Bullying is an ongoing problem for many of our kids, and with the focus of October as National Bullying Prevention Month, we’ll see a lot of suggestions about how to prevent bullying. Contrary to what many parents (and children) think, not every insult or disagreement is a bullying situation. Sometimes a dispute is just plain old normal conflict, and children need to learn how to deal with that conflict in a healthy way. Negative feedback is a normal part of human interaction and learning how to respond is an important part of growing up. Wise adults don't get involved in developmentally normal disputes between children.
On the other hand, we do need to intervene when conflict turns into bullying. So how do we find that balance? How do we know when it’s bullying and when it’s ordinary (even if difficult) conflict? Below are some important markers for navigating that maze.
Why Does it Matter?
The main reason it's important to differentiate between bullying and ordinary conflict is that conflict in itself isn't all bad. People always will have their own preferences and being free to express those is part of being an emotionally healthy adult. Always suppressing our opinions to avoid conflict is not a good way to build a relationship.
Furthermore, interpersonal conflicts are a normal part of life, and our children will never be able to avoid peer conflict. It will always be part of everyday experience for them as adults, whether in the workplace or in their personal relationships. They will graduate from school conflict to workplace conflict, and they need to learn the social skills to deal with those differences. Dealing with conflict in a gracious and positive manner is an important skill, and the sooner they learn that life skill, the happier they will be
It's also important to understand the distinct differences in how to handle normal argument versus bully behaviors. Conflict resolution strategies will help solve ordinary conflicts. School or workplace bullying, however, requires stronger boundaries and usually action from upper management. That action would be overkill for minor conflicts. Conversely, asking young people to "work it out" in a bullying situation will only make the situation worse. We need to be able to apply different solution to different situations.
The CDC definition of bullying includes behavior that “is repeated multiple times or is highly likely to be repeated.” There’s no doubt that some aggressive behavior is devastating even if it happens only once. Sexual assaults fit into that category, and I once had a foster child whose friend, impatient with her depression, said over social media, “Well, just kill yourself, then.” Those situations, however, are clear and fortunately not common. Most bullying gets its force from repetition, either by the same bully or by other kids piling on. A one-time dispute generally can be resolved through conflict resolution principles rather than requiring a full-blown anti-bullying intervention.
Aggressive and Intentional Behavior
The CDC definition also includes “unwanted aggressive behavior(s).” The CDC uses “aggressive behavior” to mean “intentional use of harmful behavior(s).” So, one way to distinguish between bullying and conflict would be to look at the deliberate act involved. Teens who insult someone thinking they are making a joke may need to be educated about socially acceptable behavior, but it’s not bullying. Middle school teachers see bad jokes all the time from kids who are still learning to navigate social boundaries, humor, and independence. Similarly, kids may say mean things without realizing or intending the harm that it can cause. Making a bad joke or negative comment is not necessarily bullying. We need to make a distinction between when we need to train kids and when we need to enforce anti-bullying rules.
Aggressive behavior goes beyond physical bullying. It also can be emotional or cyber bullying. I tend to err on the side of encouraging free speech, but there’s no doubt that words have power. Threats and spreading rumors can be just as damaging as actually hitting someone.
On the other hand, not every disagreement is harmful. The current trend claiming that words are sometimes violence can be very damaging to our kids. If they can ignore opinions they don’t like simply by claiming to be bullied, then they will never learn from conflicting opinions. They will stay in their safe — and very small — bubble, and miss out on the joys of expanded horizons and the power of testing their ideas. We are not doing them any favors when we protect them from ideas that make them uncomfortable.
The last part of the CDC definition is the most slippery and the most subject to abuse. It focuses on “an observed or perceived power imbalance” between the bullies and their victims. Sometimes we can recognize this imbalance of power very clearly. A group of entitled rich kids insulting a gardener’s daughter definitely would involve differing levels of social status and would be an example of social bullying.
If you have kids from the same economic or social groups, the difference is not so clear. Especially when the definition looks at “observed or perceived personal or situational characteristics.” I know that our kids’ perception is their reality, but in many ways, our current society encourages our children to think of themselves as victims. That victim mindset not only will make our children more vulnerable to being bullied, but it will make it harder for them to learn resilience and move past whatever trauma they have suffered. Indeed, the victim mindset doesn’t require any level of actual trauma, just some grounds to label oneself as a victim.
As parents, we can push back on this tendency. For example, we should encourage our children to think of ways to remedy the power imbalance. One old-school technique is to enroll kids in a sport that builds their self-confidence and perhaps self-defense skills. The more self-confidence our children have, the more they will feel they have equal power in a situation and the more they can ignore the attempts of toxic peers to control their emotions and responses.
Bullying is a serious problem that it seems to be growing along with anxiety, depression, and other serious mental health challenges for our kids. We can't solve the problem, however, by labeling everything as bullying behavior. We need to confine anti-bullying efforts to actual bullying, and at the same time concentrate on teaching our children how to navigate ordinary conflict situations.