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AGGRESSIVE BEHAVIOR

Volume 26, pages 57–65 (2000)

Bully/Victim Problems and Coping With


Stress in School Among 10- to 12-Year-
Old Pupils in Åland, Finland

Runar Normark Olafsen* and Vappu Viemerö

Department of Psychology, Åbo Akademi University, Turku, Finland

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The aim of the present study was to investigate connections between roles in bullying
and coping with stress in school. The differences between pupils who were victims of
different types of bullying were also analysed. The participants were 510 ten- to twelve-
year-old pupils. Slightly modified versions of the Bully/Victim Questionnaire [Olweus D
(1978): Hemisphere; (1993): Cosmoprint] and the Life Events and Coping Inventory
[Dise-Lewis (1988): Psychosomatic Medicine 50:484–499] were used. The results sug-
gest that the coping strategies of “aggression” and “self-destruction” were associated
with bullying. For boys, victims of bullying did not differ as much as bullies, and espe-
cially bully/victims, from uninvolved pupils. For girls, there was a tendency for victims
of indirect bullying to use more “self-destruction” strategies compared with victims of
direct bullying. Aggr. Behav. 26:57–65, 2000. © 2000 Wiley-Liss, Inc.
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Key words: bully; victim; coping; primary school; stress

INTRODUCTION
Bullying is a form of aggressive behaviour. Buss [1961, 1990] distinguished be-
tween direct and indirect aggression and between physical and verbal aggression. Di-
rect aggression refers to relatively open attacks, whereas indirect aggression occurs via
a third party. Most definitions of bullying behaviour have applied these aspects [e.g.,
Lagerspetz et al., 1982; Olweus, 1978, 1993; Pikas, 1975; Smith and Thompson, 1991].
Bullying can be regarded as a subset of aggressive behaviour where there is an imbal-

*Correspondence to: Runar Normark Olafsen, Department of Psychology, Åbo Akademi University, 20500
Turku, Finland.
Received 25 September 1998; amended version accepted 22 January 1999

© 2000 Wiley-Liss, Inc.


58 Olafsen and Viemerö

ance in physical and/or psychological strength and where the aggressive act is repeated
over time [Rivers and Smith, 1994].
In studies on bullying, when speaking of characteristics of bullies and victims, the
bullies as well as the victims are often described as relatively homogenous categories
of pupils. Bullies are characterised by an aggressive reaction pattern combined with
physical strength (at least among boys) [Olweus, 1978]. Bullies hold more positive
attitudes toward violence [Lagerspetz et al., 1982], are impulsive [Olweus, 1978] and
have a need to dominate others [Boldizar et al., 1989; Olweus, 1978]. Victims, on the
other hand, are characterised by an anxious reaction pattern combined with physical
weakness (at least among boys). Victims hold more negative attitudes toward violence
and the use of violent means compared with pupils in general [Olweus, 1978]. When
attacked by others they typically react with crying and withdrawal. They are introvert,
have low self-esteem, and hold a negative view of themselves and their situation
[Lagerspetz et al., 1982; Salmivalli, 1998; Slee and Rigby, 1993]. There are some mi-
nor groups that do not fit into these two categories. Some pupils are both bullies and
victims, i.e., bully/victims [Olweus, 1978], and others are so-called provocative vic-
tims. Provocative victims are characterised by a combination of both anxious and ag-
gressive behaviour patterns. They are often hyperactive [Olweus, 1978; Pikas, 1989].
The bully/victims and the provocative victims might overlap. Bully/victims are most
readily distinguished from other pupils in terms of personality characteristics [Mynard
and Joseph, 1997]. They perceive their relationship with their parents as troublesome
[Bowers et al., 1992, 1994].
Although most pupils find bullying stressful [Sharp, 1995], only a few studies have
investigated the connection between bullying and coping with stress. Victims reactions
to bullying have been studied more [e.g., Olweus, 1978; Salmivalli et al., 1996]. Be-
cause of the lack of a theory of children’s coping, many researchers [e.g., Ryan, 1989;
Sharrer and Ryan-Wenger, 1991; Wertlieb et al., 1987] have applied Lazarus’ theoreti-
cal framework in studies of children’s coping. Lazarus and Folkman [1984] define cop-
ing as “constantly changing cognitive and behavioural efforts to manage specific external
and/or internal demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources of the
person.” This definition implies that coping is all mobilised efforts to manage stress
regardless of whether these efforts are effective. Sharp [1995] studied victims’ coping
in bullying situations. She found that passive coping strategies were most common,
followed by assertive and aggressive strategies. Boys especially used aggressive strat-
egies. Rauste-von Wright [1989] found that the use of aggressive strategies was associ-
ated with involvement in fighting and verbal aggression.
The aim of the present study was to investigate connections between role in bullying
(i.e., not involved, victim of direct and/or indirect bullying, bully, bully/victim) and
how children typically cope with stressful encounters in school or related to the school
situation. The victims are classified according to the type of bullying they are experi-
encing. A pupil being a victim of direct bullying might respond in another way than a
victim of indirect bullying. The responses of pupils to stressful encounters, e.g., bully-
ing, might in turn affect in what way they are bullied, and maybe whether they are
bullied at all. The following questions were asked: Do pupils differ with respect to
coping with stressful encounters according to their role in bullying (i.e., not involved,
victim of direct and/or indirect bullying, bully, bully/victim)? If so, in what ways do
they differ?
Bully/Victim Problems and Coping With Stress 59

