Many schools have done a great job raising awareness about bullying. Bullying is never okay and needs to be addressed immediately. However, with this heightened awareness, kids may have a hard time differentiating between bullying and mean behavior. Understanding the difference is important as it helps kids know how to respond. Let’s start with some definitions.
Definitions: Mean versus Bullying Behavior
Mean behavior is saying or doing something to hurt a person.
Bullying is a cruel act done on purpose and repeatedly that involves a real or perceived imbalance of power. Bullying behavior can be physical, verbal, or social and occur online or in person.
QUICK QUIZ—Is it Mean or Bullying?
- JD tells Rubin that he can’t play soccer at recess because he’s the worst player in the whole grade. Mean or bullying?
Answer: It appears that JD is being mean. His words are intended to hurt Rubin, but there’s no evidence of repetitive behavior or a power imbalance.
- Maya’s making fun of Sophia for wearing the same pants to school every day. In gym class, Maya says Sophia smells, and later she writes the words “You stink” on her locker. Mean or bullying?
Answer: Maya’s acting like a bully. She’s making fun of Sophia repeatedly and intending to cause harm. There’s also evidence of a power imbalance.
Context is important to understand meanness versus bullying. Regardless, both behaviors are not okay and can be painful for kids as well as parents. So how do parents respond to best support their kids?
Responding to Mean Behavior
Dealing with mean behavior is a part of life that we all learn how to handle. With guidance and support, kids can develop skills to deal with meanness, such as speaking up, learning resilience, and putting energy into kind friendships instead.
As parents, it’s important to validate a child’s feelings when someone is mean to them and help them decide how they’d like to respond. There is no “right” response because every situation is different. And many situations do not need a response. Parents can help their kids explore responses, such as:
- Taking care of themselves and navigating their emotions.
- Thinking about both sides of the conflict to understand their possible role; situations are often more complicated than they appear.
- Standing up for themselves while being respectful to avoid adding more meanness to the situation.
- Choosing not to get involved. Some issues kids may decide to drop because they are less important, or they may want to see how things unfold and decide later.
Signe Whitson, author and national educator on bullying, has seen a rise in situations of mean or rude behavior incorrectly classified as bullying. She says, “I have already begun to see that gratuitous references to bullying are creating a bit of a ‘little boy who cried wolf’ phenomenon. In other words, if kids and parents improperly classify rudeness and mean behavior as bullying—whether to simply make conversation or to bring attention to their short-term discomfort—we all run the risk of becoming so sick and tired of hearing the word that this actual life-and-death issue among young people loses its urgency as quickly as it rose to prominence.”
Responding to Bullying Behavior
Bullying, on the other hand, is a different matter and needs to be addressed. Experts agree that bullying entails three key elements: an intent to harm, a power imbalance, and repeated acts or threats of aggressive behavior. Bullies try to have more social or physical power over their targets. They try to make their targets cry, feel scared, or lose their temper. And bullying has lasting adverse effects.
Even though it may be hard, encourage kids not to give bullies their power. Help them practice standing tall and pretending to be bored or unimpressed. Then walk away and get help from a trusted adult.
Kids develop social and emotional skills at different stages, so unkind behavior is unfortunately common. These painful moments provide families an opportunity to revisit conversations about meanness and bullying and how to navigate situations. They also offer an opportunity for parents to make sure their kids feel loved and heard and to help them navigate uncomfortable emotions. If your child is feeling overwhelmed by mean or bullying behavior, be sure to get support from the school or a professional as well.
Jessica Speer is an author who is focused on helping kids and families thrive. Her book, BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends)? A Girls’ Guide to Happy Friendships, releases August 2021. She has a master’s degree in social sciences and explores social-emotional topics in ways that connect with preteens and teens. Visit www.JessicaSpeer.com to learn more, follow her blog, or connect on social media.