Is it bullying or normal peer conflict?

By distinguishing between bullying and normal conflict situations, adults contribute to the healthy development and safety of young people.

Having to negotiate and deal with conflict is part of all our relationships, whether it’s working out how to take turns on the playground swings, how to share responsibilities for a class project or how to share household responsibilities in an equitable ways project. Helping kids learn to deal with conflicts in healthy ways is an important part of their development, and adults often express concern about knowing when normal kinds of peer conflicts move into the realm of unhealthy bullying behaviors.

While there is a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention resource designed to help communities clearly define bullying, there are also ways that adults can distinguish between bullying behaviors and normal peer conflict. Keep the following in mind when you become concerned about what you’re noticing within kids’ relationships:

  • Think about how issues of power are present in the situation. In healthy peer relationships, the relationship is valued by both parties and there is not a power imbalance. When conflict does arise, both people can choose to resolve the conflict, or one or both of them can decide to disengage from the situation. A bullying situation involves an imbalance of power(which could be related to characteristics like physical size, verbal acuity or social standing) and the person being targeted does not have the option of disengaging.
  • Social conflict often focuses on something external, such as two kids fighting over a toy. When the external object or situation is removed, the conflict usually goes away. Bullying situations often focus on attacking aspects of someone’s identity. Examples include targeting someone because of their size, what they can afford to wear or what their interests are.
  • Adults have different roles to play when they see normal peer conflict situations versus bullying situations. Learning to work through conflict within social relationships is an important part of young people’s development, and adults should refrain (for the most part) from stepping in to resolve these issues for them. However, when adults witness or learn about bullying situations, they have a responsibility to get involved right away.
  • Keep in mind that peer conflicts can deteriorate into bullying if young people aren’t receiving helpful guidance from adults. This speaks to the importance of providing kids of all ages with educational opportunities for developing healthy conflict resolution skills so that they can apply these skills within their relationships. Keep in mind, however, that it’s never appropriate to ask those involved within bullying situations to “work it out together” using conflict resolution skills.

More information on bullying education and prevention is available through the Michigan State University Extension Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments initiative, which is designed to help adults and youth work in partnership to address these issues. These efforts include the Be SAFE: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments curriculum, which can be used within both out-of-school time youth settings and middle school settings.

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