What’s bullying and what’s not

Not all behavior constitutes as bullying. Learn the difference to know the proper response.

From playground squabbles to nighttime tears parents and kids alike are grabbling with how to handle each situation as it arises. This is not only a school time issue, but occurs on sports teams, summer camps, swim lessons, in childcare settings and many more summer recreation settings.

One of the struggles is defining what constitutes bullying. Kids and adults alike are calling out inappropriate behaviors, and rightly so – however, not all unacceptable behavior is bullying. Conflicts between peers are not bullying.

A distinguishing mark of bullying is an imbalance of power, whether in numbers, age, size or social standing. Intimidation and overpowering sets bullying apart from teasing and joking.

Additionally, two key thoughts to keep in mind are that bullying is intentional (targeted) and repeated in three forms: Verbal, physical and indirect. When this type of behavior is based on race/ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation (real or perceived) or religion it crosses the line of bullying into harassment, which has its own legal policies and ramifications.

Lyn Mikel Brown in 2009 said, “Calling behaviors what they are helps us educate children about their rights, affirms their realities, encourages more complex and meaningful solutions, opens up dialogue, invites children to participate in social change, and ultimately protects them.”

Parents and children can navigate emotions and responses with common definitions and understanding. Students in the 2010 Penn State Youth Voice study by Davis and Nixon identified three of the most impacting adult and peer responses to bullying:

1) Reassurance—Listening is key. Children, like adults want to be heard. “Fixing it” or rescuing may be an instinct, however helping the child develop ways to respond and a menu of options will impart confidence and a sense of power over themself.

2) Check back—Asking how a child is feeling later that day, a few days later, and over time is supportive and encourages a child that have someone to turn to.

3) Gave advise.

Michigan State University Extension addresses bullying in communities through workshops designed to build awareness, knowledge and skills, as well as providing resources and curriculum training. These workshops and trainings are founded on research and evidence that helps young children feel physically and emotionally safe and is essential to their development, overall health and future academic success.

Kids benefit from consistent and repeated positive messages across community settings where they live, learn and play. MSU Extension’s BeSafe: Safe, Affirming and Fair Environments program says that creating a climate in childcare that helps children feel a sense of belonging and that is rich in character traits such as caring, compassion, fairness, trust, responsibility, resilience and courage is fundamental.

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