Sarah Shepard and David Nelson, School of Family Life
Experiencing victimization by peers can have detrimental consequences for children, such as depressive symptoms, social anxiety, and feelings of loneliness (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995; Crick, Ostrov, & Werner, 2006; Prinstein, Boergers, & Vernberg, 2001; Tran, Cole, & Weiss, 2012). For this reason, it is important that we discover factors that contribute to ongoing issues with victimization. There are studies that have looked at short-term stability of relational and physical/verbal victimization, but usually they only last for a few months (e.g., Kawabata, Tseng, & Crick, 2014; Leadbeater, Hoglund, & Woods, 2003; Ostrov, Kamper, Hart, Godleski, & Blakely-McClure, 2014; Yeung & Leadbeater, 2010). There is little, if any, research available on how experiences of victimization in early childhood may affect the experience of victimization years down the road. For that reason, we chose to explore whether children’s experiences of relational and physical/verbal victimization would remain stable from preschool to adolescence.
We also hoped to discover some personal and contextual factors that might contribute to lasting experiences with victimization. There has been past research literature which suggests that children’s responses to aggression can affect their ongoing victimization, but these connections have not been explored long-term for any preschool sample. Specifically, we looked at how provocative, submissive, and assertive responses (Hart et al., 2000) to victimization would affect the long-term stability of victimization.
We expected modest stability in teacher-rated victimization over time. We also expected that provocative and passive responses to victimization in preschool would be predictive of concurrent victimization and victimization over time (while controlling for preschool levels of victimization).
In this study, we used data previously collected by David Nelson. Participants included 221 children and their teachers from three nursery schools in Voronezh, Russia. The average age of participating children at Time 1 was 60.23 months. Teacher reports measured each preschool-aged child’s experience of relational and physical/verbal victimization, along with their responses to victimization (provocative, submissive, and assertive). We also used teacher reports collected 10 years later, during the children’s adolescence, which again assessed their relational and physical/verbal victimization.
There was no significant link between victimization in preschool and victimization 10 years later. Provocative and passive responses were significantly correlated with concurrent relational and physical/verbal victimization in preschool. For girls, provocative responses to aggression in preschool were linked to physical/verbal and relational (marginal) victimization in adolescence. Passive responses to aggression in preschool were also marginally predictive of relational victimization in adolescence.
Contrary to our first hypothesis, there was no long-term stability of victimization. There are several factors that could explain this finding: First, teacher reports may not correspond well over time. Also, there may be other factors that affect the fluctuation of victimization over time, such as changing relationships, adult interventions, and the fact that reasons for victimization generally change across age.
Our second hypothesis, however, was confirmed for the girls in the study. We found that their provocative and passive responses in preschool did predict adolescent relational and physical/verbal victimization. It may be that engaging in reactive aggression led to long-term peer problems for these children. It may also be that children who react this way have other emotional and social deficits that contribute to their continuing victimization.
More research is still needed to clarify whether victimization does maintain some stability long-term, and what factors can affect children’s ongoing experience of victimization. However, it is clear from these results that the way that children learn to respond to their experiences of victimization can affect whether they continue to experience that victimization long-term. Knowing that victimization can have detrimental effects for children and adolescents, it is important for us to continue to discover how children can protect themselves against these ongoing peer problems and deter future victimization.