Can the term bullying be overused?

We recently received the following comment on a Thriving post about bullying:

“My daughter is 7 years old.  Yesterday she was accused of bullying another girl on her soccer team by a parent who said that my daughter is the reason this girl scared to come to practice. She used an incident of the girl taking my daughter’s “pink” soccer ball and my daughter wanting it back (and arguing with her to give it back) from as my daughter being a bully. 

I know my daughter is not perfect, but this seems extreme.

Every time the girl shows up she does cartwheels, runs around and plays with her friends from school on the team. I’ve never seen anything to indicate this girl is unhappy there. Three parents have come forward, including the coach, who have said that they have never seen my daughter bully this girl or any other child on the team and that the incident was not as the parent described.  The coach suggested the parent is looking for an excuse as to why she never brought her daughter or practice or games.

I know bullying is awful, but now bullying is used for everything when it is also not the case. It seems to me that as much as there is horrible bullying, people also use it against others when it is not true. This person is hurting my daughter. How do I handle this?”

This stuck me as a very valid concern. To learn more I reached out to Peter Raffalli, MD, FAAP, director of Children’s Hospital Boston’s BACPAC (Bullying and Cyberbullying Prevention and Advocacy Collaborative). In the following blog post he addresses this mother’s issue.

Unfortunately, the dilemma posed in this mom’s story is becoming more and more common; especially with the increased media attention that bullying has been getting recently. While there is a specific definition of “bullying,” people are mistakenly using the term to describe any altercation or disagreement that their child might have. Ironically, at the same time, we are still seeing schools ignore bona fide bullying cases, leaving the victim to fend for him or herself in a situation where clearly adult intervention is needed.

Bullying, by definition both medically and legally, is the repeated abuse of a person by a peer or group with the intent to cause discomfort or harm. At the root of this abusive relationship is a power imbalance where a stronger personality is preying on a weaker one. The abuse can be emotional or physical. The victim of a bullying situation is unable to adequately defend him or herself and is often afraid to report the incidents because they’re scared the abuse will get worse.

Peter Raffalli, MD FAAP

By contrast, children involved in a quarrel or disagreement are on relatively equal footing and will point a finger at each other, often blaming the other in the argument. Unlike the victim of bullying, the combatants in a quarrel will be happy to tell their side and plead their case to the adults or to bystanders who might take sides.

So in deciding whether a specific situation is true bullying, we first ask whether there has been repetitive harassment of a child by another child or group of children. We also want to know if the target child is able to defend him or herself adequately or is there a clearly defined power imbalance. If the verbal or physical attacks are repetitive, and if the target is unable to defend him or herself against them, then this situation is bullying. Examples of bullying include shunning, exclusion, name-calling, rumor spreading, hitting, pushing or attacking one’s appearance, race, religion or sexual orientation. It can occur in person or via technology, also known as “cyberbullying.”

As pointed out in the story above, both children and adults can misuse the term bullying at times. Let’s face it: the fiercest storm in nature is a parent’s instinct to protect his or her child. Parents will come out with “guns-a-blazin’” if they think their child is being dealt an injustice. In this case, it is possible a strong label like “bullying” could be used inappropriately. Perhaps this happens because many people do not understand the true definition of bullying. Or perhaps they feel that if they don’t use a strong term like bullying no one will be sympathetic to their child’s plight. Bullying these days has become an emotionally charged term (rightfully so) and people will sometimes evoke emotional language when they are trying to get a response out of people.

Whatever the reason, the misuse of the term undermines the legitimate efforts we are making to protect our children from actual peer victimization. By throwing the term out willy-nilly we devalue it. If that happens too often, people may not be quick to act when bullying really occurs; we will go back to being callous about bullying instead of recognizing the damage it does to young lives.

Though physical abuse gets the most attention, bullying can take on many forms

In bullying situations, we advocate that adults get involved swiftly to end the abuse. In more routine quarrels it may be appropriate to let children “work it out themselves” so that they can develop conflict resolution skills. However, in bullying we teach that the best intervention is to “Separate, Don’t Mediate.” In other words, bringing the bully and the victim together for “a handshake and a cup of coffee” is ill advised. Such meetings have been shown to increase stress for the victim and may in fact worsen the bully’s intent toward the victim.

Instead it is appropriate to meet with each of the children separately, not just once but in follow up over time. Regular check-ins help send the signal to both the bully and the victim that the adults are aware of the situation and are watching to make sure the bullying stops.

One final thought: Sometimes we can over-focus on labels. The argument as to whether or not to call an event “bullying” can be distracting and self-defeating – it can eclipse the ultimate goal of ensuring that our children grow up safe and well adjusted.  Studies show that the bully is also at increased risk for psychological and legal trouble later in life. So both the bully and the victim are at increased risk. If there is a dysfunctional relationship occurring, perhaps adults should focus less on whether or not to call it bullying, and concentrate on how to stop the conflict and the stress. Our efforts should always be focused on giving all our kids the gift of peace.


2 thoughts on “Can the term bullying be overused?

  1. I love that this blog is responding to issues from real parents. And that you talk here about power imbalance. I am encouraged that as we learn more about our kids’ relationships with each other, we might also notice some of that in adult interactions as well – and thank you for pointing out that the bully might suffer later in life, too. It’s easy for us to feel sorry for the victim, but usually a bully has suffered themselves, and is acting it out…the doctors I spoke to concur with you, which is awesome:

  2. My principle uses the word “bully” so much that by now most of us just turn off at the mention of the word.  She should read this article on what bullying really is.

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