It’s bullying prevention month, so you may be hearing a lot about the problem of bullying and how to address it. But what exactly is bullying? It turns out that defining this problem is not as easy as it might seem.
Perhaps the most commonly used definition is one offered by Dan Olweus, a psychology professor from Norway and one of the world’s leading experts on the subject.
According to Olweus, “Bullying is when someone repeatedly and on purpose says or does mean or hurtful things to another person who has a hard time defending himself or herself.”1
The definition may not say it all
The Olweus definition is a sound starting point for discussions on bullying, but other experts have pointed out some grey areas that require attention when determining if a child is involved in bullying behavior:
- On purpose or not? Some bullies may be too young to know exactly what they are doing and why. In such cases, the bullying may not be done “on purpose,” but it may be bullying nonetheless.
- Was that a joke? A child may perceive a remark as “bullying” when it was intended to be a joke, especially in the case of cyberbullying, where there are no facial cues to help interpret the intention of the remark.
- Who’s in charge? Sometimes bullying takes place between kids of equal standing, which may be especially common in cyberbullying.
- Kids with mental health conditions. Children who suffer from pre-existing mental health issues, such as depression, or are used to being bullied, may be predisposed to assume a negative intent behind a comment or action that isn’t there.2
Normal conflict vs. bullying
Conflict is an inevitable part of human association and resolving conflict constructively, rather than destructively, is a critical skill set that children begin to develop even as infants. The infographic at right (click for a full size version) is a guide to help us consider whether a conflict has crossed into “bullying territory.”3
While parents and teachers can help children learn how to successfully resolve conflict, most children need to learn conflict resolution skills on their own through experience. Aside from problem-solving, one of the most critical conflict resolution skills is for children to know when they can resolve the conflict on their own and when they need help from others.4
Learning to use problem-solving skills to resolve conflict is associated with:
- Increased achievement
- Motivation to learn and improve
- Higher-level reasoning
- Healthy social and cognitive development
- Enriched relationships
- Clarified self-image
- Increased self-confidence
- Resilience in the face of adversity5
On the other hand, the inability to successfully resolve conflict often leads to aggression and violence.
How to tell the difference between bullying and healthy conflict
Drawing a distinction between bullying and day-to-day conflict isn’t always easy, said Emily P. Chapman, MD, medical director of Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota hospitalist program.
“If a child teases a good buddy, it can be in fun,” Dr. Chapman said. “If trust isn’t there, it could be intimidating or alienating, and that is bullying. It’s also likely to be bullying if there is mismatched stature between the ‘teaser’ and the ‘teased’ — older versus younger, popular versus not so popular.”
“Learning how to handle and resolve conflict is important to a child’s psychosocial development,” Dr. Troy said. “If we as parents or other responsible adults constantly intervene to help resolve these conflicts, then we may hinder rather than help the children involved. Bullying is different — it is outside the normal range of conflict, and it can be very harmful if not stopped.”
 The Olweus Bullying Prevention Program, U.S., 2011.
 Dempsey AG, Storch EA. Psychopathology and Health Problems Affecting Involvement in Bullying. Preventing and Treating Bullying and Victimization (2010), Oxford University Press: 107-131.
 Broadbear BC, Broadbear JT. Development of Conflict Resolution Skills in Infancy and Early Childhood. The International Electronic Journal of Health Education (2000);3(4):284-290.
 Johnson DW, Johnson R. Why violence prevention programs don’t work and what does. Educational Leadership (1995);52(5): 63-67.