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Bullying vs. mean behavior

Have you had the experience of your child coming home from school and sharing that they were bullied? Or, have you been in the uncomfortable position, as a parent, of having your child be accused of bullying another child? If you are unclear about what bullying is, you are not alone. According to the United States government website Stopbullying.gov:

"Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems."

So, if your child comes home and is upset because one of her friends did not play with her at recess, or a classmate described your son's lunch as "gross," does that qualify as bullying? The answer is…it depends. Knowing the context of the interaction is an important part of understanding your child's experience. Did the child who declined to play with your child want to play a different game at recess or was this part of an ongoing pattern of social isolation? Did your son's lunch look unfamiliar to a classmate who blurted out their thoughts or has this child routinely teased your son?

How is bullying behavior different from mean behavior?

Trying to sort out the difference between bullying and just plain insensitive or mean behavior can become challenging. It is easy to get caught up in arguments about whether a certain behavior is bullying…or not. There is a solution. There is no family or school that would ever say: Bullying will not be tolerated under any circumstances, but it is okay to be mean. Bullying behavior is really a form of being mean. No parent wants their children to develop skills for becoming mean.

Regardless of whether a certain behavior meets the formal definition of bullying or is just plain mean, it is not okay. Consider that the best way to get to the core of the problem is through a simple question: Was the behavior kind? If it was not, it is not okay. Period.

Rather than engage in the hair splitting that so often accompanies accusations of bullying, ask the child engaging in the behavior if it was kind. As parents and educators, we can model and encourage kind behavior in all our relationships. Our kids are watching!

Jeff Reiland, MS

Author

Jeff Reiland, MS, Child and Family Therapist, Gundersen Health System

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