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Are You an Easy Target For Bullies?

Are you or your child susceptible to bullies? Here is what attracts bullies.

Bullying in schools and workplaces has reached epidemic proportions. Yet, it is a silent problem, as much bullying goes unnoticed because of ignorance on the part of school and workplace leaders, and because bystanders are unwilling to intervene when they observe bullying behavior.

In recent years, there has been a great deal of research on bullying, and we are beginning to understand more about the motivations of bullies, and the effects of bullying. Here are the factors that are associated with being the target of bullies (bullying experts prefer not to use the term “victim”) in schools and in workplaces:

1. You are different

Bullies focus on children or adults who stand out in some way. In schools, lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) youth, children with disabilities, and socially isolated youth may be at an increased risk of being bullied. A recent study showed that autistic children are more prone to bullying.

In the workplace, minority workers, older workers, and disabled workers are among the “protected groups” covered in Equal Rights legislation, and because of that status, they have legal recourse. Workplace bullies often avoid members of protected groups and go after workers who stand out in various ways (as we will discuss below). It is much more difficult for these targets to fight back, as many managers (and many HR officers) are not as informed about bullying as they should be.

2. You are competent

In the workplace, bullies often target persons who are particularly skilled or competent, viewing them as competition, and compensating for their own weaknesses. In schools, bullies may pick on the kids who stand out because they are very smart—labeling them “nerds” or “teacher’s pets.”

3. You are nice

Bullies will often pick on people who they feel won’t fight back—the people who are nice and try to get along with everyone. That is what is so frustrating for many targets of bullies because they are puzzled that they, the cooperative and non-competitive workers/students, are singled out (“What did I do?”).

4. You are not a leader

Bullies focus on workers and students who are socially isolated. If you are an informal workplace leader, with co-workers who admire and “follow” you, it is less likely that bullies will target you.

Recent psychological research shows that targets of bullies are more likely to drop out of high school, and that bullying can be particularly traumatic for girls who have little social support.

It is important to recognize when bullying exists, and to provide support for targets of bullies. Many schools have anti-bullying policies, which help increase awareness and stop some of the more overt bullying. The problem is that much bullying occurs “under the radar screen” and goes unrecognized by teachers and staff. Many workplaces are establishing anti-bullying policies as well. The first step in combating bullying is awareness of the problem, and the second step is to take action. If you are a target of bullies, fight back. If you observe bullying, report it or intervene.

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More from Ronald E. Riggio Ph.D.
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