Childhood bullying: how/why do bullies pick their targets

I was fortunate not to have been the target of much bullying during school. I say ‘much’ because there were several instances in junior high where I was chosen as a target. 40+ years later and for the life of me I still can’t fathom why I was chosen as a target back then. I was a somewhat skinny, quiet kid of average height and unremarkable appearances, perhaps a bit bookish, but still a far cry from being the clichéd coke-bottle-taped-up-glasses-sweater-vest-wearing-greasy-haired-wheezing-nerd type that we often associate with being the target of bullies.

But even the clichéd nerd-types generally aren’t doing anything to deserve being bullied (thank you in advance for not pulling out any quotes from “Unforgiven”). Which begs the question - what type of criteria do children look for when selecting victims to bully? In recalling those sorts of events I’m having difficulty discerning much of a pattern to it. I do recall witnessing an incident where one of the school bullies went off on a boy who had Down’s Syndrome, and I understand that sort of thing isn’t uncommon, but a lot of the other targets seem if anything remarkable for being unremarkable. I guess I had always heard bullies like to pick on kids who - for whatever reason - are different. Maybe that’s not the case.

Were you bullied in school? Do you know why you were targeted?

It’s probably too much to hope for, but if you WERE a bully back in your youth can you tell us why/how you chose to harass anyone?

I got bullied mostly because I was a filthy furriner and partly because I was smart and really liked school:

  • I was ‘weird’, having a weird name, and a weird background, with parents who weren’t Christians and didn’t believe in Jesus
  • I was extremely shy
  • My English was improving by leaps and bounds every day (I came to this country when I was four) but wasn’t perfect
  • I had almost no knowledge of the traditional pop culture kids come to school with. you’d be surprised how much kids pick up. It was a constant refrain of You don’t know that? and you don’t know who that is?
  • I was a good student and consistently got good grades and liked to answer in class. Seriously the last one merited me more abuse than anything. It’s considered cool to sit in the back of the class and show no interest in anything, but not to answer the teacher and take part

Black and white kids alike bullied me. Black kids had their own cliques, so I didn’t fit in with them either. I generally hung out with the misfits.

Bullies often identify targets as kids who are alone. The targets may not have good friends, or those friends aren’t around at the time.

I faced attempted bullying, but I was too tough and too smart for it to work. Just writing this now it occurs to me that a couple of my friends wanted to hang around me just because they felt safer that way.

For me, it was a matter of not “fitting in.” I was extremely introverted and socially inept. I didn’t have any friends and the people I did associate with were, of course, other nerds. When I look back on it, I think there were a handful of things I did that might have been “bully bait.” I can identify lots of individual things I did that were foolish or socially inept, but they trace back to the same broad topics.

  1. Failure to comply with group norms - I did not share interests, recognize the social hierarchy, comply with social standards, or share their values. I’m not speaking just about children, though. This is groups for exclusion and hostility in any culture, whether you’re talking about chimpanzees, wolves, or mice. An animal that doesn’t possess or recognize the proper social skills will always be left out and is likely to be victimized or antagonized.

  2. Failure to build alliances - I had no friends / allies, and when I did start to make friends they were equally pathetic. (Seriously, my friends were nice people but they were losers by any other metric.) This is equally obvious in any context - A person (or animal) that is a member of a pack can summon help, while an isolated individual cannot. I didn’t have the patronage or validation of an equally powerful or influential person.

  3. Physical and emotional weakness - I was naïve and gullible by any measure. I grew up believing that people were inherently good and nice and we should all get along, and that it was wrong to be mean to others, all of which proved to be a huge mistake. I wasn’t prepared to defend myself against insults or attacks, I wasn’t prepared to stake out and defend my “territory” (literally or figuratively) and I was overly concerned with what other people thought of me. All of this contributed to making me an easy and obvious target.

  4. I just didn’t “get it” - I’ve spent hundreds of words trying to describe concepts that basically boil down to admitting I was weak, lonely, and sucked at life. Why do I have to explain these things in terms that a social scientist or biologist might use? Everyone else either understood these things instinctively or built their social skills very rapidly. I’ve never been diagnosed with Aspbergers or anything, but sometimes I wonder about it because I have to learn and process intellectually those social traits that other people seem to know instinctively. Even now that I am grown, I still feel like I am “faking it” when I try to interact with people in a social sense. And I think that sense that this kid is “off,” and doesn’t connect or seem to know what he is doing, is the broadest possible umbrella explanation (as opposed to any specific behaviors that I could recall).

