Conflict or Bullying? How to tell the difference and what to do.

By Christi Cawley, Pinecrest Academy Lower School Counselor
This is Part Two in our series on Bullying. You can read Part One here.
In our first blog on the important topic of bullying, we described different signs that appear when a child is being bullied. In this post, we’ll explain the difference between bullying and conflict.

Suppose your daughter comes home one day feeling sad because her best friend is no longer playing with her at recess. Or your son might be angry when you pick him up from school due to an argument with a classmate over what game to play at recess. Sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between bullying and conflict.

Parents may feel the need to label a situation “bullying” (when it may be normal student conflict) because their child is very upset and/or they think it’s necessary to label it as such to make sure their concerns are heard. On the other hand, sometimes parents will tell their child to “just ignore (the situation)” or “turn the other cheek,” when in reality the issue may be a bullying situation which needs to be addressed.

So, what’s the difference and what can you, as a parent, do about it?

First, let’s define bullying.
StopBullying.gov states: Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Both kids who are bullied and who bully others may have serious, lasting problems.

To help distinguish bullying from misconduct, it’s helpful to remember the acronym “RIP”:
  • Repeated
  • Imbalance of Power: Kids who bully use their power, such as size/physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or popularity—to control or harm others.
  • Purposeful

Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally, and excluding someone from a group on purpose. If the child being harmed is reluctant to report it out of fear of retaliation, it’s a good indication that it may be a bullying situation. Of course, bullying is always misbehavior, but misbehavior is not always bullying.

Now, let’s define conflict and misbehavior.

Conflict is a disagreement or argument. With conflict, there is no imbalance of power and the classmates are friends or get along in general. One child is not in fear of or intimidated by the other, and they aren’t reluctant to be in the same room with one another to talk it out.

Examples of conflict:
  • Hard feelings over changing friendships
  • Disagreement about the rules of a game - someone says someone else is cheating
  • Conflict over what game to play at recess
  • Misunderstanding that leads to hurt feelings

Conflict is a completely normal and expected part of life. Learning how to handle conflict appropriately is an important life skill that can be learned.

So, what do you do when your child comes home saying another child was mean to him or her? Most importantly, remain calm. Ask your child open-ended questions, such as:
  • What happened?
  • Where did it happen?
  • Who was around?
  • Is the teacher aware?

Encourage your child to report concerns in the moment to the adult on duty (e.g., teacher, aftercare provider, lunchtime supervisor, recess monitor, bus driver, etc).

A good example of misbehavior may be one comment, made by one child, one time. For instance, “Your shoes are ugly.” In these circumstances, the strategy of “ignoring it” may prove effective. However, if the misbehavior continues, the student should make an adult aware.

As a parent, you might be asking yourself, “How do I know if I should contact the school? Should I contact the other parent?”
  • Always err on the side of caution. If you’re in doubt, let the school know just in case, and to receive guidance.
  • Don’t wait to contact the school. If an incident or situation is bothering your child, please let the school know sooner rather than later. We can work with you to determine the best “next steps.”
  • Generally, we don’t advise speaking to the other child’s parent about an issue, as it can be difficult for both parties to be objective and receptive. The school can address student conflict, misbehavior, or bullying appropriately and bring in parents as needed.

At Pinecrest, we try our best to address all challenging behavior, whether it’s bullying, misbehavior, or conflict. We have the advantage of being a small school, and therefore, can address issues quickly and thoroughly, providing a high level of attention. If a situation is affecting a child at school, even if it happened outside of school, we want to know about it so we can address it. School should be a safe, positive place for children--we want your child to be happy and look forward to going to school each day!
Pinecrest Academy is a private PreK3-12 Catholic school located in Cumming, South Forsyth, just minutes from Alpharetta, Johns Creek, Milton and Suwanee. We serve families of all faiths seeking a Christian education for their children. To learn more about our unique educational philosophy, visit our Welcome page.

The mission of Pinecrest Academy is reflected in the word Integer, which is Latin for “whole,” or “entire,” and reflects our goal of forming the whole child as an authentic “Person in Christ.” The school motto Semper Altius, means “Always Higher,” and challenges our students, parents, staff and faculty to strive for excellence in all areas of Integral Formation® - intellectual, spiritual, human and apostolic.