Be Careful Who You Call a Bully

Discover why labeling everything bullying waters down the message


Bullying is a hot topic right now. Almost every day, there is mention of a bullying incident in the news. As a result, the issue is at the top of everyone’s mind. While this is a good thing because it increases awareness of a very serious issue, it also can create problems when people label every bad behavior bullying.

It is important to remember that while you may be offended by what people have said or done to you or to your child, this bad behavior does not automatically mean they are bullies.

Sometimes people are just being blunt. Other times, they are being mean or disrespectful. But that does not mean that they are bullying you or your child. The key is to understand that people can be rude and unkind, but that does not mean they are bullying.

What qualifies as a bullying incident?

For something to be considered bullying it consists of three elements. First, there is a power imbalance between the bully and the victim. Second, the bully has done multiple things to the victim over a period of time. And third, the intent of the person is to harm the other person in some way.These actions might include everything from name-calling and physical bullying to cyberbullying and ostracism. The key is that in order for it to be bullying, there has to be more than a one-time incident. 

For example, when a student takes another student’s chair in the lunchroom, they are not bullying. They are being rude.

However, if one student intentionally takes another student’s chair every day, then that is bordering on bullying.

Likewise, if a student throws something at another student, that is inappropriate, unacceptable and mean, but it does not qualify as bullying. It also doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed by school administrators.

But it doesn’t qualify as bullying unless there is a pattern to the behavior. In other words, the student is throwing something, saying something or doing something on a regular basis to the student.

Why does labeling everything bullying matter?

When people label everything bullying, the message about bullying gets watered down. And eventually people stop listening. The word bullying loses it meaning and people can no longer differentiate between bullying and unkind behavior. Doing so also reduces opportunities to clearly identify behaviors that lead to toxic school and work environments. They have heard the term bullying used so much, that they have stopped listening.

How can I tell the difference between a bully and a mean person?

The best way to identify if someone is a bully or not is to ask these three questions. Is the person’s behavior repetitive? Is there an imbalance of power? Is there an intention to harm another person?

Repetitive behaviors. Bullying exists when actions and words are repeated over and over again.

In other words, when your son’s friend gets testy with your child once, he is not bullying your child. Likewise, when you have a disagreement over policy with a coworker, your coworker is not bullying you. These are examples of normal conflict and not bullying.

Additionally, disappointments over not getting something you wanted for yourself or your child does not qualify as bullying either. Negative actions and words become bullying when you see them consistently from the same person over and over. 

Imbalance of power. Sometimes an imbalance of power exists simply because one person is bigger or stronger than another. Other times the imbalance of power exists because one person is popular and can turn the group against the victim. Still, there are other instances when people in subordinate positions have power over others because of the control they have attained.

Intent to harm. For behavior to be considered bullying, the intention behind the actions is to harm another person. In other words, the goal is to humiliate, sabotage or intimidate the other person. Some people mistake constructive criticism as bullying. They also assume they are being bullied every time they do not get their way. That’s why it is important to look at the intentions behind the message. Is the person really bullying you or your child or are you simply hurt or angry because things did not go your way?

Remember, if all three of these bullying elements are not present, then the actions or words are just rude or disrespectful. While you do not have to accept these behaviors either, you want to avoid labeling them bullying. For bullying prevention to work, we need to recognize the difference between bullying and everything else.

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