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Go Ask Mom

Stop Bullying: What's the difference between playground squabbles, bullying

Posted February 23
Updated February 24

Editor's Note: We launched a series on bullying last month, which we are returning to now after a brief hiatus. Check the More on This section for past posts.

How can you tell the difference between bullying and kids just being kids? Don't most kids get into fights or squabbles from time to time? Isn't that a normal part of childhood? 

Nancy Mullin, who has focused her career on bullying prevention over the last couple of decades, says yes. It is normal for kids to tussle physically and verbally from time to time, said Mullin, director of Bullying Prevention Solutions, who works as a trainer, consultant and author for the Olweus Bullying Prevention program.

But those fights and squabbles could be more than just normal kid stuff. Mullin said researchers have highlighted some indicators to help adults determine what's just regular fighting between kids and what's bullying.

First, look at the that balance and power, she said. 

"That power and balance can be very subtle among kids," Mullin said. "If kids are friends or they’re on equal footing, they get into conflicts, they get into fights. That’s what kids do. We help them to develop impulse control."

But it can become bullying behavior when kids aren't at the same level. Those differences can be subtle. Sometimes it's as simple as social status or a difference in cognitive ability or strength, StopBullying.gov says.

In some cases, the popular kids, the ones who are leaders and seem to do everything right in the eyes of adults, are the ones bullying. And the kids, who might have behavior issues or other needs that require regular attention from adults, are the ones getting bullied.

Mullin offered Eddie Haskell, the character from the 1950s and 1960s sitcom "Leave it to Beaver," as an example. Eddie put on a pleasant face for the parents, but was always up to no good when the adults weren't watching. 

"Often times you see popular kids and the ones that even adults like, picking on kids, who often times adults don’t like. So it’s hard for adults to wrap their mind around who is doing" the bullying, she said.

StopBullying.gov lists these risk factors for children who are bullied: 

  • Are perceived as different from their peers, such as being overweight or underweight, wearing glasses or different clothing, being new to a school, or being unable to afford what kids consider “cool”
  • Are perceived as weak or unable to defend themselves
  • Are depressed, anxious, or have low self esteem
  • Are less popular than others and have few friends
  • Do not get along well with others, seen as annoying or provoking, or antagonize others for attention

Another indicator of bullying is that it's not usually just an interaction between one student who bullies and one student who is bullied, StopBullying.gov says. It often involves groups of students who help each other out as they target other kids.

"You look at what we call the bullying circle and the people are kind of on a continuum," Mullin said. There's the bully and his friends, who want to be like the bully, she said. 

StopBullying.gov lists these risk factors for children who bully: 

  • Some are well-connected to their peers, have social power, are overly concerned about their popularity, and like to dominate or be in charge of others.
  • Others are more isolated from their peers and may be depressed or anxious, have low self esteem, be less involved in school, be easily pressured by peers, or not identify with the emotions or feelings of others.
  • Are aggressive or easily frustrated
  • Have less parental involvement or having issues at home
  • Think badly of others
  • Have difficulty following rules
  • View violence in a positive way
  • Have friends who bully others

And then there are the rest.

"You have the kids who maybe aren’t liking the bullying, but they don’t want to to do anything to make waves because they are in with this person now," she said. Some kids just want to stay out of it, a group that Mullin calls the "hear no evil, see no evil group."

Many kids are uncomfortable when they see bullying, but don't know what to do about it. And then you have the rare kid who steps in to stop it, Mullin said.

We'll focus on those last groups - the bystanders - next.

 

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