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Not all unkindness is bullying. Defining the differences . . .

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By Mary Struck, Publisher/Editor

The new school year has barely begun, and the topic of school bullying is once again at the forefront.

Definitions of bullying have varied so much; parents and educators have often been confused. Some experts argue the word is overused, creating a detrimental effect when parents or students cry wolf too many times and begin to lose credibility.

Braden Bell, a teacher, and a parent who writes for The Washington Post warned in an August 2018 article that in his work as a teacher he’s noticed in recent years that “parents frequently default to the term ‘bullying’ to describe a lot of undesirable interactions their children have with peers.” Bell cautions that bullying is tragically real, with devastating consequences, but writes that “bullying also has a very specific meaning.”

Bell said that over the years he’s seen parents “unwittingly cultivate fragility by misusing the term bullying.” He said that exaggerating the intentions and behaviors of the other children while minimizing their own child’s actions and choices began to cause their kids to see themselves as victims, powerless to change the situation. “As those children grew older, they demonstrated less resilience, sometimes publicly,” wrote Bell. “The kids got more easily and deeply upset about perceived offenses, including situations that were unpleasant, but weren’t really bullying. Beyond stunting their emotional maturity, their heightened reactions had negative social consequences, as peers responded by disengaging from them.”

Bell said that it’s essential to make sure children understand that someone can be insensitive, thoughtless, immature, mean, and even aggressive without it being bullying. Here’s why, according to Bell: “For the rest of their lives, our children’s happiness at home and success at work will be determined by how well they can navigate relationships and resolve difficult issues. If we write every unpleasant encounter off as bullying, we don’t prepare them well. At a minimum, we are modeling misdiagnosis.”

Bell also warned that “accusing a child of being a bully can have severe social, emotional and academic repercussions as accusations can quickly coalesce into a label that is hard to escape. Being labeled a bully often means being ostracized and isolated, with no obvious way to repair or reclaim a reputation.” Bell goes so far as to say that “Accusing a child of being a bully can be a form of bullying.”

Eileen Kennedy-Moore, an author and clinical psychologist based in Princeton, N.J., wrote in an article in Psychology Today: “When we fail to distinguish between bullying and ordinary meanness, we trivialize the very serious cases of peer abuse. Also, calling every act of meanness bullying sends an unhealthy message: It says to kids, ‘You’re fragile. You can’t handle it if anyone is even slightly unkind to you.”

Wisconsin anti-bullying laws do not include definitions of prohibited behavior but do require districts to adopt a policy prohibiting bullying by pupils. Wisconsin anti-bullying laws do not specify content of bullying policies, although districts may adopt a model bullying policy developed by the department of education. Wisconsin school districts must distribute copies of the policy annually to all pupils enrolled in the school district and to their parents or guardians and must provide a copy of the policy upon request.

How do we distinguish what is bullying?

In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Education released the first federal uniform definition of bullying for research and surveillance. According to, the core elements of the definition include: unwanted aggressive behavior; observed or perceived power imbalance; and repetition of behaviors or high likelihood of repetition. It’s important to note that the actions must include all three of those criteria to be considered bullying. One or two acts of undesirable behavior  or two students mutually arguing or fighting is not considered bullying. There must also be a power imbalance and repetitive behavior.

What constitutes a power imbalance? The Bullying Prevention Training Course lists physical characteristics such as age, size and strength; popularity or association with peers; background/demographic characteristics such as being a member of a majority/minority group; socioeconomic status; abilities and skills (academic, physical, artistic); access to money, resources, and information; being outnumbered; presence of weapons.

“The current definition acknowledges two modes and four types by which youth can be bullied or can bully others,” says “The two modes of bullying include direct (e.g., bullying that occurs in the presence of a targeted youth) and indirect (e.g., bullying not directly communicated to a targeted youth such as spreading rumors). In addition to these two modes, the four types of bullying include broad categories of physical, verbal, relational (e.g., efforts to harm the reputation or relationships of the targeted youth), and damage to property.

According to the guidelines, bullying can happen in any number of places, contexts, or locations. Sometimes that place is online or through a cellphone. Bullying that occurs using technology (including but not limited to phones, email, chat rooms, instant messaging, and online posts) is considered electronic bullying and is viewed as a context or location.

Electronic bullying or cyberbullying involves primarily verbal aggression (e.g., threatening or harassing electronic communications) and relational aggression (e.g., spreading rumors electronically). Electronic bullying or cyberbullying can also involve property damage resulting from electronic attacks that lead to the modification, dissemination, damage, or destruction of a youth’s privately stored electronic information.

Some bullying actions can fall into criminal categories, such as harassment, hazing, or assault.

What is not considered bullying according to most experts, is being disliked by someone, being excluded, mutual arguments, fights or heated disagreements (including electronic), being told something someone doesn’t like about you, or isolated acts of meanness or aggression.

Bullying is not usually a simple interaction between a student who bullies and a student who is bullied, according to Instead, it often involves groups of students who support each other in bullying other students. In other words, a group of popular students “ganging up” on one or two unpopular students and repeatedly demeaning them meets the criteria of bullying.

What if an unpopular student insults a popular student a couple of times? Does that justify a group of popular kids ganging up on him and repeatedly bashing him on Snapchat calling him a bully? No. One or two insults between students is not considered bullying unless there’s a threat. The insulted popular student should learn to stand up for himself without needing to mobilize a gang to conduct a smear campaign for him over a couple of nonthreatening insults.

In some cases, one student tormenting another does qualify as bullying. If there is a power imbalance and the aggressive behavior is repetitive and unwanted with the target feeling hopeless with no escape, that would not only qualify as bullying, but can be a violation of state harassment laws.

Warning signs of bullying that parents should look out for

Kids may be getting bullied if you notice the following: Unexplainable injuries; lost or destroyed clothing, books, electronics, or jewelry; frequent headaches or stomach aches; feeling sick or faking illness; changes in eating habits, like suddenly skipping meals or binge eating. Kids may come home from school hungry because they did not eat lunch; difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares; declining grades; loss of interest in schoolwork; or not wanting to go to school; sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations; feelings of helplessness or decreased self esteem; self-destructive behaviors such as running away from home; harming themselves; or talking about suicide.

Signs a child is bullying others

Kids may be bullying others if they: get into physical or verbal fights; have friends who bully others; are increasingly aggressive; get sent to the principal’s office or to detention frequently; have unexplained extra money or new belongings; blame others for their problems; don’t accept responsibility for their actions; are competitive and worry about their reputation or popularity.

Bell asks, “How do we respond when a child encounters unkindness that isn’t bullying? While the answers are as varied as the situations and the children involved,” says Bell, “I’ve found some success with a simple question: ‘What are your choices?’ And, as a follow-up, ‘What are the likely outcomes of those choices?’” As the child inevitably continues to talk about the other person’s behavior, he recommends trying to listen and show empathy, while redirecting to asking, “Yes, but what are your choices?” Bell said this can be empowering for the child as they work through a challenge and come up with solutions, rather than leaving them feeling trapped and hopeless.

Sometimes the child’s personality is just not a match with a particular school’s dominant  culture. Especially at a small school. If all attempts to resolve a situation have been exhausted, there’s nothing wrong or humiliating in shopping for a better alternative, or home-schooling. Adults aren’t expected to “be friends” with everyone or stay at a job where they are miserable. Thankfully, students also have alternatives and it shouldn’t be viewed as a sign of weakness,  defeat, or loss of status for them to find their place and their people somewhere else.

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