Normal Conflict, or Bullying?

Normal Conflict, or Bullying?

By Kris Widmann

Relational aggression is a form of bullying that involves the way people use their power in relationships to control others. It is behavior that is meant to harm someone by damaging or manipulating his or her relationships with others. Relational aggression is motivated by wanting to be part of or stay in the “in” group, fearing being rejected or the next target, or needing a drama. Behavior — such as excluding other students, spreading gossip or rumors, eye rolling, taunting and name calling, building/breaking alliances and cyberbullying — are all forms of relational aggression. 

What a child may explain away as “I was only joking,” is often cruel and humiliating for the recipient, and children who form cliques that exclude others often don’t see themselves as part of this bullying group even though they are causing terrible pain to others. Unfortunately, the more our children engage in relational aggression, the less likely they are to be able to form healthy relationships when dating or as they become adults. 

In her book The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander, Barbara Coloroso defines bullying as a “conscious, willful and deliberate hostile activity, intended to harm.” Bullying is not about anger or even about conflict. Bullying is about contempt — a powerful feeling of dislike toward someone considered to be worthless, inferior or undeserving of respect.   “Contempt comes with three apparent psychological advantages that allow kids to harm others without feeling empathy, compassion or shame. These are:

  • A sense of entitlement
  • An intolerance toward difference and an inability to empathize
  • A liberty to exclude, isolate or segregate another person

When a child is being bullied he usually will not tell anyone because he is ashamed, afraid of retaliation, doesn’t think anyone can or will help him, he has bought into the misperception that bullying is part of growing up, or he has learned that “ratting” on a peer is not cool. If your child is bullied:


  • Don’t minimize, rationalize or explain away the bully’s behavior.
  • Don’t rush in to solve the problem for your child.
  • Don’t tell your child to ignore the bully. What they may hear is that you are going to ignore it.
  • Don’t tell your child to fight back.
  • Don’t confront the bully or the bully’s parents alone.


  • Get across the following messages: I hear you; I am here for you; I believe you; you are not alone in this; it is not your fault.
  • Let them know that there are things that they can do.
  • Teach your child to stand up to the bully calmly.
  • Encourage your child to walk away.
  • Help your child build healthy relationships with others to form a support system.
  • Report the bullying to school personnel.

A child is more likely to be inoculated against being bullied if she has a strong sense of self, has at least one good friend, is able to successfully get into a group — and get out when it doesn’t serve her well.

The number of incidences of bullying can be lowered when we activate the bystanders.  These are the supporting cast who aid and abet the bully through acts of omission and commission. They stand idly by or look away, or they actively encourage the bully by laughing or join in and become one of a bunch of bullies. Teach your child the difference between normal conflict and bullying. Since much of bullying goes on “under the radar” of adults, a potent force is kids themselves showing bullies that they will not be looked up to, nor will their cruel behavior be condoned or tolerated. Kids need not be bystanders. They can become active witnesses, standing up for their peers, speaking out against injustices, and taking responsibility for what happened among them.

Kris Widmann has been a school counselor in Oregon, Washington and New Hampshire. She is the mother of two teenage boys. 

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