The powerful (and unhelpful) label for pupils: Victim

The language of bullying has a very powerful label. Victim.

The definition of a ‘victim’ according to the Oxford dictionary is:

‘A person harmed, injured, or killed as a result of a crime, accident, or other event or action’

When a person is a victim of bullying they have been harmed. However there are issues with labelling children and young people as ‘victims’. Although we acknowledge the harm they have suffered, being called a victim can make pupils feel that the bullying may have been their fault. For example, if they stopped a particular behaviour or looked slightly different, they would be less likely to be a victim. This can lead to two problems: (1) victim blaming and (2) victim hardening (or bully proofing).

Victim blaming: This is when the pupil who has suffered harm is blamed for being the cause. Sometimes we hear the term ‘provocative victims’ – pupils who antagonise other pupils to the point where they are bullied. The danger with this label is it may excuse the bullying behaviour because we do not like the behaviour of the victim. In addition, it does not factor in that bullying is repetitive-aggressive-behaviour.

Bully proofing: This is when pupils focus on strategies for managing behaviour. There is little evidence that this actually works. But the main concern is that some of the strategies may actually increase victimisation. For example, some Schools of Thought recommend ‘making a joke’ out the verbal abuse the victim is suffering.

Initially this may sound like a way to stop a child being bullied but it may have unintended consequences. At best it may appear that the victim is going along with the abuse by turning it to a joke. At worst it gives permission to other pupils that the abusive language or behaviour can be applied to the victim because they are turning it into a joke. There is also the instance that the strategy fails and the bullying continues. Although there is a logic behind giving pupils the skills they need to both avoid and manage bullying situations when they are actually happening, it needs more research to prove which skills are most effective.

The alternative options are:

  • Teach pupils to be assertive – particularly when they dislike a behaviour. Give the pupils the resilience and confidence to say ‘stop, I don’t like that behaviour’, they are clearly stating a boundary. If bullies choose to cross the boundary, then it is done intentionally and this is clear to all participants.

  • Support the pupils by having clear reporting procedures, so pupils know exactly where to go to should an incident happen.

  • Give pupils a voice to express the harm and come up with solutions about what needs to happen now and in the future.

On a personal note one the most striking things said to me was by a pupil from a tough secondary school when they denied being the victim of bullying.They said ‘if I’m a victim that means I’m powerless’. The comment was insightful. Pupils may reject the label victim because of the situation they are in. However, they may reject it because otherwise ‘when can they ever let go of the label ‘victim’?’

At ConflictHub we have adopted the word TARGET, which is starting to be used more in the anti-bullying field. This label focuses on those people doing the harmful behaviour.