When a bully isn’t a bully

Something’s been bugging me, and I’ve got to get it off my chest. And it’s going to sound crass at first, so hear me out before you start calling me insensitive.

I’m not sure there really is a bullying epidemic.

I know, I know. Just about every morning of the world, you can probably find a news story on television about some horrific incident linked to bullying. Kids have started cutting themselves, committing suicide, committing mass murder – you name it – because they’re the victims of bullies.

I’m 100 percent sure those kids were bullied. I’m not debating that.

What I do question, though, is the statistic put forth by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that one-third of kids in the sixth through 12th grades has been victimized by bullies.

Bullying is defined as repeated aggressive behavior that involves an imbalance of power. So what that means is that the bully is perceived as being more powerful than the victim, and the aggression happens again and again over time. This aggression can happen at school or at home, with relative strangers or family members. Some of the worst cases of bullying I’ve seen involved parents bullying their own children.

But during the last few years, as I’ve worked among elementary students as a social work student myself and now as a psychotherapist, I’ve noticed a pattern: Kids who have normal, everyday interpersonal conflicts with other kids claim that they’re being bullied. And I don’t always think that’s the case.

I think “bully” is a victim of its own success. Children and parents are so familiar with the term now, so well-versed in the horrific tales of bullying gone wrong, that they view any kind of disagreement or conflict as bullying. And that, I think, is wrong-headed.

Take, for example, an older elementary student I worked with last year. He was somewhat socially awkward but had some friends at school. However, he often didn’t perceive when he overstepped his bounds and intruded into other students’ space. He would get excited and impulsively hug his friends, or take a game of tag too far and tackle another student instead of merely touching his arm. When the student he hugged or tackled asked him to stop – sometimes not in the nicest of ways – he would run to the teacher on the playground and claim he was being bullied. In time, his cries fell on deaf ears, and he earned the reputation of a whiner who cried foul when things didn’t go his way.

I found it extremely difficult to work with this kid because his parents backed him up. They referred to his being “bullied” and never pointed out his own role in instigating the behavior of the other children. I was perplexed about how to help the child see the pattern of his behavior and his misuse of the word “bully.” Time and again in our weekly sessions, I attempted to challenge his use of “bully.” We talked about how friends act, how he wanted his friends to act, and how he could be a good friend to others. The child used all the right words, but he couldn’t differentiate between bullying and just plain not getting along well with others.

And there is a difference. We all have people who rub us the wrong way, people who routinely disagree with everything we say. Maybe we’re the cantankerous ones who always disagree. But when your co-worker doesn’t like you or disagrees with something you say in a meeting, does that mean he or she is bullying you?

Not in my book.

As a parent, it’s easy to assume our children are the ones being singled out for being different, being picked on by mean kids, being made fun of. Sometimes those things do happen. And when they happen routinely and are perpetrated by kids who hold power in some way over our own, that’s when our kids are being bullied.

But when our children, in course of their growing-up years, run into folks who think differently, who act differently and who don’t think our kids are the greatest things since the iPhone, they are not being bullied.

Instead, they are learning to live and deal with other people who are different from them, and that’s a valuable life lesson that I think too often goes by the wayside in this era of the bully.


3 thoughts on “When a bully isn’t a bully

  1. I think you observations are valid. You are correct in claiming that just because two people don’t get along does not make it ‘bullying’.

    But I think there is a big advantage of the wave of anti-bullying sentiment of late. When everyone talks about bullying, that is more eyes looking for the problem, as well as looking out for solutions. I think it’s very beneficial to have kids, parents and teachers ask the question “is this bullying?” over and over and over again.

    In my experience bullying is like weeds. You can pull them and pull them, but they will always return. But with constant attention the problem can be lessened.

    But that constant attention has a price. Some students will be seen as using the phrase ‘I’m getting bullied’ just to get their way. Some students will use the phrase to actually bully other people. Many teachers and parents will tire of having to get involved in every conflict our children have.

    There will always be a price. Too much attention can be taxing, but to it is to let the problem of bullying grow. I would rather see too much attention given to dealing with bullying than too little.