METHOD
The participants were 510 fifth- and sixth-grade pupils (262 girls and 248 boys),
aged 10 to 12 years, from all 17 elementary schools in the area called “fasta Åland” at
Åland in Finland. Åland is a group of islands located in the archipelago between Fin-
land and Sweden with approximately 25,000 Swedish-speaking inhabitants. All fifth-
and sixth-grade pupils in the area “fasta Åland” were asked to participate. Only 6 pupils
did not get permission from their parents to participate in the study, and 20 pupils were
absent from school the day the survey was carried out. The sizes of the classes varied
from 6 to 26 pupils. The survey was carried out the same day in all schools in Novem-
ber 1996 during class hours.
The participants completed a modified version of the Bully/Victim Questionnaire
[Olweus, 1978, 1993] concerning role in bullying (not involved, victim of direct and/or
indirect bullying, bully, bully/victim). The modifications were mainly concerning indi-
rect bullying. The item “How often have you bullied other children this term?” was
used to identify bullies. The item “How often have you been bullied this term?” was
used to identify victims of direct bullying. The items “How often has it happened that
no one would talk to you this term?” and “How often have you had rumours spread
about you this term?” were used to identify victims of indirect bullying. The latter items
are approximately the same as those that Rivers and Smith [1994] used in their study.
The pupils had five response options on each item: “never,” “once in a while,” “some-
times,” “about once a week,” and “several times a week.” A pupil was considered a
bully if he or she reported bullying others “sometimes” or more often. Likewise, a pupil
was considered a victim of direct bullying if he or she reported being bullied “some-
times” or more often and/or considered a victim of indirect bullying if he or she an-
swered “sometimes” or more often on one or both of the items concerning indirect
bullying. Finally, a pupil was considered a bully/victim if he or she fulfilled the criteria
for being bully and victim of direct and/or indirect bullying.
The participants also completed a modified version of the Life Events and Coping
Inventory (LECI) [Dise-Lewis, 1988] concerning coping with stressful encounters in
school. The LECI consists of 52 coping strategy items, derived from the children’s
perspective, and contains five subscales or coping factors. Two of the factors are nega-
tive—“aggression” and “self-destruction”—and three are positive—“distraction,” “en-
durance,” and “stress-recognition.” The Cronbach alphas for the coping factors were
similar to those of Dise-Lewis’ [1988] study (Table I). One implication of Lazarus’
theoretical framework is that coping is situation specific. This means that the situation
or the context where coping is situated must be specified. The main interest of the
present study was the connections between bullying and coping with stress in school.
Consequently, the children were asked to estimate to what extent they used different
coping behaviours whenever they were feeling stressed, nervous, or worried in school
or because of something that had happened in school.

RESULTS
Roles in Bullying
Table II shows the distribution of the participants in different roles in bullying. There
were significantly more boys in the role of bully than girls (χ2[1] = 11.75, P < .001).
60 Olafsen and Viemerö
TABLE I. Reliability Coefficients of the Five Coping Factors in the LECI and Examples of
Strategies From the Factors (N = 477)*
Number of Cronbach
Coping factor strategies alpha, α Examples of strategies
Aggression 7 .81 Hit or hurt someone physically; yell, scream or
curse at someone; get in a fight with someone;
take someone else’s things
Distraction 12 .80 Do a hobby or something one likes; take a walk or
bike ride; run or exercise hard
Self-destruction 6 .77 Smoke cigarettes; think about committing suicide;
hurt myself physically; do something
dangerous
Stress-recognition 13 .75 Cry; scream; write to someone else about it; get
advice from someone
Endurance 9 .62 Just hold it in; try to forget it; think about it alone;
clench my teeth; watch TV
*LECI indicates the life event and coping inventory.

