Skip to main content

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 when someone aggressively uses their “power” to target another individual with repeated, unwanted words or actions. Those targeted are hurt either physically or emotionally and have a hard time stopping what is happening to 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 isn’t all bad and why no one ever deserves to be bullied

If you are in a relationship with another human being, whether it’s 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 doesn’t 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 it’s 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 what’s going on. Sometimes this escalates into a disagreement that’s 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 don’t 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 that’s 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 “We need to work out the conflict between you two.” 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 “Bullying is wrong and no one deserves to be bullied. We are going to do everything we can to stop what is happening to you.”

Bullying and Conflict – What’s the Difference? | PACERTalks About Bullying: Season1, Episode 8

Sometimes people think that bullying and conflict are the same thing, but they aren't. In one way or another, conflict is a part of everyday experience, in which we navigate the complexities of how we interact. Typically minor conflicts don’t make someone feel unsafe or threatened. Bullying, on the other hand, is a behavior with intention to hurt, harm or humiliate and the person targeted is not able to make it stop.

Conflict vs. Bullying - 60 second response | PACERTalks About Bullying; Season 3, Episode 8

Conflict vs. Bullying – Student Response Season 3, Episode 9

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 don’t 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 don’t 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 don’t 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.

Blog Post

Is it a Conflict or is it Bullying? Helping Our Kids Learn the Difference.
Written by staff at PACER's National Bullying Prevention Center

Third graders Nick and Kevin weren’t close friends, but they played foursquare together every recess they could. They battled every point during games that were always loud because the foursquare group was serious about the game. There were often disagreements about fouls and rules but they were generally able to work it out. The adults on recess duty did a nice job of monitoring the players, and they carried laminated sets of rules in case the players needed “help” with disputes. Yet, “It’s not fair!” was often shouted across the playground during recess.

One day Kevin came home and told his mother, Jennifer, that he’d been bullied. Jennifer, alarmed, asked for details.

“Nick pushed me on the playground,” Kevin said. He told Jennifer that he and Nick had argued about a ball that was “on the line,” and that a teacher asked both boys to sit on the bench to cool off during the rest of recess. “It’s not fair! He started it, but we both got punished,” Kevin said. Kevin didn’t think that Nick’s apology was punishment enough.

Had Nick bullied Kevin? Was Nick too aggressive, but not to the point of bullying Kevin? Or were both boys at fault? Jennifer wasn’t sure what to think. She called the school to ask for more details.

When a parent hears a story like this, it isn’t always clear what has happened or what the consequences should be. Jennifer was torn between feeling she might not have heard the whole story, and wanting to fix things for Kevin.

Here are some helpful ways to distinguish between a conflict and bullying behavior:

Conflict looks like:

  • Disagreement or argument in which both sides express their views
  • Equal power between those involved
  • Behavior usually stops when one child realizes they are hurting another

Bullying looks like:

  • Intent of behavior is to hurt, harm, or humiliate
  • Person bullying has more “power” such as being more popular or physically stronger
  • Negative behavior continues even when hurt or harm occurs

It can be hard for parents when their children are involved in difficult, confusing situations. Nevertheless, it’s important for parents to realize that conflict between children is inevitable – and that sometimes their child won’t like or agree with the outcome. Parents can help their children handle these situations by:

  • Asking open-ended questions about what happened
  • Listening more than talking
  • Offering support
  • Helping their child problem solve

It’s easier for a child to confide what is happening to them when they know their parent is in their corner. Conflict situations are great teachable moments. Parents can help their children learn the skills necessary to express their own views and help create their own solutions.

A cautionary note: if behavior crosses the line from conflict to bullying, it’s not up to the child being bullied to fix the situation. While it can be important for the child to help create a plan for change, adults are responsible for making and enforcing rules so that all the children involved are safe.

Posted November, 2016

Your Opinion Matters

We look forward to hearing from you! Please take a moment to respond and view results.