How to Tell the Difference Between Conflict and Bullying

two girls upset

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Everyone experiences conflict from time to time. It is a normal part of life. Learning to deal with it in a healthy way helps kids master the social skills they need. Unlike conflict, bullying is not a normal part of life. It is not a "rite of passage" and it does not make kids toughen up.

Bullying is an abuse of power and has significant consequences. There is nothing healthy about bullying. In fact, there are some distinct differences between bullying and conflict. Being able to identify these differences is important for knowing how to respond.

Characteristics of Peer Conflict

There are several ways to identify peer conflict. When a conflict occurs, everyone involved has equal power in the relationship. Both individuals might be emotional and upset, but neither is seeking control or attention. They also are respectful of each other even though they disagree.​

When people experience conflict, they often feel remorse and take responsibility for their actions. Kids in conflict often want to solve the problem so that they can start having fun again. They are intent on reaching an agreement so that the relationship feels restored.

Lastly, conflict happens occasionally and is usually not serious or emotionally damaging to either person.

While experiencing conflict is never fun for anyone involved, it does not make a person feel bad about who they are.

Characteristics of Bullying

The best way to identify bullying is to recognize that it is a deliberate act. The goal is to hurt, insult, or threaten another person. There is also an imbalance of power. A bully exerts control over others by intimidating, harassing, threatening, or humiliating them.

Bullying is also repeated and purposeful. While the tactics vary from incident to incident, the bully is targeting the same people repeatedly with the purpose of hurting them.

Bullying also poses a threat of serious emotional or physical harm. While a bully feels little remorse, the target is usually visibly upset. Bullies might get satisfaction from hurting people.

There is also no attempt to resolve anything. Bullies are not interested in having a relationship with the intended target.

However, not every hurtful action is bullying. Sometimes, it is simply unkind behavior. Be sure that you are aware of what constitutes bullying.

Peer Conflict
  • Equal power in relationship

  • Both children upset

  • Feel remorse

  • Want to solve problem and restore relationship

  • Happens occasionally

  • Usually not emotionally damaging

  • Imbalance of power

  • Victim upset, bully is not

  • Bully has no remorse

  • Bully does not see need for resolution

  • Is ongoing

  • Can be serious emotional or physical threat

Addressing Conflict vs. Bullying

Conflict is an important part of growing up but bullying is not. Conflict teaches kids how to give and take. They also learn how to come to an agreement and how to solve problems. Bullying only wounds kids.

When it comes to conflict, it is good for kids to learn conflict resolution skills. These skills promote listening and working together. Both parties come to an agreement.

Conflict resolution assumes that both people are responsible for the problem and need to work it out. In this situation, both kids make compromises and the conflict is resolved. When kids have a conflict, it is best to allow them the opportunity to work it out on their own.

Conflict resolution is not appropriate for bullying situations. In fact, it can be very dangerous to victims of bullying. Bullying is about the bully making a choice to intentionally hurt another person—there is nothing to work out.

What's more, bullies usually do not negotiate with others. They want power and they blame others for their actions.

Even if an adult can get them to apologize, bullies will often retaliate when no one else is around. As a result, it is crucial to recognize the difference between conflict and bullying. Remember, the bully is fully responsible for the situation and bears all the responsibility for change.

Forcing a target to participate in conflict resolution or mediation is never a good idea. Instead, develop an intervention process that ensures the safety of the student being bullied.

The bully should be disciplined. Bullies need to experience consequences for their behavior. They also need to be told that their choices are unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

Likewise, victims of bullying need to be reassured that they did not cause the bullying and that they are not to blame. Work with them to help them overcome the negative impact of bullying. The goal is for them to regain self-esteem.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. TeensHealth from Nemours. Dealing With Bullying.

  2. Education Development Center, Inc. What is bullying?

  3. Shetgiri R. Bullying and Victimization Among ChildrenAdv Pediatr. 2013;60(1):33‐51. doi:10.1016/j.yapd.2013.04.004

  4. Lamia MC. Why Bullies Don't Feel Bad (or Don't Know They Do). Psychology Today.

  5. Eddy B. Negotiating With Bullies. Psychology Today.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.