I got it pretty bad in elementary school and junior high school and some on into high school and early adulthood.

• I often said or did things that were more like what a girl would do than what other boys would, and that tends to trigger taunting and harassment from other boys. Boys tend to hassle each other about being girlish and although it’s a constant it’s usually not very much beyond moderate-degree teasing. BUT most boys, when so teased, reply or retaliate in kind in such a way that they distance themselves from the accusation of being girl-like. And I didn’t, which generated amazed fascination-repulsion, other boys would hear about me and come try it to verify what they’d heard about me.

• AND I was one of those kids who would get outraged, visibly angry and trembling and indignant at being hassled and harassed instead of either getting belligerent back to them or having a “yeah so?” attitude. And that delighted them, I was a fun target to infuriate and I said things back that they found utterly hilarious.

• AND I was not, in all honesty, minding my own business otherwise, I actively expressed my contempt for them and exaggerated my differences from them, so when you get right down to it I wasn’t being very nice either, although there was one me and a whole bunch of Them.

I was relentlessly bullied at school. I was targeted initially because I was socially inept and in poor health. Not only was I socially inept, but I was taller, and therefore the teachers assumed that I was the perpetrator and not the victim. My parents left me to rot at that school, it scarred me for life, and it rankles to this day.

Jeez, I think Chihuahua just about covered it. :slight_smile:

I went to a private Christian school from kindergarten to sixth grade, where I lived a very sheltered and structured life. Then I was transferred into public school. :eek:

From what I had heard, I expected that public school would be much like prison, kids cursing and shanking each other and doing drugs all the time. So first off, I was scared, and you know how kids love the smell of fear!

Second, I had weird habits carried over from private school, like always folding my hands when I wasn’t writing anything, and standing up to answer questions in class. Let me tell you, it was awesome.

Then there was that whole scrawny, flat-chested, and bespectacled thing.

Bullies choose victims based on which potential victim will be most entertaining to bully. It’s about the lulz, you see, just like on the internet. What constitutes “most entertaining” varies by the bully, as they are not a monolithic group. Some want a helpless victim, others enjoy a victim that will fight back. Some want to inflict emotional pain, some want to inflict physical pain, some want both. Not all bullies have been victims, not all bullies are cowards. Most anything you think you know about bullies from movies or TV is bunk.

As Chihuahua and AHunter pointed out, bullies pick victims who are some or all of the following:

  1. weaker, emotionally, physically and/or socially (few friends to stand up for them)
  2. different (in any way, including “not one of us” - whomever “us” may be)
  3. generally not inclined/able to fight back (a bully doesn’t want to risk harm or expend too much energy defending themselves)
    It’s much like nature - predators generally go for what they perceive as the weakest, easiest prey. Instead of being rewarded with food, though, a bully is rewarded with power.

I was bullied in elementary school because I was usually the smallest boy in my class. I always fought back in kind, always. If someone wanted to insult me, I would give it right back. If they started a physical confrontation, I hit back. I can’t tell you how many times I came out on the bad end of a fight, but in the end it wasn’t important that I won or lost. The bullies learned that it would cost them something every time. Eventually the bullying stopped. I did not have a physical fight from 5th grade on. I did, have the advantage of living in the same place the entire time, so I didn’t have to repeat the process with new bullies as I probably would have had we moved.

Fight back isn’t always the answer because perceived physical weakness is not always the cause. Making the bully expend more energy than it’s worth is the answer. Figuring out how to do that can be extremely difficult for a child/young adult.

Victims of bullying at school are often kids who are also the target of neglect or verbal or other abuse at home. Schoolyard bullies take advantage of the same habits and responses that have been forced upon the victims at home.

Seventh grade was shear hell for me. I went from being a happy, gregarious kid to being withdrawn and unhappy, all because of two guys who chose to make my life miserable. I blame junior high gym class and sadistic gym teachers who wouldn’t put a stop to it. My only fault was being skinny and unmuscular, which was apparently enough to drive those two assholes into a rage. Luckily, about halfway through the year I acquired a bodyguard who scared the shit out of them and they left me alone from then on. Unfortunately, the damage to my self esteem was done, which lasted pretty much through high school. Fuckers.