Only 11 pupils had the role of bully/victim. Among these there was only 1 girl. There
were no significant differences between the genders in regard to being a victim of bul-
lying. Table III shows that more pupils were victims of indirect bullying than of direct
bullying and of both direct and indirect bullying. There were no significant differences
between the genders in being a victim of direct bullying, indirect bullying, or both.
Coping With Stress in School
The pupils used more positive than negative strategies in stressful encounters in school.
T-test was used in comparisons between the genders on the coping factors in the LECI.
Girls used significantly more “stress-recognition” strategies compared to boys. Boys,
on the other hand, used more “self-destruction” strategies compared with girls (Table
IV). There were no significant differences between the genders in the use of “aggres-
sion,” “distraction,” or “endurance” strategies.
Role and Coping
A 4 (role) multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA) was conducted with the
coping factors as dependent variables. The MANOVA revealed a significant main ef-
fect of role on coping factors (F[15,1197] = 3.31, P < .001). The univariate effects were
significant for the two negative factors in the LECI, “aggression” (F[3,401] = 3.47, P <
.05) and “self-destruction” (F[3,401] = 9.79, P < .001). Post hoc testing (Tukey’s HSD
test) indicated that bully/victims used significantly more “aggressive” strategies com-

TABLE II. Distribution of Roles in Bullying by Gender


Boys Girls Total
Role N % N % N %
Not involved 182 73.4 209 79.8 391 76.7
Victim 41 16.5 46 17.5 87 17.0
Bully 15 6.1 6 2.3 21 4.1
Bully/victim 10 4.0 1 0.4 11 2.2
Total 248 100.0 262 100.0 510 100.0
Bully/Victim Problems and Coping With Stress 61
TABLE III. Distribution of Victim Type According to Gender
Boys Girls Total
Victim type N % N % N %
Direct bullying 11 4.4 8 3.1 19 3.7
Indirect bullying 24 9.7 28 10.7 52 10.2
Direct and indirect bullying 6 2.4 10 3.8 16 3.1
Total 41 16.5 46 17.6 87 17.0

pared with victims and pupils not involved (Fig. 1). Furthermore, bully/victims used
significantly more “self-destructive” strategies compared with pupils from the other
groups (bullies, victims, and not involved) (Fig. 2). There were no significant differ-
ences between the roles in using strategies from the positive coping factors in the LECI.
Because there was only one bully/victim girl, it was not possible to include gender
directly in the analysis. However, a 4 (role) MANOVA was conducted with the coping
factors as dependent variables, only including boys. For the whole group, the MANOVA
revealed a significant main effect of role on coping factor (F[15,573] = 2.73, P < .001).
Likewise, univariate effects were significant for the negative factors “aggression” (F
[3,193] = 4.60, P < .005) and “self-destruction” (F [3,193] = 7.06, P < .001). Post hoc
testing (Tukey’s HSD test) again indicated that bully/victim boys used significantly
more “self-destructive” strategies than did pupils from the other groups (bullies, vic-
tims, and not involved). However, bully/victim boys used significantly more “aggres-
sive” strategies only in comparison to boys not involved. As for the whole group, there
were no significant differences between the roles in using strategies from the positive
coping factors in the LECI.

Victimised Pupils’ Coping


A 3 × 2 (victim type and gender) MANOVA was conducted with the coping factors in
the LECI as dependent variables. The MANOVA revealed only a significant main ef-
fect of gender on coping factor (F[5,57] = 2.70, P <.05) and no significant main effect
on victim type or interaction between gender and victim type. This might be affected by
the small sample size and that the group consisting of victims of both direct and indirect
bullying somehow resembles both victims of direct bullying and victims of indirect
bullying. In comparisons between victims of direct and victims of indirect bullying

TABLE IV. Differences Between the Genders on the Use of Strategies From the Five Coping
Factors in the LECI (N = 477)*
Boys Girls
Coping factor M SD M SD t P
Negative
Aggression 1.52 0.60 1.51 0.63 0.13 n.s.
Self-destruction 1.42 0.62 1.31 0.50 2.18 .05
Positive
Distraction 2.83 0.69 2.85 0.66 0.27 n.s.
Endurance 3.00 0.63 2.90 0.60 1.34 n.s.
Stress-recognition 2.27 0.63 2.76 0.54 8.93 .001
*LECI indicates the life events and coping inventory; n.s., not significant.
62 Olafsen and Viemerö

Fig. 1. Role in bullying and the use of “aggression” strategies in the Life Events and Coping Inventory. *P
< .05, Tukey’s HSD test.

using the t-test analysis on the coping factors, a significant difference on the coping
factor “self-destruction” appeared. Victims of indirect bullying used significantly more
strategies from this coping factor compared with victims of direct bullying (t [57,87] =
3.93, P < .005). When the t-tests were done for the genders separately, this was only
significant among girls (t [29,99] = 3.08, P < .005). For girls, victims of indirect bully-
ing (M = 1.59, SD = 0.62) used more strategies from the coping factor “self-destruc-
tion” compared with victims of direct bullying (M = 1.17, SD = 0.17).

