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Conflict vs. Bullying: What's the Difference?

60-second answer

Bullying is different from conflict.

  • Conflict is a disagreement or argument in which both sides express their views.
  • Bullying is negative behavior directed by someone exerting power and control over another person.

Bullying is done with a goal to hurt, harm, or humiliate. With bullying, there is often a power imbalance between those involved, with power defined as elevated social status, being physically larger, or as part of a group against an individual. Students who bully perceive their target as vulnerable in some way and often find satisfaction in harming them.

In normal conflict, children self-monitor their behavior. They read cues to know if lines are crossed, and then modify their behavior in response. Children guided by empathy usually realize they have hurt someone and will want to stop their negative behavior. On the other hand, children intending to cause harm and whose behavior goes beyond normal conflict will continue their behavior even when they know it's hurting someone.


Why conflict isnít all bad and why no one ever deserves to be bullied

If you are in a relationship with another human being, whether itís a good friend or just someone who sits next to you in school, the chances are pretty good that you will be in conflict with that person at some point or have already had a conflict with that person. Where there are two people in a relationship, there likely will be disagreements and changes.

One friend might want to play video games; the other might want to go outside. One friend wants to go shopping; the other really doesnít like shopping. Your classmate always wants to be first in line and so do you. Your brothers fight over who has a bigger part of their room, trying to make sure itís exactly the same down to the inch. Things like that happen every day.

Conflict is a natural part of human relationships as people grow and change. Even though it can cause us stress and can hurt, conflict is not bullying. Conflict happens between two people who are equal in the relationship (think: friends or classmates or co-workers) but have two different points of view about whatís going on. Sometimes this escalates into a disagreement thatís so strong people become really emotional. There might be strong words used and lots of big feelings involved. It may take time to sort things out.

In conflict, when things are equal between people, both sides usually want the issue to be resolved. They donít want the conflict to keep going on; they want to make things better and they want the relationship to continue in a healthy way. Neither person wants to keep hurting the other, so both people will try to do things to improve the situation. Sometimes, conflict can even be helpful in a relationship that needs to change, providing an opportunity to improve something thatís not going right between the parties.

With bullying, the person (or group of people) who is doing the bullying means to hurt the other person. The hurt or harm is done on purpose to make the bullying target feel like less of a person. There is always something unequal about the relationship between the two people; maybe the person bullying is physically stronger and creates fear because of that, or maybe the person bullying is more popular and has the kind of social power that can turn a whole group against one person.

Whichever type of power a person with bullying behavior has, they will use it over the person who is being bullied to make them feel less than who they are. Of course, the person who is being bullied does not want this treatment and did nothing to deserve being treated this way.

Bullying scenarios might look like this: Someone convinces a group to tease another student based on their looks; someone threatens to beat a person up because of how they talk; somebody posts something untrue and hurtful online about someone else; or someone trips a classmate and makes everyone laugh at the person falling down. The harm is done deliberately and the intent is to cause the other person to suffer in some way.

The bullying behavior is usually repeated, or threatened to be repeated, over and over. Someone who is bullying may decide to leave out a friend by giving them the cold shoulder and excluding them from group activities. Someone may use a false statement or other mean word toward another every time they see them, or go on social media in an attempt to damage their reputation. Even the threat of behavior like this causes unwanted and undeserved pain for the target.

Think about it this way:

  • Conflict, while sometimes uncomfortable, can be an opportunity for equal partners in the situation to learn how to solve problems. This will happen by both people working the problem out through healthy and positive means.
  • Bullying is done by someone perceived to be more powerful than the target and is unwanted, negative, and meant to cause harm to the bullying target through physically or emotionally damaging means that are repeated or threatened to be repeated.

The next time you are in a conflict with someone (and there will likely be a next time!), try and remember that inside every conflict is a hidden opportunity to make your relationship better by learning to speak up for yourself and express your needs. Remember that conflict between two human beings is normal and is bound to happen.

Remember as well, that bullying is not the same as conflict. Bullying is meant to cause hurt or harm. Bullying is not something that anyone deserves to have happen to them and they have the right to feel safe.

Conflict Resolution

The difference between bullying and conflict is important to note, because conflict resolution or mediation strategies are sometimes misused to solve bullying problems. These strategies can send the message that both children are partly right and partly wrong, or that ďWe need to work out the conflict between you two.Ē These messages are not appropriate in cases of bullying (or in any situation where someone is being victimized). The appropriate message to the child who is being bullied should be ďBullying is wrong and no one deserves to be bullied. We are going to do everything we can to stop what is happening to you.Ē

Teen Perspective:

In one way or another, conflict is a part of everyday experience. Even if it is something small, which it typically is, there is the constant navigation of the complexities of human relationships. This is normal, and minor conflicts typically donít make someone feel unsafe or threatened.

The questions to ask yourself when you are unsure about the tone of a certain conversation or encounter to determine if it is bullying include:

  • Are we equals in this situation?
  • Do I feel victimized or targeted by an individual or a group?
  • Do I feel safe?
  • Do I feel that the person or group has intentionally hurt or humiliated me?

Sometimes, it can be easy to minimize a bullying situation because you donít really want to deal with the realities of what is happening to you. It is easy to get into a pattern of qualifying bullying as conflict in order to avoid facing the actual problem, when really it is something that you donít deserve and something that requires outside intervention. It can be helpful to ask these questions to yourself, as it can help you sort out the reality of your particular situation.