Good question. I was painfully shy, had a significant speech impediment, participated constantly in class, had no knowledge of pop culture, was super short, wasn’t Christian, and . . . I was never bullied. And my school was actually known for having a significant bullying problem. I’m a girl, though, which changes things - with girls, the ones who are bullied the most (IME) are the ones who try and fit in with a certain high-status group that feels they don’t “belong”.

Crap, I had that “going for me” too! Never made that particular connection.

Interesting. There may be some inherent differences between how boys and girls bully/get bullied. I get the impression boys are more frequently physically bullied, whereas girls are more often shamed and ridiculed (and boys get both). At least that’s what I saw. To be honest, though, I didn’t witness a lot of girl bullying apart from one memorable incident involving “the fat girl” in junior high (for the record there were several overweight girls in our junior high but for whatever reason this one girl got targeted multiple times and it culminated with a big fight in the lunch room)

What does the bully get out of it?

It usually isn’t the captain of the football team who’s punching nerds. He doesn’t need to demonstrate his status by punching nerds, he’s more likely hazing the lower status members of the football team than random nerds.

The guy that bullies nerds is a guy who’s unpopular himself.

I had a kid in my class that was always bullied, he was beat up by the nuns in grammar school, beat up by the brothers in high school and beat up by students his entire life. He was very capable of fighting if he chose to but for some reason he wouldn’t fight back. He was a jerk with a bad attitude but mostly quiet and kept to himself. To this day it puzzles me why he was always getting beat up. I ran into him when I was about 50, he was still an angry jerk. I was always taught to stick up for kids getting bullied but this kid would mouth off and get himself into fights. I kept thinking he would eventually learn but it just got worse over the years.

Some research, suggesting that bullies are strategic in their targets in the same way that lions are: they choose those who aren’t in the middle of the herd.

Like some others have said, I was teased because I didn’t have many friends. A loner is an easy target. It didn’t help that I really wasn’t very smart about my responses. I’ve never been good at thinking on my feet and when they asked me about some pop culture stuff that I didn’t know, I pretended I did know and that didn’t end well.

I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever been on the bullying side, but I have had the upper hand in a social equation. I distinctly remember at least a few occasions in high school where I ignored a girl who was on a “lower” rung of the social ladder. At the time, it made me feel briefly powerful and popular, just to know that I had enough friends that I could ignore one and still have others (at “higher” rungs) left over. Thinking back on it now makes me feel horrible, even though they were pretty minor misdeeds in the grand scheme of things, in that they were always passive (ignoring someone) rather than going out of my way to tease or bully. But I haven’t seen the two girls I’m thinking of since high school and have never gotten the chance to apologize, and even if I did, I’m not sure they’d even remember.

There’s one instance of teasing that I can’t quite explain - a girl in my middle school would make faces at me whenever we passed in the hallway. At first it upset me because I knew it meant she didn’t like me. Then I realized that it was really juvenile, to the point that I actually laughed in response. She stopped after that.

There were other instances (also in middle school) when a boy called me and my sister names. Not horrible, but enough to make me feel bad. I distinctly recall going to church one Wednesday night and listening to a sermon about treating each other kindly. He reacted in a physical way, though I don’t remember how exactly - he flinched, I think. He never called us that name again. I don’t believe in God, but church ain’t all that bad.

Something tells me Scumpup is on to something. There are people in this world that simply seem to take pleasure in causing others pain and suffering. That’s a decent working definition for evil. Sad to think it starts in childhood. Hmm is this nature or nurture?

I was horribly bullied (abused) in school and for many of the same reasons above. I looked different, acted different, dressed different and hygenically challenged. It has been mentioned to me (as an adult) that I might be somewhere on the spectrum. I had no idea how to socially negotiate the school situation. It doesn’t surprise me, looking back that I was bullied. I was the perfect person to be abused.

What’s most shocking, looking back, is that no older people (teachers, siblings, parents) lifted a finger to help. I don’t have lingering anger towards my bullies, I have it towards those people who saw and did nothing to help a kid. I consider myself abused, not by the bullies but by the people who should have helped.

I’m a 45 year old man who has severe trust issues, paranoid of other’s motives, low self worth. very fortunate that I never tried drugs or else I feel I would be the type of person who would have problems. I have a good middle class life with job and wife, but I still have lots of issues that just don’t go away. Glad I didn’t have kids. I would have found a way to mess up their lives.