    I do anti-bullying programs in schools. At an assembly I was once asked “Do adults every bully each other?”. I replied “Yes. In fact there is a TV station dedicated to adults bullying. Twenty four hours a day of coverage of adults using and abusing power over other adults, over and over and over again. Where adults who bully do not listen to those getting bullied. Where the bullies only want their power to grow and grow over their targets. And where they do all of their bullying in front of cameras.

    It’s called C-Span. Yes, our United States Congress. Adults, at the highest levels of education, of intelligence, of power, bullying one another in order to get power.”

    Which begs the question, if the leaders of our land have trouble having compassion for others. When they cannot stop bullying themselves, what hope does a 4th grader have?

    I believe that 4th grader can stop bullying, but only with the help of adults. But we need to never tire of the conversation. If we stay vigilant our young people will too.

    -Miles McMahon
    Director, Theatre of the Imagination
    “Stop The Bully” anti-bullying shows

    1. Thanks for your comments, Miles. I do think it’s an important conversation to continue with kids, and I think part of that conversation is making sure everyone understands what real bullying is. And you’re right — some people do use “I’m being bullied” to actually bully others.

  2. Miles, are you trying to “bully” the writer? You did say “I think you observations are valid. You are correct in claiming that just because two people don’t get along does not make it ‘bullying’. But I think”.
    You muted their point, by referencing a quick agreement and then going to your directed points. My point there? The anti-bullying campaign needs to chill out some. It started with the Courts in the 90’s when a bunch of women rode the backs of women who were really abused, just by stating they were abused and many fathers were thrown aside. Those kids are now some of the most confused kids in the real World, as they were so over protected(Without much in real reason.) that they overly medicate, crack at the smallest of life or work confrontations and constantly whine about how it’s everyone else’s fault, regardless of their participation. Speaking of participation…I was reading in my daughter’s high school newspaper about a Dodgeball Tournament that they held which had 7 teams participate. They played their initial games, until they had their playoffs. At that point, the 0-6 team lost their 1st game IN the playoffs. Really? An 0-6 team played in the playoffs? Well, we wouldn’t want to upset them or tell them they aren’t as good as the other teams, as that would be bullying wouldn’t it(Rhetorical)? Worse…who gets the “best dressed” team for that tournament? The obvious loser, as everyone gets a prize. Does this happen in the job market? Does this happen when the bank or finance company wants their money for a car payment or mortgage? Does the insurance company keep covering you when if you don’t pay your bill and then get in an accident?
    I understand the concept of cutting down on bullying, but the agenda has been pushed too far, to the point of kids heading into real life and not being able to cope. Through bullying, many weak kids have become stronger as they had no choice but to learn how to stand up for themselves. Even when they didn’t, initially, someone eventually comes along who isn’t the type to accept the bullying and lays out the bully or stands up for the weaker kid, so the bully turns tail and runs. That much does reflect what can happen in real life, after the kid grows up and enters the real World, but at that point, the bullies get handled with the mind or law. Want to stop bullies from thinking they have easy targets? Start teaching self defense classes to all kids in school, as a bully is all about picking out the weaker kids. A “nerd herd” who knows self defense can readily back off a bully by the numbers, thus they probably won’t need to even lift a finger. Truly, it has become ridiculous to the point of the middle schooler’s in Independence not even being able to give a hug or a high five to their friends, due to the “No Touch Policy”. No touching translates to much more difficult relationships with family, friends and relationships in the future, as the kids have no experience with intimacy. I’m NOT referring to sexual intimacy, I am referring to the intimacy that brings people together as friends and teammates. The high five when something went good(Oh, I know..that’s “bad sportsmanship”. The hug to the friend: I know…that could lead to s.e.x., rather than just hugging someone because they are having a bad day. I’ve gone on long enough, on this. I’ll wrap it up by saying that the real World doesn’t and won’t be catering to your needs, regardless of ANY legislation passed. The Congress is, definitely, flawed, but so is pushing for all of these rules and laws to make the World the way YOU wish it to be, as that is the ultimate of a controlling behavior that can be found in..a “Bully”.
    P.S. I use “You” in a general way. It refers to the anti-bully crowd who are over zealous enough that they bully the citizens trying to make their World, everyone’s World.

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