Bullying Versus Conflict

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Bullying vs. Conflict: What's the Difference?

Effectively preventing and responding to bullying at a youth-serving organization requires that we understand the difference between normal peer-to-peer conflict, which is inevitable among children, and the more serious problem of bullying.

Conflict can be defined as a struggle between two or more children who are in disagreement. Most conflicts arise in the moment because children, of the same relative amount of power, see a particular situation from two different points of view. What differentiates conflict from bullying is that the conflict is usually resolved, doesn’t develop into a pattern, and both children are equally upset.

Typically, bullying can be defined by three specific characteristics:

  1. A pattern of behavior is established, and the behavior is repeated over a prolonged period of time.
  2. An imbalance of power, meaning a child feels threatened by someone’s words or actions and their perception is that they won’t be able to protect themselves. This imbalance can be related to size or age, but it also can be created by popularity (social status), race, ethnicity, faith, gender, sexual orientation (real or perceived) or socioeconomic status.
  3. Purposeful with intent, meaning the aggressor is deliberately setting out to hurt, make fun of, embarrass, or exclude others.

The characteristics of bullying may be relatively consistent and easy to define. Yet the way these characteristics play out in the real world can vary dramatically. In some instances, bullying may manifest itself as physical abuse—punching, hitting, tripping a child up. In others, it may involve verbal teasing, or social exclusion.

Often, the severity of bullying will escalate over time, starting out as name-calling and progressing toward physical violence or even peer-to-peer sexual abuse. Bullying can also happen partially or even exclusively online—with victims being targeted by email or via social networks.

Another way to identify bullying is to pay attention to the reactions of those involved. While all parties involved in a conflict may get upset, bullies tend to show little or no remorse while the victims of bullying are often left deeply hurt or distressed.

Once you've identified bullying, it's important to respond thoughtfully and it's equally important to start shaping a culture where bullying cannot take hold.

Responding to Bullying vs. Conflict

Once you've identified bullying, it's important to respond thoughtfully. Responding to a bullying situation looks much difference than responding to normal peer-to-peer conflict.

Responding to peer-to-peer conflict

In cases of conflict, it is appropriate for staff to mediate or facilitate a conversation with both children. This is an opportunity to coach and guide children about effectively navigating conflict and differences in perspectives. Its important to tell the children that conflict is okay, and it is normal. It's also important to give both children time to cool off and take a deep breath. Encourage each child to share their feelings using I-Statements and listen to the other person when they share their feelings. Once they have a mutual understanding, help them brainstorm solutions and agree on a plan moving forward.

Responding to bullying

When you've identified a situation as bullying, you want to intervene immediately. It's important to separate the children involved, so that they don't have to speak in front of each other. Many times the person being bullied won't feel comfortable sharing their concerns in front of the bully. Bullies often times don't show remorse and will deny their actions. When speaking to all parties involved, it's important not to make assumptions and to explore what is happening. Bullying should always be reported to leadership to ultimately decide how to handle the situation.

We have created scenarios related to bullying for you and your staff to analyze. Each scenario will ask you to identify whether it demonstrates bullying or normal conflict.

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