Argument or Bullying: How to Tell the Difference
Sooner or later, it happens to just about every parent. Your child comes home from school sobbing, “That kid is SO MEAN to me!” It’s enough to make you want to race out, find that other kid, and whack him yourself.But what really happened? Most of the time, as many kids will eventually confess, there are two sides to the story.
Your child may have upset a classmate; or, as commonly happens, two friends misunderstood one another and the problem escalated, distressing them both. But sometimes, there is something worse going on: bullying. Professionals agree: if that’s the case, it’s a big deal, and adults need to move in to stop it.
Here are three key signs that you should be concerned:
Power Imbalance. Arguments happen between peers. When two children feel equal, they can solve problems together. But bullies pick on people they consider weak, says Nathaniel Floyd, Ph.D., executive director of the Institute for Violence Prevention. “It’s psychologically important,” he says, “for the bully to have that person under his control.” One child may physically torment another; but more often (and just as devastating), a bully will jeer and threaten. Children may also try “relational bullying” – hurting other kids by excluding and harassing them.
Intent to Harm. While kids may argue and become angry, they rarely walk into it intending pain. Not so with bullying. Bullies want to hurt other kids, says Virginia Blashill, M.Ed., a program implementation specialist at the Committee for Children, an internationally respected anti-bullying group. “The person doing the bullying takes a certain amount of pleasure in witnessing the pain or humiliation which has been caused.”
Repetition. While bullying may occur just once, it often includes further threats. In severe cases, bullies target their victims and pursue them. Floyd adds, with regret, that this isn’t “just a phase.” Adults must step in, or violent habits can continue for life.
Extreme as these behaviors may sound, researchers have found that they happen often in schools. What can parents do? First, take a deep breath and listen, listen, listen to your child. Feelings of humiliation and self-blame can be red flags for victims; if your child is acting differently, pay attention. Second, if you do think you see signs of bullying, treat the school as your ally. No school wants bullying to take hold, but, as Blashill says, adults can easily miss it – “especially the more subtle, social forms… like exclusion and spreading rumors.” Bring schools the facts and you’ll be giving school professionals the information they need to change the situation.
And finally: be a model yourself. Use fair negotiation and problem-solving strategies whenever you can. Bullying is bad news, but there is good news too: schools are doing more than ever to stop it, and parents can help.