What Is Bullying And What's Normal Childhood Conflict?

04/11/2014 17:56 | Updated 20 May 2015

Sad girl in school corridor

Most of us experience our children coming home from school upset by something another pupil has said or done at least occasionally. But sometimes it can be tricky to tell whether events were bullying or just normal playground conflict.

The days of even quite horrendous bullying being dismissed as "kids being kids" are thankfully over and most schools have robust policies in place to deal with it. But the flipside is that on occasions, we're a little too eager to jump in with the b-word.

Plus there's an awkward grey area in which it's difficult to ascertain the difference between relatively standard conflict and disagreement and innocent comments that won't be repeated, or more serious incidents. It's all made even harder when a grown-up isn't present at the time to hear who said, or did what to whom.

If you're wondering why this distinction matters – after all, with a sobbing child in your arms you just want to make things OK - there are reasons why assuming all conflict is bullying doesn't help anyone.

Firstly, 'bullying' normally elicits grown-up intervention yet there are minor playground and classroom squabbles that children benefit from learning to handle themselves, even if they need a little guidance initially. After all, this is an important skill for later life – there won't be a teacher or parent around to help referee every minor skirmish down the pub or argument over whose turn it is to do the washing up when they're grown-ups.

Then there's the risk of devaluing the whole concept - if we jump in with cries of bullying at the slightest thing, the word loses its power to ensure those who really are on the receiving end of serious issues can get the action and support they need.

Doreen Jones, a Support Co-ordinator at the charity Family Lives, agrees that it's important not to label every little incident as bullying: "Not every disagreement in the playground can be regarded as bullying. All young children are finding their way in the world, so it's vital not to pigeon hole every negative interaction as 'bully' and 'victim'."

So what does count as bullying?

Sometimes it's blatantly obvious that events are indeed bullying – being beaten up or persistent, repeated teasing but what about when children have disagreed and both called each other names or a comment has been made and it's difficult to tell whether it was innocent or malicious?

According to Bullying UK's definition, bullying is "behaviour which is intended to hurt someone either emotionally or physically." This can take many forms including physical assault, making threats, name calling and cyber bullying. provides three questions to ask if you're unsure about whether what's going on is bullying or not:

- is there an imbalance of power?

- did one party intend to harm another either physically or verbally?

- is there a future threat?

Often the first point of imbalance of power is particularly key - a child who is bigger, stronger, older or even just more confident or influential in their social group, makes a smaller, weaker, younger one their target.

If you're still unclear about whether your child is experiencing bullying, find out as much as you can from them first and then speak to their teachers. Even if it isn't out and out bullying, you might still want or need to help them learn to deal with conflict in positive, constructive ways.

Nishma Shah, a spokesperson for Bullying UK, suggests: "Give your child the opportunity to tell you how they feel. Agree a time or place to do this and practice responses they can use, like saying 'no', walking away confidently or telling someone.

"Work with your son or daughter to develop their social skills, reading of facial expressions and body language, listening skills and recognising tone of voice. Encourage your child to be assertive not aggressive."

Forms of bullying:

To help identify subtler or more complex forms of bullying, it's also helpful to look at some of its common guises (definitions courtesy of Bullying UK):

  • Manipulative bullying: where a person is controlling someone
This can often be disguised by the bully making the other person feel that they're to blame. The bully will attempt to isolate the person and tell them that others' opinions are not to be trusted. They might also use feelings of guilt to get their own way by feigning being upset. They can make their victim feel so uncomfortable that they give in and do what the bully wants.

The person being controlled may already have low self-esteem and no confidence which the bully will recognise and play on, then follow this by being nice to the person and again making them feel guilty or drawing them back in.

Examples of manipulative behaviour include giving someone the silent treatment, trying to stop people from being friends and repeating gossip.

  • Conditional friendship: where a child thinks someone is being their friend but phases of friendliness are alternated with phases of bullying
In this situation the person being bullied could find it difficult to make friends and be desperate to have one. They might want to please and allow themselves to be led by the bully. If they try to assert themselves and break away from the friendship the bulling will worsen.

The bully will have the ability to include the person in a group or isolate them if they choose, manipulating others to do their bidding and join in with the bulling. The friendship is conditional on the target doing and behaving as required by the bully.

  • Exploitative bullying: where a child is taken advantage of.
This type of bullying often involves a child with a disability or learning difficulty. The bully is able to control what their target does because they are more able. They might take money or food from the person being bullied or persuade them to do things because they do not understand the consequences or that it could be wrong.

The bully might also be physically stronger allowing them to intimidate the victim.

If your child is being bullied, you don't have to face the situation alone. Of course in the first instance it's best to discuss the situation with staff at school but there's also plenty of outside support available both to parents and older children. Various charities offer free advice, including Parentdish's anti-bullying partner BullyingUK.'