How to Recognize Bullying

Those who bully are always more powerful or are perceived to be more powerful than those who are bullied. The person who is targeted usually learns to fear the power of those who bully them.

Bullying is often planned and systematic. It may occur over a short period of time or go on indefinitely.

The following elements must be present for bullying to be part of the picture:
  • An imbalance of power
  • The intention to control, dominate and harm
  • Distress of the person bullied, often accompanied by fear
  • Satisfaction on the part of the person doing the bullying to see that their actions have negative effects on the person bullied
  • The existence of a threat – subtle or outright – of more bullying

To understand bullying and how to respond appropriately, it is important to recognize the imbalance of power and how it operates. For example, bullying often escalates as the incidents are repeated and the power imbalance becomes increasingly entrenched. Bullying occurs when a power imbalance is abused. The elements above guide us in identifying the dynamics that characterize bullying.

Other common features of bullying:

  • People who bully may operate alone or with accomplices and target one or more persons.
  • Those who bully often feel justified.
  • In a school bullying can happen anywhere and anyone can do the bullying, adults and young people.

How Do We Know If it Is Conflict or Bullying?

Conflict is a natural and normal part of life. Bullying is not. We try to manage and resolve conflict, but we try to prevent and eliminate bullying.

Unfortunately, we tend to confuse daily conflict with bullying, even though they represent very different behaviours. Conflict is an inevitable part of life, while bullying never is and never should be viewed as such.

It can take many forms, and is sometimes subtle, sometimes overt. It is sometimes easy to detect, and sometimes hidden from view. Conflict and bullying require entirely different responses.

Conflict consists of a disagreement or a difference of opinion or interests between two or more people who share similar levels of personal power or social status. In a conflict, there are two sides to the story. Those involved in a conflict may disagree vehemently and emotions may run high. When badly managed, it may result in some form of aggression.

Though we may not like it, we accept that conflict is part of everyday life, and we all strive in some fashion to manage it… or avoid it. That is why we have developed “conflict resolution” training, for example. Learning how to resolve conflict constructively is a very important life skill for young people and adults alike. Cultivating the capacity for healthy communication between children or teens involved in a conflict is fundamental to fostering healthy relationships and a healthy school environment and society.

Bullying is an entirely different challenge. Distinguishing it from conflict is essential for effective bullying prevention.

Unlike conflict, bullying is something we aim to prevent and eliminate.

As a society, we will always strive to prevent bullying, where someone is being targeted, and the intention is to cause harm to the other. In the case of bullying, there aren’t two sides to the story.

Unfortunately, conflict resolution strategies are sometimes mistakenly implemented when bullying occurs, or inadvertently used as bullying prevention strategies. This confusion can lead to damaging and even dangerous situations for those who are targeted.

Imagine, as a young person who has been bullied, having to face the person(s) bullying you - your tormentor(s).

Can we then expect that student to talk openly, to divulge the pain they are feeling, to share their fears? Would they feel safe, strong and free in this environment?

Indeed, we are confusing problems and identifying a problematic response. A student will undoubtedly feel unsafe when asked to confront the person who is bullying them, and may in fact fear even greater repercussions should they break the "code of silence". By putting students in this situation, we risk worsening the trauma of those targeted, by minimizing the real impact and assuming that there are two sides to the story that need to be discussed and resolved. This could make the person who is bullied feel blamed for the bullying occurring.

When the core elements of bullying are present, conflict resolution interventions are not recommended.

Other Situations Which Differ From Bullying

By using the elements of bullying as a guide, we can see that the following situations are not bullying:

  • Self-defense: A child or teen who defends against a bullying situation.
  • Vengeance: A child or teen who seeks revenge after having experienced bullying.
  • Conflict leading to a fight between two young people who have the same level of power and both contribute to the situation.
It is important to use a consistent approach in all cases of abuse, including bullying. When we're able to tailor the way that we intervene to suit the very different needs and dynamics that exist between young people, we increase the likelihood that they will accept our intervention and perceive it as fair. To do this, it is important to consider the elements that distinguish a bullying situation.