Wednesday / July 24

Bullying: What It Is, and What It Isn’t


Contributed by Lisa Hinkelman

Bullying has become one of the hottest topics of discussions among parents, educators, and the media. Adults are at a loss as to what they should to do address situations of bullying—and kids are not routinely reaching out for support from the adults in their lives when they are experiencing bullying.


For behaviors to be considered bullying they must be: aggressive, include an imbalance of power, and happen more than once.

One of the biggest observations I have made in my work with parents, teachers, and counselors is that there are two perspectives: One group has a very difficult time believing that bullying is as pervasive as it is and believe that kids need to “toughen up”.  In some of these cases, we see intense and serious situations overlooked by adults because they simply categorize these interactions as “kids being kids”. There remains a generation of adults who believe that “these kids need to get a thicker skin” and that “we all got bullied growing up, and we all learn to deal with it, and we all turned out just fine”.

The second group is of the mindset that every negative interaction that happens between kids is categorized as “bullying” and that there must be an imposed intervention and consequences. This school of thought makes little differentiation between kids who aren’t being nice to each other and kids who are being threatening, hostile, or damaging toward other kids. In these scenarios, I often see parents swoop in and try to “fix” the situation by calling the school administration, the other kid’s parents, or by directly addressing the “bully” themselves.

The unfortunate reality is that neither of these approaches are best for kids and both leave them ill-equipped to effectively handle tough situations. In general, for behaviors to be considered bullying they must be: aggressive, include an imbalance of power, and happen more than once. Consider the following points when dealing with situations of potential bullying:

Not every unattractive behavior is bullying.

Kids get in arguments, they make fun of each other, they exclude each other, and sometimes they get in physical fights. These behaviors are not automatically bullying. Are they damaging? Yes! Do we want to improve the interactions that kids have with one another? Absolutely! However, describing any untoward behavior that kids engage in as bullying is minimizing the true definition of the word, and has become an over utilized descriptor of any negative interpersonal behavior displayed by students.

A critical element of effective bullying prevention is to establish a reasonable and shared definition of what is bullying and what is simple disrespect or meanness. I hear many parents and teachers say that with the current focus locally and nationally on bullying prevention, every activity that happens between kids that is not positive is being defined as “bullying”. The reality is that kids are sometimes not nice to each other, and adults are sometimes not nice to each other, but that doesn’t mean that disrespectful behavior is always bullying.

Someone telling you that they don’t like your outfit, they think you’re fat, they don’t like your hairstyle, may be mean, rude or inconsiderate, but it’s not definitively bullying. Unless the behavior is aggressive, persistent and pervasive, we must be careful of automatically defining it as bullying.

When a kid tells you that he/she is being bullied, your response will determine if they ever tell you anything serious again. 

Our reaction and response to disclosures from kids about the tough situations that they are dealing with is critically important to the future of our open communication with them. When kids share that they have experienced bullying and we tell them simply to “toughen up” or to “quit being so soft”, the next time that the experience a similar situation and are negatively impacted by it, they are much less likely to tell us about it. Conversely, if they share with us their experience and we respond by calling the school, calling the parent, and confronting the other kid, we completely diminish the chances that we will be the go-to person that kids will talk to about their challenges.

Only about 11% of kids say that they would tell their parents if they were experiencing cyberbullying. In my mind, this is much more a lesson to adults on how they respond and react to kids than it is to kids on how they should automatically feel safe talking to the adults in their life. If, as a kid, I can’t predict how you will react when I tell you something, or if I feel that your reaction might embarrass me or make things worse, I would rather keep my mouth shut and deal with the situation on my own than have to manage my stuff AND your stuff.

We’ve got to listen to kids, affirm their feelings, and believe what they tell us. We have a responsibility to help them make sense of what is happening in their lives and to develop the ability to manage their relationships effectively.

Kids who are overly-protected from handling disappointment, sadness, and conflict fail to develop effective coping skills to handle interpersonal and relationship challengesincluding bullying.

There has been a great deal of attention paid to the phenomenon of “helicopter parenting” or the generation of parents who hover over their kids and who plan and execute every element of their lives. From deciding what homeroom their elementary student should be in, to who their middle school child should go to the school dance with, to gathering job applications on behalf of their high school student, to planning the course curriculum for their college-aged child, parents want to ensure that their children are successful and experience as little disappointment or failure as possible.

Now, I must admit, I have never met a helicopter parent who truly recognized that they were a helicopter parent, nor have I met a parent who consciously realized that their behavior was detrimental to their kids, but they kept doing the same things. The reality is that when we consistently protect kids from sadness, disappointment, or failure, we rob them of the opportunity to develop coping skills. We do not provide the environment to experience small setbacks at regular intervals of their development, thus they do not develop the requisite skills to handle the typical challenges of life.

Sometimes life sucks and we feel alone, confused, and vulnerable. If I, as a young adult, have never felt these feelings before because I was constantly protected by my parents, the first time that I experience these emotions as a grown up I probably won’t know how to handle them effectively. This is in no way to say that we should turn a blind-eye to kids who are being bullied because it will establish some type of “character”; rather it is to say that when we help kids develop coping skills in one area of life, they can readily apply those skills to other domains.

Kids (and adults!) will always have difficulty, tension, competition, and disappointment in relationships.  These characteristics are inherent in interpersonal interactions so we must develop the skills early on to manage these challenges. We can help kids by:

  • Teaching them to recognize the elements of healthy vs. unhealthy relationships. Relationships that are characterized by controlling, invasive, demanding, or demeaning behavior are not acceptable and kids need to know that they have a right to be safe and respected in all of their relationships.
  • Teaching them the difference between passive, aggressive, and assertive communication and when to use each. Understanding how to appropriately and effectively stand up for yourself is a skill that takes lots of practice to develop. From telling a friend that they can’t copy your math homework, to standing up for someone who is being bullied on the bus, to talking to your teacher about a test question that you got right but was marked wrong, appropriate assertive communication is a specific skills that doesn’t come easily for most of us. Kids (and adults) tend to have a much easier time being passive, aggressive, or even passive-aggressive, than they do being assertive.
  • Helping them identify supportive adults in their life that they can talk to about important issues. Kids need to have adults that they can talk to about the tough things going on in their lives. They need adults who will believe them, validate them, and support them. Sometimes these adults are parents, but often – especially around middle school and high school – these adults may be teachers, counselors, coaches, and other mentors.

As we grow up, we are constantly navigating through tough relationships. We have friends who hurt our feelings, employers who disrespect us, strangers who are rude to us, and family members who drive us crazy—these are expected and typical parts of life – and hopefully, we learn the healthiest ways to manage these challenges. However, bullying should never be considered a “part of life” or something that is to be expected or accepted. Let’s help kids differentiate their relationships and develop the skills early on that will help them have healthy, reciprocal, and fulfilling relationships.



Lisa M. Hinkelman

Lisa Hinkelman is the Founder and Director of Ruling Our eXperiences, Inc., a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that delivers evidence-based empowerment programming to girls. She is a Corwin Author Consultant, and the author of Girls Without Limits. Schedule an on-site or virtual consultation, seminar, or workshop with Lisa Hinkelman today!


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