The difference between bullying and meanness is the subject of a couple articles I recently read.  Each requires a different type of response, and how parents guide their children in understanding this can have long-term consequences.

The Definition of Bullying

“Bullying” is a term that is tossed around pretty easily these days.  There is even a federal definition, from the Centers for Disease Control and the US Department of Education1.  The main elements of the definition include unwanted aggressive behavior, observed or perceived power imbalance, and repetition of behaviors or high likelihood of repetition.

Differences between Bullying and Meanness

In an article on psychologytoday.com, Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD makes the point that bullying and meanness are not necessarily the same thing. Based on the definition, key differences are the power imbalance and repeated nature of abuse.

Let’s face it, kids can be mean.  We all want our children to be kind to one another and we talk to our kids about being kind, but sometimes they just aren’t.  For example, your son had a fight with an older sibling before school, or he’s mad because he left his homework on the kitchen table.  So, when the student in front of him in line doesn’t move fast enough, he gives him a shove, or says something mean.  That’s not bullying.  It’s not good behavior, but it doesn’t rise to the level of bullying.

A big part of what we try to teach our kids during their elementary years relates to self-control.  Wait your turn, don’t be a ball-hog, lose a game gracefully and similar lessons.  We try to teach children to manage their emotions and not take out their frustrations by being mean to others.  We also try to help our kids understand the importance of respect for each other, by not name-calling or making fun of differences.

Reactive, poor behavior (like the shove described above) is very different from bullying.  Bullying is destructive and can have long term emotional consequences.  It’s appropriate for parents and other authorities to become involved if a child is bullied by another.  However, if we categorize all meanness as bullying and intervene, we are sending the wrong message to our children.

The Impact of Parental Intervention

If I intervene for my child, I’m sending the message that he or she isn’t capable of handling the situation.  In an instance of true bullying, that may be the case.  When there is an imbalance of power, real or perceived, between two kids, and the abuse is repeated, a parent should intervene.

However, if my child complains about the behavior of another child and its just plain old meanness, I want my child to feel he or she can handle it.  I don’t want my child to feel weak or incapable.  In a situation where there is meanness, my child has options.  With real bullying, the only option may be to ask for help.

Author Braden Bell suggests that parents not assume their child has been bullied, even if that’s the word used.  They should probe a little deeper and try to assess whether the behavior is really bullying or not.  If not, parents should ask the child to think about his or her options.  This can be difficult, and the child may only be able to focus on the other child’s behavior.  But when parents help their child do some problem solving and consider options for dealing with a situation, it’s a big growth opportunity for the child.  As Bell states in an article from The Washington Post, “learning to honestly evaluate complex situations, look at the dynamics of relationships and respond in a thoughtful way requires and develops discernment, honesty and self-awareness.”

Parents may need to help children think through various options and speculate about how they might work.  But it’s worth the effort to help kids learn to handle situations themselves.  And hopefully such a discussion will also help kids realize how easily their behavior can hurt others, too.