So your child, Luke, comes home from school stating that their classmate, Hans, laughed at them. This was very distressing and hurt his feelings. What do you do as a parent? Should you intervene or let him work it out on his own? To answer this, we must first determine if this is bullying or not. Author Trudy Ludwig defines negative behaviors in three categories: Rude, Mean, and Bullying.
- Rude – Rude behaviors are those actions that are inconsiderate and may cause hurt feelings, but are generally unintentional and spontaneous. In the example above, if Hans spontaneously laughs when Luke falls down, then this is likely rude behavior. The hurtful action of laughing at Luke was not preplanned or intentionally meant to cause hurt.
- Mean – Unlike rude behavior, mean behaviors are done on purpose with the goal of hurting someone else. Mean behaviors are still often impulsive and not the norm behavior in a relationship. Going back to Luke and Hans, let’s say Hans was mad at Luke and intentionally laughed at Luke’s misfortune in the hopes it would hurt Luke’s feelings. Maybe Hans even added a comment like “you’re so stupid.” This would be mean behavior.
- Bullying – The American Psychological Association defines bullying as a “form of aggressive behavior in which someone intentionally and repeatedly causes another person injury or discomfort.” The elevation from mean behavior to bullying is that bullying is repeated. Often there is a power differential, in which one person or group or people target a “weaker” person. There are four general categories of bullying:
- Verbal – i.e. name calling
- Physical – i.e. fighting, hitting, kicking
- Relational – i.e. social exclusion
- Cyber – bullying through technology
Both rude and mean behavior interactions are short-term and good opportunities for children to work out relationship struggles on their own. Mr. and Mrs. Skywalker can talk with Luke to help him learn ways to communicate firm, non-antagonistic responses to Hans’ actions. With this support and empowerment, Luke can learn to use his voice to protect himself. Proper identification of these behaviors (and not mislabeling these actions as bullying) is important for both children and parents. If rude or mean behaviors are routinely elevated to level of bullying, then the severity and importance of action for actual bullying situations can be diminished.
If bullying is occurring, then children will need parents to intervene and assist in a more direct manner. This may include speaking to teachers, other school officials, or even law enforcement. Currently, all 50 states, D.C. and the U.S. territories have laws and/or policies in place aimed at decreasing the prevalence and negative impact of bullying. In the example above, if Luke starts to exhibit mood changes, withdrawal from social situations, or aggressive behaviors (towards others or self), then further actions may be necessary. If you believe your child is struggling with bullying and needs assistance, please contact a professional.