DISCUSSION
Rauste-von Wright [1989] found that the use of aggressive strategies was associated
with fighting and verbal aggression. Furthermore, Dise-Lewis [1988] found that the

Fig. 2. Role in bullying and the use of “self-destruction” strategies in the Life Events and Coping Inven-
tory. *P < .05, Tukey’s HSD test.
Bully/Victim Problems and Coping With Stress 63

presence of negative strategies in the LECI (“aggression” and “self-destruction”) was


connected with the presence of physical and psychological problems. The results of the
current study indicate that the presence of negative strategies also is associated with
involvement in bullying and especially bullying behaviour. This is in line with previous
research indicating that bullies hold an aggressive reaction pattern [Olweus, 1978].
When looking closer at the connections between the role in bullying and coping with
stress in stressful encounters in school, bully/victims differ most from the other groups.
Boys in the role of bully/victim used significantly more aggressive strategies than boys
in the role not involved. Furthermore, boys in the role bully/victim used significantly
more self-destructive strategies than did boys in the other roles of bully, victim, and not
involved. Unfortunately, the sample size did not allow any conclusions to be drawn
about girls in the role of bully/victim. Earlier research has stated that bully/victims are
a special group of children in terms of personality [Mynard and Joseph, 1997] and
perception of family relations [Bowers et al., 1992, 1994]. Furthermore, the dynamics
in classes with provocative victims (or bully/victims) differ in part from classes with
other types of victims [Olweus, 1993]. The results of the present study indicate that
bully/victims also differ from other bullies and victims in terms of coping with stressful
encounters in school.
Pupils in the role of victim of bullying did not differ much from pupils in the role of
not involved with respect to coping with stress in school. As a group they were more
similar to pupils not involved than to bullies and bully/victims. Again, this could only
be stated among boys. This is partly in contrast with previous results that indicate that
victimised pupils are more anxious than other pupils [Olweus, 1978]. When looking at
the coping of victimised pupils, there is a suggestion of some differences according to
type of bullying they were experiencing. For girls, to be a victim of indirect bullying
may be associated with self-destructive strategies in stressful encounters in school more
than for victims of direct bullying. Slee and Rigby [1993] found that introversion was
associated with victimisation. The results of the present study suggest that girl victims
of indirect bullying turn the aggression toward themselves but not toward others. This
indicates that it is fruitful to differentiate victimised pupils according to the type of
bullying they are experiencing.
Indirect bullying was measured in the present study with the method used by Rivers
and Smith [1994]. Rivers and Smith pointed out that the measure of indirect bullying in
the Bully/Victim Questionnaire [Olweus, 1978, 1993] picks up indirect bullying more
than direct bullying but is not a sufficient measure of indirect bullying. Another prob-
lem in studies on bullying and especially on indirect bullying is how to identify pupils
who bully others with indirect means. Many pupils (and teachers) do not consider, e.g.,
“leaving people out” or “telling nasty stories about others” as bullying [Boulton, 1997].
This kind of behaviour is not included in pupils’ concept of bullying. Lagerspetz et al.
[1988] found that 11- to 12-year-old girls made greater use of indirect means of aggres-
sion compared with boys. A challenge for researchers in the future is to find ways that
also pick up pupils who bully others with more indirect means.
The use of self-report data also brings some limitations. As Salmivalli [1998] pointed
out, pupils tend to underestimate their own aggressive behaviour as well as degree of
victimisation. This means that some victims, bullies, and bully/victims in the present
study might have been assessed to wrong groups or roles and thereby made the differ-
ences between the roles on the coping factors smaller.
64 Olafsen and Viemerö

In conclusion, results from the present study suggest that means of coping with stress
are associated with bullying. With respect to coping with stressful encounters in school,
victims of bullying (direct and/or indirect) did not differ from uninvolved pupils as
much as bullies and particularly bully/victims did. This might mean that the reasons for
being a victim are due to factors other than characteristics of victims [cf. Rivers and
Soutter, 1996]. Victimising of indirect bullying seems to be associated with the use of
self-destructive strategies in stressful encounters in school, especially among girls. More
research is needed to determine the connections between victimisation and coping, as
well as on bullying among girls. To make bullying stop, the focus should be on the bully
and the bully/victim. These groups should be helped to use positive strategies instead of
negative strategies in stressful encounters in school.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
We thank the pupils and teachers who participated. We also thank the Centre of Health
Promotion in Finland who supported the study financially.

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