This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.
As a teacher, I often have students tell me they are being bullied. Parents will also email me and my colleagues alerting us to bullying. The term “bullying” has come to be commonly thought of as any mean or unkind behavior exhibited toward another person. This is only partially true, so it is important to really understand the difference between what is truly bullying and what is just teasing.
Bullying is angry and hostile. The body language and tone of voice are key indicators. Bullies will act aggressively, moving in close to their target, maybe clenching their fists or speaking through gritted teeth or a sarcastic smile. The tone of voice might be insulting, mocking, or threatening. It will also appear one-sided, with the bully doing most of the talking. Teasing, on the other hand, will appear playful and more easy-going. Kind gestures and expressions can be observed. There will likely be a playful back-and-forth between the parties; both people will be speaking and even smiling or laughing.
Bullying continues or escalates when the victim becomes upset. Bullies are trying to elicit this type of response and will exploit it once they’ve found a weakness. On the other hand, teasing isn’t meant to be hurtful so it usually stops once one person becomes upset. There may even be an apology, which certainly won’t accompany bullying (at least not a sincere apology).
Teasing can turn into bullying if it is taken too far and doesn’t stop happening. Once a situation appears to be more than teasing, another “test” to use to determine if a behavior is bullying is to use the acronym RIP.
R stands for “repeated.” Bullying is a pattern of behavior. It happens often, even constantly, to the same victim from the same offender or offenders.
I stands for “intentional”. If a student bumps into another student in a crowded hallway, that isn’t necessarily bullying. When that bump happens every day during every passing period and the offender knows what he/she is doing, that’s bullying because it is done purposefully.
P stands for “power”. Bullies like to have power over their victims. They will use repeated, intentional, and even seemingly innocent behaviors to subtly assert that power. When a bully purposely and repeatedly bumps into that kid in the crowded hallway, it can be passed off to a teacher or other adult as accidental, but the bully and his/her victim both know better. The victim is rendered nearly helpless – who would seriously complain about being jostled in a crowded hallway? The bully has now gained power over the victim.
It’s important to be alert to behaviors that are clearly hostile or could easily become hostile. But it’s not appropriate to label every negative interaction that occurs among children as “bullying.” To really see bullying, one needs to watch for the subtleties in the exchange that is taking place and document all behaviors to look for a pattern.
Learn more about the difference between bullying and teasing here.