Helpful Resources

Understanding the Difference Between Bullying and Conflict

Respect for All

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What Do We Mean by Conflict?

Conflict is a struggle between two or more people who perceive they have incompatible goals or desires.
Conflict occurs naturally as we interact with one another. It is a normal part of life that we will not always agree with other people about the things we want, what we think, or what we want to do.
Most conflicts arise in the moment because people of the same relative amount of power see the same situation from two different points of view.

  • Two siblings share a bedroom and do not agree on what color to paint the walls
  • Two strangers clash over a place in a movie line
  • Neighbors disagree about who should clean up debris after a storm
  • Two friends want to wear the same outfit to a party
  • Children quarrel over who gets to go first
  • Adults can’t agree on how to spend a weekend.
  • Teenagers dispute who should babysit on a Saturday night.
  • Co-workers argue over how a job should be done.

Think of some of the ways we describe people in conflict – ‘they were butting heads”-“she gave as good as she got” - “they were going back and forth at each other” - “it was he said she said.” Both people are equally “telling their side of the story.”

In a conflict people may get frustrated and angry. Chances are the amount of emotion each person feels will be relatively equal because both are vying for what they want. In the heat of the moment, one or both people’s emotions can escalate a conflict . All of us have know of conflicts in which people have said things to hurt one another which they later regret.

People engaged in a conflict want the issue to be resolved. The “back and forth” that occurs is each person trying to make the case for what s/he wants.

When one or both people have the skills to resolve the dispute so that both sets of needs are met, the same conflict between the same two people most likely will not be repeated.

What is Bullying?

Bullying behavior is very different from conflict. It is behavior that is intended to cause some kind of harm. The person doing the bullying purposely says or does something to hurt the target of his/her behavior.

There is always an imbalance of power (physical or social) or strength between the person doing the bullying and the target of the behavior. The person doing the bullying make be physically bigger or stronger or may be older or have greater social status or social power than the person being targeted.

  • An older student verbally abuses younger students on the bus and does not let them sit where they want to
  • A bigger child threatens a smaller child for his lunch
  • A very popular teenager intimidates others to do his/her bidding

It is aggressive behavior by one individual (or group) that is directed at a particular person (or group). The aggressive behavior is unwanted and negative. It is deliberate and unprovoked. The targeted person is harmed by what is purposely being said or done. There is only one person feeling emotional upset—the person who is the target of the bullying. The person who engages in bullying behavior derives some sense of satisfaction from his/her behavior and does not feel sorrow or regret about the harmful effects of her/his behavior.

  • A student intentionally bumps into a classmate whenever they pass in the hallway and encourages other students to laugh
  • An athlete taunts another student about his sexual orientation in the locker room
  • Classmates make fun of a student’s clothes or a mock student’s accent or taunt him/her about his / her grades

Although bullying can occur in a single incident, it is usually a pattern of behavior repeated over time and can take many forms –physical, verbal or social.

  • A group of students regularly call another student names and hold her/him up for ridicule in front of others
  • A student repeatedly uses social media to embarrass and harass a classmate
  • A student gets others to go along with excluding a particular girl/boy from participating in activities in which she would otherwise be included.

What help is available for students who have been the targets of bullying?

School counselors are available to provide counseling services or referrals.