein, 1997). But is a look into the future only gloomy and dark? According to Camilla Colatosti (1998) the student of today wants to learn. The students want to find alternatives to the violence they recognize around them. Following successful preventive programs for violence, getting more experience in their lives by being a mentor for others, and finding healthy individual solutions may help to decrease aggressiveness and raise assertiveness and understanding in today’s young adults (Colatosti, 1998).

Is it a solution to let the child fight back or would it be better to get rid of the TV, newspaper and any kind of aggressive influence in order to raise a gentle child (p. 191)? Maybe it is best to teach a child inner strength, independence, sociability, a healthy portion of self-esteem, and how to handle anger, rejection, and aggression in the most effective way (p. 198). Early lessons of telling the truth and how to care about other people is part of a meaningful education that could be administered by parents and/or educators (p. 214). Healthy parental intervention will prepare a child to stand its ground on their own, and to figure out their own solution in the best possible and reasonable way without violence (Zarzour, 1997).

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