Friends or Frenemies? Understanding Bullying in Schools

It is important to distinguish between rude, mean, and bullying so that teachers, school administrators, police, youth workers, parents, and kids all know what to pay attention to and when to intervene.
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In our culture of 24/7 news cycles and social media connectedness, we have a better opportunity than ever before to bring attention to important issues. In the last few years, Americans have collectively paid attention to the issue of bullying like never before; millions of school children have been given a voice, all 50 states in the U.S. have passed anti-bullying legislation, and thousands of adults have been trained in important strategies to keep kids both physically and emotionally safe in their classrooms and schools. These are significant achievements.

At the same time, however, gratuitous references to bullying have already begun to create a bit of a "little boy who cried wolf" phenomena. When kids and parents improperly classify rudeness and mean behavior as bullying, we all run the risk of becoming so sick and tired of hearing the word that this critical safety issue among young people loses its urgency as quickly as it rose to prominence.

It is important to distinguish between rude, mean, and bullying so that teachers, school administrators, police, youth workers, parents, and kids all know what to pay attention to and when to intervene. Below, you will find clear definitions and distinguishing features of each type of unwanted behavior, followed by real-life scenarios that you -- and the kids in your life -- can review to make sense of the distinctions:

Rude = Inadvertently saying or doing something that hurts someone else.

A particular relative of mine (whose name it would be rude of me to mention) often looks my curly red hair up and down before inquiring in a sweet tone, "Have you ever thought about coloring your hair?" or "I think you look so much more sophisticated when you straighten your hair, Signe." This doting family member thinks she is helping me. The rest of the people in the room cringe at her boldness and I am left to wonder if being a brunette would suit me. Her comments can sting, but remembering that they come from a place of love -- in her mind -- helps me to remember what to do with the advice...

From kids, rudeness might look more like burping in someone's face, jumping ahead in line, bragging about achieving the highest grade, or not allowing someone to sit next to them on the bus. On their own, any of these behaviors could appear as elements of bullying, but when looked at in context, incidents of rudeness are usually spontaneous, unplanned inconsideration, based on thoughtlessness, poor manners, or narcissism, but not meant to actually hurt someone.

Mean = Purposefully saying or doing something to hurt someone once (or maybe twice.)

The main distinction between "rude" and "mean" behavior has to do with intention; while rudeness is often unintentional, mean behavior very much aims to hurt or depreciate someone. Kids are mean to each other when they criticize clothing, appearance, intelligence, coolness, or just about anything else they can find to denigrate. Meanness also sounds like words spoken in anger -- impulsive cruelty that is often regretted in short order. Very often, mean behavior in kids is motivated by angry feelings and/or the mis-guided goal of propping themselves up in comparison to the person they are putting down. Commonly, meanness in kids sounds an awful lot like:

  • "I hate you!"

  • "You are so fat/stupid/ugly."
  • "You suck at soccer."
  • Make no mistake; mean behaviors can wound deeply and adults can make a huge difference in the lives of young people when they hold kids accountable for being mean. Yet, meanness is different from bullying in important ways that should be understood and differentiated when it comes to intervention.

    Bullying = Intentionally aggressive behavior, repeated over time, that involves an imbalance of power.

    Experts agree that bullying entails three key elements: an intent to harm, a power imbalance, and repeated acts or threats of aggressive behavior. Kids who bully say or do something intentionally hurtful to others and they keep doing it, with no sense of regret or remorse -- even when targets of bullying show or express their hurt or tell the aggressors to stop. Bullying may be physical, verbal, relational, or carried out via technology.

    Rude, Mean or Bullying?

    Scenario 1: Kayla tells MacKenzie that she can't sit with her on the bus today because she is saving the seat for a girl from her Social Studies class.

    Answer: Kayla's behavior may well be perceived by MacKenzie as rude, but there is no evidence of intentional meanness, repetitive behavior or a power imbalance. MacKenzie's best bet is to keep calm, not take Kayla's words personally, and find somewhere else to sit for the day's ride to school. Parents and friends are most helpful to MacKenzie when they validate her feelings, but encourage her to keep the one-time incident in perspective and not dwell on it.

