Find out what’s different about kids that makes them a magnet for bullies.
I once read of an adolescent boy who was relentlessly bullied at his junior high school: a bully magnet.
His mother had him transferred to another school, and lo and behold, the same situation quickly unfolded: scathing bullying on a daily basis.
What about this boy made him a bully magnet?
This story appeared in the local newspaper years ago. It included the boy’s full-body shot: He looked very nerdy and unathletic. But being a bully magnet is more than just looking like a geek.
Many geeky looking kids are not the victims of bullies, and I once saw a talk show in which a girl stood up in the audience and admitted she used to be a bully, but she looked nerdy.
“Bullies look for victims to gain the perceived power they get from bullying,” says Carleen Wray, executive director of Students Against Violence Everywhere (SAVE), which equips youth with information to take action to prevent and solve bullying issues.
“They are going to target kids who are different, who may be social outcasts, or are easy victims,” she continues.
“Remember, the bully is looking for popularity and acceptance through his actions, and a perceived sense of power.”
The dynamics of bully magnets are perplexing.
It’s a complex issue that can be mind-bending to understand. For two years I attended an all-girls Catholic high school; students had to wear uniforms, so nobody was ever bullied for clothing.
However, there were quite a few girls in my grade who had all the features of a bully magnet, including acne, obesity, a geeky appearance and a homely face. Yet they weren’t bullied.
One girl in particular had what should have been bully magnet material: acne, overweight, and her last name was Hippolito. Need I say more? Yet nobody ridiculed her.
Another was much taller than most of her classmates, had a really bad case of acne, glasses, a nasal-like voice, got straight A’s, and her last name was Raby. Again, nobody made fun of her.
A third had a speech impediment, a mild lip deformity, and her last name was Frump. No joke here. This is all truth.
None of these girls were ever harassed, yet none of them were the least bit intimidating, either.
On the other hand, does a really good-looking kid ever get bullied by lots of classmates?
Key Traits of Bully Magnets
“Many studies show that those who are at the highest risk of being a bullying victim are those who tend to be loners, ones that don’t get along well with others, may have few friends, are not in the popular crowd, and who do not conform to social or gender norms,” says Wray.
“Many have low self-esteem or suffer from mental issues such as anxiety or depression.”
Why Do Bullied Kids Give Power to Their Tormentors?
What is it about the bully-victim dynamic that siphons power from the victim and feeds it to the bully — drawing the bully in like a magnet?
There are two disturbing sides to this coin: the bully who strips the victim of power, and the victim who enables this.
I’m not talking about the bully on the wrestling team who physically overpowers the victim who can barely bench press 50 pounds.
Most people have witnessed a classroom or schoolyard situation in which the bully was either the same size as the victim or even smaller. I certainly have.
And I’ve read about countless cases in which the victim was picked on because they were so much bigger than their classmates.
Thus, the power issue is not related to muscle in many circumstances, perhaps the vast majority.
“Most bullied children don’t fully understand the power dynamics being sought by their tormentors, and inadvertently respond in such ways that end up giving bullies just what they are looking for,” says Kyle Gillett, PhD, LMFT, Executive Director and Founder of Solstice East and Asheville Academy for Girls.
Dr. Gillet leads groups and conferences on bullying, assisting not only victims but also the bullies.
“Our brains are built to first and foremost keep us safe,” he continues. “The part of the brain that first begins to develop in a newborn is the brain stem, also sometimes referred to as the reptilian brain.
“This part of the brain deals purely in instinctive reflex—and houses what has popularly become known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.”
However, there’s one more term to add here: freeze. Hence, it becomes “fight, flight or freeze.”
Dr. Gillet explains, “These reflexes are extremely important to the maintenance of life, as if confronted by a lion:
“It is important for the brain to provide a quick response regarding what might be the best thing to do (these are also the same reflexes that tell our body to move your hand if it has come in contact with a hot stove).
“For a young child, this may be the only response available to them, as their cognitive development hasn’t progressed to the level that they can mentally step away from the situation for a brief moment and problem-solve regarding how to approach the situation in a better way.”
If this pattern of response is repeated often enough without any intervention (e.g., involvement in a confidence-boosting sport), it will become ingrained, so when a young child is a teenager, they will still default to this passive response to harassment, becoming a magnet for bullies.
Dr. Gillet explains how that happens: “During middle and high school, the focus of neurological development moves forward through the mid-brain toward the prefrontal cortex, which is where higher-level problem solving and executive functioning resides.
“However, if children have experienced significant bullying prior to this time, their neurological development can become stunted to the extent that the highest concentration of connections remains in the brain stem.
“When this occurs, a child may respond to every situation or challenge as if it were a threat—making it very difficult for them to respond in any other way.
“This creates a self-reinforcing cycle that later in life can easily lead to a pattern of abusive relationships.
“If you believe that your child may be getting stuck in this reinforcing cycle, it is important for you to seek therapeutic support for them in order to help break this cycle.
“This can sometimes be found within the school system, but can certainly also be found through a variety of other local resources.”
As you can see, being a bully magnet has LITTLE to do with body size or strength.
Dr. Gillett’s career has focused on treating both boys and girls, with specialization in trauma, processing difficulties, eating disorders, depression, anxiety, OCD and difficult family systems.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.