When the Bullied Becomes the Bully (You Can’t Punch Up, So You Punch Down)

A study from JAMA Psychiatry, as reported in Time, looks at the effects of bullying in school into adulthood, from the perspective of all parties involved, the bullied and the bullies themselves.

First, I’ll say that I’m always glad to see any recognition that bullying has long-term effects, as I’ve lived my life being told that “it was all in the past,” that “everyone goes through it,” and that one should just “get over it.” But of course that’s nonsense. Here’s the study’s author, William Copeland of Duke University:

What this study really suggests is that what goes on at school, and what goes on between peers, may be just as important in understanding their long-term function as what goes on at home. In childhood, when kids are in school, they spend a lot more time with their peers than they do with their parents so we should not be so surprised about this.

It’s hard for me to imagine that this has not always been obvious. Anyway. From the article:

After controlling for family hardships that might also make these mental health issues more likely, the researchers found distinct patterns of psychiatric problems that distinguished the bullies from their victims. Victims of bullying were nearly three times as likely to have issues with generalized anxiety as those who were not bullied, and 4.6 times as likely to suffer from panic attacks, or agoraphobia, in which they felt trapped or had no escape, compared to those who were spared bullying.

No surprises to me, there, but again, it’s validating to see it backed up by science. Indeed, all those symptoms are very, very familiar to me even today, especially after some unpleasantness that was visited upon me a couple of years ago.

Bullies themselves showed a four times higher risk of antisocial personality disorder as adults compared to those who did not bully others . . .

I have to admit, my first reaction to the topic of troubles for those who did the bullying was “boo-hoo, poor babies.” But of course, this kind of behavior rarely occurs in a vacuum, and there are likely situations in which these bullies are growing up that encourage bullying or make a kid feel compelled to it. Which leads us to this…

. . . and children who reported being both bullies and victims seemed to fare the worst of all; these participants showed a nearly five times greater risk of depression as young adults compared to those who had not both given and received bullying behavior, and a 14.5 times greater risk of having a panic disorder. These effects also showed some gender differences; women had a dramatically higher risk, at nearly 27 times, of having agoraphobia, while men showed an 18.5 times greater prevalence of suicidal tendencies.

I had never even thought about this as a category, but it makes a lot of sense as I think back to those ugly days. Imagine: In desperation to avoid being bullied, or to make up for it in the eyes of your peers or in your own sense of self, you yourself turn to bullying someone else. In other words, since you find yourself unable to punch up, you opt to punch down.

I even found myself in a similar circumstance. As the lowest kid on the totem pole, I at times managed to befriend some less-reviled kids in middle and high school. But I also remember feeling so terrified of being socially demoted back to the bottom, that I’d single out those few kids who I perceived to be a notch under me, even if they had at one point been my friends, and haplessly find ways to lift myself up by singling them out. I never “bullied” per se, but I did make a handful of bungled attempts at teasing, which always backfired and wound up making me look worst of all. Which, in those cases, was just.

So anyway, I get it: the middle-ground. According to the study, I would have been better off to stay at the base of the totem pole, hunker down, and bear those years with a little more character.

5 thoughts on “When the Bullied Becomes the Bully (You Can’t Punch Up, So You Punch Down)”

  1. In my more charitable (rare) moments, I like to think that the bullies were themselves usually bullied while growing up. However, this is not always the case — some people just enjoy it and lack the empathy to feel the pain their victims feel.


  2. Wow, that’s really interesting. I remember the kid (I’ll call him Bill) that was the leader of the bullies when I was a kid. Bill ended up getting ostracized by his own friends. He seemed a lot kinder, more eccentric, and more genuine after that. It really shocked me how people can rapidly change. I’m not exactly sure what happened on his end.


  3. When I was in elementary school, I got beat down every single damned day by these two kids in my grade. Every time I’d come in from recess with tears on my face, I’d get in trouble because “it takes two to tango” (I never even tried to go to the teachers – they’d just see tears or red eyes and ask, then BAM I’m in trouble if I tell the truth). Every day it was the same few old games, “push Miles’ face into the bark dust, shove Miles into things, and pick Miles up and throw him off the play structure” (I was a small kid). I was terrified of these two and it really affected me for some time after that.
    Anyways, I ran into one of these kids on the bus a few years later when we were both in high school. I didn’t recognize him, but he recognized me – “oh hey Miles” he said, then when I didn’t recognize him he told me who he was. My first thought was “uhoh is something about to start?” and he was actually surprised by my reaction and got all chummy and genuinely friendly, said the other guy lived nearby and that we should “hang out sometime”. The two of them remembered me as a friend, not a punching bag! I’d never had any non-violent interaction with these two – I apparently had just been some toy to toss around.
    F*ck if I know what to make of that, or if it is at all pertinent to the conversation…


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