"Why me?" is the common, heartbreaking plea of children bullied at school - and one for which parents have no answer. But now, findings from a longitudinal study of Quebec children suggest there are answers, some of them surprising.
A child's tendency toward aggression - a trait usually associated with bullies, not their victims - appears to be a major indicator of future victimization.
"A child who is easily upset and overreacts to provocations - this is a specific risk factor," says bullying expert Mara Brendgen, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Quebec at Montreal and one of the authors of the study. "It's not the more predatory aggression, the more cold-blooded aggression you find in the bullies. It's really this hyper-reactivity ... that makes a child an easy target. It might be fun for the bullies to upset the victim."
A harsh, reactive parenting style and low household income were the other strongest risk factors found to be associated with a child being victimized by his or her peers.
The research, which appears in the current issue of the American Medical Association's Archives of General Psychiatry, is part of a widening approach to studying the problem of bullying.
Experts say a reluctance to appear as though they were blaming the victim, paired with an enduring sense that "peer victimization was a rite of passage," meant that for years research focused more on the nature of bullies than their victims.
As the risks associated with victims, from poor academic performance to suicide, became more clear, many researchers turned their attention to understanding those who suffered at the hands of bullies.
Along the way, they've found that victimization remains stable throughout the school years.
For many children, once a victim, always a victim. So, identifying children as young as possible was one of Dr. Brendgen and her colleagues' goals.
They examined reports on 1,970 children and their families starting when the children were babies.
Later, during the preschool and kindergarten years, mothers were asked to fill out questionnaires about whether their child was made fun of, hurt or called names. In Grade 1, the children and their teachers were asked similar questions.
During the daycare years, the majority of children, 71 per cent, were not seriously victimized by their peers. Twenty-five per cent faced moderate bullying by their peers and 4 per cent were consistently victimized at a high level.
As children grew older and interacted with more children from kindergarten onward, the moderate group reached the same level of victimization as the highly victimized group, Dr. Brendgen found.
"In that sense, it's not a random event, really," she says.
Looking back to the mothers' reports of when these children were babies, the researchers found that high levels of early physical aggression, such as hitting, biting, kicking, fighting and bullying other children at as young as 17 months of age, was the top predictor of which children would go on to be victimized.
Even though researchers aren't sure how early physical aggression links to later victimization, they think it may be an area ripe for intervention. "If you know that a child's aggression is a risk factor, then you might want to work on it," Dr. Brendgen says.
Harsh, reactive parenting such as shouting or spanking a fussy child - determined by asking mothers about how they reacted to their child's behaviour - was another major factor in a child's likelihood of becoming a victim. Low family income, assessed when the child was five months old, was also strongly linked.
The researchers found that other factors, including hyperactivity, anxiety and sadness, were not factors. Dr. Brendgen says more research is needed to figure out why these risk factors are linked.
Low socioeconomic status, for instance, has been found to be a risk factor in a child's unpopularity, which may be related to victimization, Dr. Brendgen says. Harsh parenting may be a proxy for other parenting behaviours that may play a role. Reactive parents may, for instance, merely tell a child to "fight back," instead of offering constructive, problem-solving advice.
While Lindsey Leenaars, a PhD student in the field of victimization at the University of Alberta, would like to see more research into how genetics may link a victim's aggression and a parent's child-rearing style, she welcomes the new work.
Ms. Leenaars's current research also focuses on the characteristics of the victim. Attractive girls, for instance, report a high level of bullying, according to a paper she published last year.
"It's important not to have too constricted a picture of what a victim is or what a bully is. If you do that, you might be leaving out a big number of people who might be silently suffering."