    Scenario 2: Lucas tells Damien that he can't share the Legos because he is the worst builder in the whole first grade.

    Answer: Lucas is being mean. It appears that his words are intended to hurt Damien. Yet there is no evidence that this is a pattern of behavior or that other kids are chiming in to create a power imbalance. Sometimes first graders are grumpy. Sometimes they are possessive. Our role as adults is to help all of the kids learn the social skills needed to treat each other with kindness and dignity.

    Scenario 3: Talia makes plans to go to the school dance with her new friend, Gwen. Katie tells Talia that if she hangs out at the dance with Gwen that everyone will think she is a total loser and no one will like her anymore. At lunch the next day, Katie convinces everyone that it would be a really funny joke to all laugh out loud when Talia approached the lunch table.

    Answer: Katie is acting like a bully. She is creating an unfair balance of power by getting all of the girls at the lunch table to laugh at Talia. She is also using words like "everyone" and "no one" to threaten Talia about how she will be socially excluded if she does not do what Katie wants her to do.

    Bullying is often about power and social control. Katie is attempting to boost her social status by pushing Talia down. The best way to counter Katie's socially aggressive behavior is for one (or more!) of the other kids at the lunch table to speak up and tell her to stop. It takes courage for kids to move beyond being bystanders, but studies show us that when they do intervene, incidents of bullying come to an end very quickly -- usually in under 10 seconds, in fact!

    Scenario 4:
    Devin and David are friends. In school, they had an argument. Devin called David a name and David shoved him out of his way.

    Answer: Devin and David are engaging in rough play, or rude behavior. This is not classified as bullying because the boys are usually friends, the power balance is relatively equal and the boys are not intending to harm each other. Young people with a pre-existing friendship are often well-equipped to manage this level of conflict independently. If guidance is needed from adults, it is best delivered in the form of instruction on how to work through arguments in dignified, non-physical ways.

    Scenario 5: Maggie is making fun of the fact that Jessie hangs out with the boys at recess and wears long basketball shorts to school every day. In gym class, Maggie told her to go play on the boys' team and the day before in homeroom, she wrote the words "You're so gay" on Jessie's desk.

    Answer: Maggie is acting like a bully. She is making fun of Jessie repeatedly, with intention to cause harm.Slurs based on sexual orientation are particularly cruel for young people and should be taken seriously by adults wishing to create a positive school culture.

    Scenario 6:
    Brady told JP he would beat him up if he came to school the next day, then shoved JP out of his way. During math class, he spit on JP's jacket and kicked his chair out from under him. He threatened to punch JP if JP told the teacher.

    Answer: Brady is acting like a bully. He is engaging in repetitive cruel behavior, designed to hurt JP. He is using intimidation and threats to create a power imbalance. While many kids hesitate to reach out to adults in these kinds of situations, for fear of being called a "tattletale" and making their own situation worse, it is critical that at this level of violence and aggression, JP does not try to go it alone. He needs help from an adult to re-balance the power equation and ensure that no one gets hurt.

    Scenario 7: Emma and Brit play on the same field hockey team and are normally best friends, but have been in an argument for three days. Emma called Brit a "bitch" after practice and Brit send Emma a mean text.

    Answer: Emma and Brit are being mean to each other. They are intending to hurt each other with their words and texts. The girls are normally friends, though, and at this point, this appears to be a mutual argument rather than a repetitive pattern of one-sided cruelty. As in Scenario 4, the girls have a pre-existing friendship which makes them more likely to be able to navigate this level of conflict on their own. If the online aggression escalates and other classmates enter into the fray, the situation could escalate quickly, however. Aware adults should monitor the dynamics and offer help if/when it becomes needed.

    For further information on understanding the nature of conflict and bullying or for strategies on how to help kids manage the dark side of friendship, please visit or check out Signe's latest book, 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools.

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