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Why do we use “target” vs. “victim” and “child who bullies” vs. “bully”

60-second answer

You’ve likely heard statements such as “My child is a victim of bullying” or “That student is a bully.” Though these phrases are commonly used, are they the best terms to describe a child’s behavior and actions?

When referring to those involved in bullying situations, avoid stereotyping them into categories. Focus on behavior, not on labels.

For example:

  • Instead of “bullying victim,” replace with the phrase “he’s a target of bullying.” This shows that the child is not powerless, and that with support and education they can change what’s happening to them.
  • Instead of “she’s a bully” use instead, “she’s someone who bullies.” This shows that bullying is a part of who she is, but with support and education she can make changes in her behavior.


You’ve likely heard statements such as “My child is a victim of bullying” or “That student is a bully.” Though these phrases are commonly used, and usually with good intentions, are they the best terms to use when describing a child and their behavior?

At PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center, we believe that:

  • language used to describe children and their roles in bullying situations is an important part of how bullying is viewed
  • terminology has the potential to influence the view and perception of the issue and, in the best cases, direct ideas or beliefs that promote positive change
  • bullying is about a child’s behavior, and that behavior is something that can be changed through awareness, education, and support

The terms and labels we use when describing bullying have an impact.

Expectations are powerful forces on children’s behavior. Often, they make decisions according to what the adults and peers in their life expect them to do. Labels influence how youth perceive or think about themselves and how others see them, too.

  • When a child is labeled a “bully,” that can send the message to peers and adults that they are children or students who:
    • always behave in negative ways
    • always get in trouble
    • don’t respect the feelings of others
    • don’t know how to appropriately handle social interactions
  • When a child is labeled a “victim,” that can send the message to peers and adults that they:
    • are helpless
    • can do nothing to change their situation
    • are kids who will be teased
    • are easily manipulated
    • are in need of pity

The labels “bully” or “victim” send the message to youth that they have a permanent trait that cannot be changed.

The focus should be on behavior and not on the label.

When the language is framed to focus on behavior, it sends the message that the child is developing and learning, and with support they can change their situation.

Avoid using terms which LABEL an individual Use terms which focus on an individual’s BEHAVIOR WHY is language used important?
Being labeled a victim or bully can become someone’s identity. Focusing on the behavior, shows that they can change their situation.
For example: “They're a bullying victim.”
Replace with:
“They're a target of bullying.”
When a child is labeled a ”victim,” it can send the message that they are powerless to change their situation.
For example: “They're a bully.”
Replace with:
They're someone who bullies.
When a child is labeled a “bully,” it can send the message that everyone expects them to always only behave in that stereotypical way.

“Target” versus “Victim”

Students who are targets of bullying are often called victims. The term “victim” can imply that someone has no power and is helpless to change what has happened to them. Although those targeted by bullying can feel powerless to stop it, labeling someone as a victim suggests that person was, is still, and will continue to be helpless and without options.

Using a more neutral term, such as “target,” implies the possibility of change in the bullying situation and empowers the person being bullied to feel that they can do something to alter their situation.

When youth are labeled as victims, this can send the message that they are weak or deserving of pity from others. Actually, they may need help to stop the situation and manage the bullying, and need the tools and support to advocate for him or herself.

“Child Who Bullies” versus “Bully”

Bullying is a behavior, not an identity. As with “victim,” labeling a child as a bully implies that his or her behavior is fixed and unlikely to change. In reality, behavior can and does change. A child might make fun of other kids in fifth grade, but stops this behavior after transitioning into sixth grade. The child bullied on the bus in the morning, may be the student who bullies someone in the afternoon.

However, the label of a kid being a bully might stick with the child and could be associated with him or her throughout school.

With the help of parents, teachers, peers, and the community, bullying behaviors can change for the better. It’s important for adults seeking to resolve a bullying situation to avoid labeling the child engaging in bullying behavior as a “bully.” Those who bully should be held accountable for their actions and be given appropriate consequences, but it’s equally important to find out why they are engaging in that behavior. By addressing the behavior and the reasons for it, adults can help children make lasting, positive changes.

The social impact

Labels often perpetuate negative stereotypes that affects how people perceive and interact with others. Using appropriate terms when describing those involved in bullying can lead to recognizing that bullying is about behavior. It reflects how someone has chosen to act in a situation and, with support, education, and intervention, behavior and beliefs can be changed. Through changing behavior, bullying can be prevented.

Posted March, 2018

Ask Us: What Motivates Someone to Bully? | PACERTalks About Bullying: Season 2, Episode 20

A question from Chloe, a high school student, who wants to know what motivates students to bully.

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