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Many schools have done a great job raising awareness about bullying. Bullying is never okay and needs to be addressed immediately. With this heightened awareness, kids may have a hard time differentiating between bullying and mean behavior. Here are some definitions to help. 

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.

Quick Quiz: Is it Mean or Bullying?

1. JD tells Marco that he can’t play basketball 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 Marco, but there’s no evidence of repetitive behavior or a power imbalance.

2. Molly makes fun of Piper for wearing the same pants to school every day. In gym class, Molly says Piper smells and later, she writes the words “You stink” on her desk. Mean or bullying?

Answer: Molly’s acting like a bully. She’s making fun of Piper repeatedly with the intention to cause harm. There’s also evidence of a power imbalance.

Context is important to understand meanness versus bullying. When it comes to mean behavior, there is often an underlying conflict between those involved. 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 develop skills to deal with meanness, such as speaking up, learning resilience, getting help, and putting energy into kind friendships instead.

As parents, it’s important to validate a child’s feelings when someones mean to them and help them decide how they’d like to respond (ignore, speak up, etc.).

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” phenomena. 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 negative 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 healthy 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 parents an opportunity to make sure their kids feel loved, heard and 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.

Additional Resources:

Bystander Revolution

Cyberbullying Research Center

Stomp Out Bullying

Jessica Speer is an author focused on helping kids and families thrive. Her book, BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends)? A Girls Guide to Happy Friendships releases July 2021. 

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