When is Bullying Not Bullying?

Bullying Cloud

Peace is not absence of conflict, it is the ability to handle conflict by peaceful means. ~Ronald Reagan

Admittedly, you came to this site to learn more about bullying recovery and the words that I have found to share with you on the issue. I have shared this in many posts, podcasts and blogs throughout this site. But let’s talk about another subject that is difficult. Your child or even you come home hurt and feel bullied. You are upset and maybe even angry and want to accuse someone of bullying. Maybe you are right…but maybe not.

In our current climate of blame, we have to be careful to consider what bullying is and what it isn’t . Childhood, in many ways, is wonderful, but also difficult. It is important to know when to say something or someone is bullying and when they aren’t. Ronit Baras (2013) helps us clarify when to call something bullying and when it is just normal child and human interaction. This includes:

  1. Not liking someone – there is a great Asian philosophy of yin/yang. For everything to be equal, life must be 50% on both the good and bad side. I look at it this way. If I’m 60% living well, I am winning. The same is true for relationships. The qualities that make people like you are the same qualities that will make someone not like you. That is a fact of life and someone not liking you is not bullying until they make it so. This is hard as a child as we want to be liked and accepted. But we must learn too tolerate the fact that it will not be the case for all. This is not bullying.

  2. Being excluded – yes it is not fun to be excluded, particularly when you want to do something. But it is natural for friends to group around, have parties, and play games. Exclusion in and of itself is not bullying. It is something we will experience throughout are lifetimes. Remind your child that sometimes they also do. For example, it’s not fun to have someone you don’t really know or want to be around at your birthday party.

  3. Accidentally bumping someone – this is an accident and not a violent act. Imagine an adult bumping into someone by accident and ending up in a fight or worse. Don’t assume someone bumped you with ill intent until you know so. You will know it is bullying soon enough if the act doesn’t end with the bumping. Otherwise this is not bullying and no bad intent was meant. This is another important concept.

  4. Making other kids play a certain way – your child, as we all do, has expectations around activities such as play. Some kids may have bossy tendencies, but that doesn’t make them bullies. This is another fact of life and you can explain to your child that they also want to play a certain way. Not wanting to play that way is not bullying and forcing children to play against their nature can actually lead to bullying if it is because one child wants to play specifically that way.

  5. Arguments – I admit this is a tough one. If you or your child is a victim of bullying, an argument can be easily mistaken for bullying because you are on high alert all the time. In truth, we all argue about something, usually something we are passionate about. Most of us have disagreements with others on a daily basis. Arguments can turn in to bullying if not handled maturely, but an argument in and of itself is not bullying. It is important for all of us, including children to distinguish between a typical disagreement and when it turns into bullying.

  6. Expressing unpleasant thoughts or feelings about others – here’s where the debate begins, I know. It can be uncomfortable to hear unpleasant thoughts of others toward you. But in truth, it is a natural aspect of life. We improve ourselves based on what we learn about ourselves. You can express that what they said was not very nice but being insulted is not being bullied. It would have to be vindictive and constant, not just some words said once. Unless you are being targeted constantly, this is not bullying.

  7. Single acts of harassment, aggressive behavior, intimidation or meanness – yes, all unpleasant acts again. But the important word in the above description is “single”. Bullying, by definition, is conscious, repeated hostile aggressive behavior against another. It is too easy to say a one-time act is bullying. Yes, it can hurt. Yes, it is not nice and behavior modification should be thought of. But a single act is not bullying. Make no mistake that a bully will not just do a single act. It will be constant. So, don’t jump the gun and talk it out with your loved one.

It is important that we don’t water down what bullying is by accusing everything that happens as bullying. Society has become quick to judge and bullying is a hot topic. We don’t want to overuse it as it will become like the boy who cried wolf. Eventually, the people we need to believe in it will begin to doubt that it is bullying if we run and accuse all acts as bullying. It’s my hope that this article helps to clear up when to and when not to call something bullying. It is important that, for the future society, we don’t become lost in what is really happening and what we want to believe is happening.


Baras, R. (2013, August 7). What is NOT Bullying? | Family Matters.        Retrieved from https://www.ronitbaras.com/family-matters/parenting-family/what-is-not-bullying/

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About Alan Eisenberg

Alan Eisenberg is a Certified Life Coach, Bullying Recovery activist and author of "A Ladder In The Dark: My journey from bullying to self-acceptance" and "Crossing the Line". He has been writing and speaking to various audiences about the issue of C-PTSD and Bullying Recovery. Mr. Eisenberg has been featured on several print, radio shows and podcasts on this issue, including NPR and in the Boston Globe. He is currently working toward his Master's Degree in Mental Health Counseling.
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2 Comments

  1. I see your point about exclusion not being bullying but if you’re the victim of exclusion, it can be more painful than punches.

    • I agree, having grown up and being excluded as a child was hard. But as I look back now, I don’t know if it was exclusion or me, but I gravitated toward doing theater vs. sports in high school, because of exclusion. My 4 years doing theater were some of my favorite experiences in life and my youth. So, for me, it is the typical yin/yang issue and I understand more about exclusion and inclusion in finding yourself.

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