What do you think? And why is it important to ask this question?
The main reason reason why it is important to differentiate between teasing or general childhood conflicts, and bullying or harassment is that it will effect the way we deal with the issue.
Bullying or Teasing?
There are laws about what schools, child care settings and workplaces should do to prevent and deal with bullying or harassment. But what actually is bullying or harrassment is not always agreed upon.
For example, a parent whose child is being called “fat” or “ugly” by another student may feel strongly that this is bullying and the school should get active in defense of the child.
The school, on the other hand, when the incident is reported may see things differently. Depending on the perceptions of the staff to whom it is reported, it may seem to fall into the “kids can be cruel” category and dealt with quite differently than if it was seen as an incidence of bullying or harassment.
How might we respond?
On the one hand, the events we perceive as bullying usually result in adult or (at the least) peer mentor intervention. It also means that adults address both the “victim” and the “bully”.
However, if we see it as teasing or childhood conflict, then often we encourage the child to deal with the issue themselves. We may even ask them to “ignore it and it will go away”.
There is merit in both approaches.
Helping our children be resilient
Gill (2007) in his book about “living in a risk averse society” talks about the impact this is having on children of this generation. I talk at length about this on my other blog. But basically research and experience is starting to tell us that if we protect our children too much, we aren’t empowering them to deal with conflict and challenges life brings up – and this includes physical, emotional and social challenges.
In short, if we want resilient children who can sustain healthy self-esteem and positive relationships even through conflict, then we need to allow them some “practice” at facing social challenges with minimal interference from adults.
In these situations, we would give advice and moral support, but act as “supervisors” rather than active participants in the situation. This may be one reason why schools seem “inactive” in some cases of teasing or student conflict. It is also an argument for peer support vs. adult intervention.
However, there is a line (albeit a blurry, subjective one) beyond which this approach is not appropriate.
A definition of bullying
The NSW Department of Education and Training’s Anti-Bullying Plan for Schools states that bullying
“can be defined as intentional, repeated behaviour by an individual or group of individuals that causes distress, hurt or undue pressure.” (p5)
There are several key words in this definition that are recognised by researchers such as Gill (2007) as important in deciding when and incident is bullying and warrants adult intervention. Schools also often use these as measures in their response
- Intentional: Some “teasing” or derogatory comments come from ignorance or arise from the child’s own experience of life. For example, if they themselves have been called names and given derogatory labels like “fat” etc, then they are less likely to think that doing this to others is inappropriate. So the intent is not about trying to pressure, hurt or gain power over another. This should be approached differently (though not ignored!) to incidents where harm is clearly intended.
- Repeated: A one-off or irregular event should be seen and acted on differently to continual harassment or teasing.
- Causes distress, hurt or undue pressure: The bottom line is that if the event is causing significant distress, hurt or taking away a child’s sense of freedom or safety, then it should be acted on quickly within the guidelines of the anti-bullying plans.
The Human Factor
Research and definitions are all very well, but we need to take into consideration “the human factor”, if I can put it that way. That is, what could be “teasing” to one child could be “bullying” to another.
Some of the human factors that we need to consider when we as adults are deciding whether to intervene or not include:
- The emotional vulnerability of the child: for example, a child who is dealing with significant life events such as death, separation or ill health is less likely to be able handle social conflicts without support. Children who are more prone to anxiety and stress may also need adult support ASAP.
- The social vulnerability of the child: for example, children with special needs may be more vulnerable to peer pressure, or react more impulsively and intensely to social conflicts and may need adult intervention ASAP.
- The physical vulnerability of the child: if a child has health issues or a physical disability, then again adult intervention may be needed ASAP.
If you are a parent, make sure that you share any of these with a person you can trust at the school if you think it will accelarate action by the school. The more information the school community has, the better equipped they will be to deal with the situation.
Gill, T. (2007). No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society. London: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.