Conflict vs. Bullying: How can you tell the difference?

As parents, we want to prepare our children to handle conflict and work through it, but what may sound like a conflict to us may sound like bullying to others. How do you determine if your child is facing a conflict with someone else, or if they’re actually involved in bullying?

First, let’s define bullying. Bullying is a widespread and pervasive epidemic that affects approximately one in three school children in the U.S. today (Olweus, 2011). It’s characterized by an imbalance of power and aggressive behaviors over time, directed at a target who has trouble defending himself or herself adequately. Imbalances of power are not simply physical size or strength; popularity in the peer group or access to potentially damaging information can also be powerful. In true bullying situations, the target needs help to get the bullying to stop- that is key.

With conflict there is no perceived power imbalance. In fact, both parties may feel like they’re in the right, and they both could be. The important thing to note is that conflict doesn’t involve a victim, but rather two aggressors whose actions are fairly equal over the time span of the disagreement. Students can usually resolve conflict with mediation help from an adult, or by practicing good conflict resolution skills. It’s important to allow children to resolve some conflict on their own, as that’s the best way for them to learn the skills they’ll need throughout their lives. Parents should become involved, however, when the situation is lengthy, is taking an emotional toll on the child or involves threatening situations. When conflict turns to outright physical violence, schools and parents should involve the appropriate authorities. 

Hopefully, we’re nearing a time when myths like, “Bullying is a right of passage” and “It’s just kids being kids,” are obviously debunked. We know the effects that bullying can have on children and adolescents are certainly serious: anxiety, depression, mood disorders, and physical ailments like headaches and stomachaches (Olweus, 2011).  Students involved in bullying need help, accurate help. Adults in school and at home should avoid treating all negative interaction as if it’s conflict until they know for sure what is happening. Be wary of asking the two students to sit down and “work things out” until you know for sure what has happened.

Are you concerned that your child may be involved in bullying? Or does your child handle conflict well? If so, what skills did you teach them?

Published on: March 15, 2013
About the Author
Photo of Shiryl Barto M.Ed
Shiryl Henry Barto works for the Center for Health Promotion & Disease Prevention (CHPDP) at the Windber Research Institute as the director for bullying prevention initiatives.
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