Mean or Bullying Behavior? Helping Kids Understand the Difference

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, I’ve found that many kids have a hard time differentiating between bullying and mean behavior. Understanding the difference helps kids know how to navigate each situation.

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.

Boys playing basketball

QUICK QUIZ – Is it Mean or Bullying?

  1. Jake 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 Jake is being mean. His words are intended to hurt Marco, but there’s no evidence of repetitive behavior or a power imbalance.

  1. Molly’s making 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 intention to cause harm. There’s also evidence of a power imbalance.

Girl whispering in another girl's ear

Context is important to understand meanness versus bullying. But regardless, these behaviors are not okay.

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 and putting energy into kind friendships instead.

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

Bullying, on other hand, is a different matter and needs to be addressed. 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.

Since kids develop healthy social and emotional skills at different stages, unkind behavior is unfortunately common. These moments provide families an opportunity to revisit conversations about meanness and bullying and how to navigate situations. And if your child is feeling overwhelmed by mean or bullying behavior, be sure to get support from the school as well.

Additional resources:

Bystander Revolution

Cyberbullying Research Center

Stomp Out Bullying

PASS IT ON. Jessica Speer’s weekly BLOG focuses on helping kids and families thrive. Posts offer simple ideas to help kids and families connect & foster healthy relationships. If you know someone who might appreciate this content, please pass it on! Click here to follow blog via email or Facebook.

Published by Jessica Speer, Author

Author and Advocate for Kids and Families

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