The Difference Between Bullying & Teasing

When I speak at school assemblies, people often ask, “What is the difference between bullying and teasing?” Bullying is a hot button issue for sure, and I can see why some people feel it is overplayed. If all we do is “raise awareness” about bullying (rather than teach kids how to respond to it), then guess what happens? Kids report a lot of bullying. So what is bullying? (And what isn’t bullying?)

What Is Bullying?

Bullying can be defined by three components. Bullying is intentional, it’s a power grab, and it is repeated (or at least it has the potential to be repeated over time).

But before we dive in, one disclaimer:  The graphic here is meant to outline the basic components of bullying. It’s not a solution guide (and it’s definitely not telling kids not-to-tell). The reality is: sometimes rude, teasing, and mean behavior is DEFINITELY BULLYING… even if it only happened one time (or even if kids say they were only joking). If you were intentionally hurt by someone, please report it to your parents and to your school right away. Kids who bully need to be held accountable, so they can make a change.

With that said, let’s take a closer look at the elements of bullying…

1.  INTENTIONAL means the behavior was purposefully meant to be aggressive or hurtful. Most students will not readily admit to being mean on purpose, so it’s important for adults to look for patterns and thoroughly understand the situation before making a judgement call. If this is a first-time incident, it could very well be unintentional. On the other hand, if the behavior is being repeated, it can be identified as intentional… even if the aggressor denies it.

2.  A POWER GRAB is when a person tries to control, dominate, or belittle someone. This aggressive (or even passive-aggressive) behavior falls into four categories:

  • Physical Bullying is an attempt to take power over someone using your body or physical presence. Many people think of it as making actual contact (pushing, tripping, grabbing, etc.), but it can also include acts of physical intimidation such as getting into someone’s face and imposing your physical presence. It can even include threatening eye contact or staring someone down.  [QUICK SIDEBAR HERE: Some things are considered beyond bullying. Acts of physical violence such as punching, kicking, and fighting should be considered as assault and should be reported to the police and to the school. If you are physically attacked, it’s important to defend yourself and to get away from the situation as soon as possible.]
  • Verbal Bullying is using words in a way that is offensive, intimidating, or demeaning. The most common excuse I hear is, “It was just a joke!” But jokes can quickly turn into bullying if they are repeated and made at the expense of others. More types of verbal bullying include name calling, harsh teasing, insults, racist remarks, and homophobic speech. Students who are LGBT are four times as likely to be verbally or socially bullied.
  • Social Bullying is an attempt to harm someone’s social status or reputation. This behavior is often passive aggressive in nature, so it can be very hard to identify. Common types of social bullying include: purposefully excluding someone from a group, spreading rumors or lies behind someone’s back, or labeling someone for their appearance, traits, or sexual orientation (be it real or perceived).
  • Cyberbullying is exerting power through digital communication. Like social bullying, this behavior can take place in a public setting, but it often happens passive aggressively or behind someone’s back. Cyberbullying can happen through social media, texting, chat rooms, online gaming, and the unwanted sharing of digital photos or videos. It can even happen through false impersonation or misusing someone’s account information.

3.  REAPEATED means the behavior keeps happening even after the aggressor has been asked to stop by the person getting bullied, by a bystander (ie: “upstander”), or by another third party such as a teacher or principal. Of course, you can also imply that you want the behavior to stop by calling it rude or hurtful even if you don’t use the word “stop.” Another thing to keep in mind: according to national definition of bullying on, bullying doesn’t always have to be repeated – it has to have the potential to be repeated over time. This is why it’s so important for bullying to be reported right away, so all parties involved can get help.

What Isn’t Bullying?

Below are three common behaviors that on their own are not necessarily bullying. However, they can DEFINITELY become bullying if they meet the three criteria above.

Mean Behavior – We have to be very careful about labeling a first-time offense as “bullying” … even if it was mean. It depends on two things: repetition and the severity of the offense. In either case, the offending student should be told the behavior is mean, hurtful, or unacceptable (everyone from kids to adults should speak up and let them know). At that point the offending student is given a chance to correct his own behavior for the future. Let’s face it: sometimes kids don’t realize what they’re doing is hurtful until they’re told. Helping them see the effects of their actions can lead to a very positive outcome, as most kids don’t want to be a bully.

Teasing – When kids are held accountable for bullying, they will often make the excuse that they were only joking or teasing. And perhaps that’s true for them. But harsh joking or teasing can quickly become bullying when it takes the form of a power-grab. Again, this is when they need to be told that what they’re doing is hurtful, and if it keeps happening it will be bullying. At the same time, our kids need to learn how to be resilient, knowing that they don’t have to let other people get under their skin. A huge key to diffusing bullying is not letting them get inside your head!

Rude Behavior – My wife and I have four kids, so I know that kids can be unintentionally rude. They’re just learning. Sometimes they have no filter, or they don’t realize that commenting on someone’s appearance can be offensive. The key here is… it was an accident. And again, how can we hold them accountable if we do not first teach them what is rude. In the school setting, kids can be incredibly rude, and often on-purpose. That’s when it becomes bullying – when it’s intentional. Rude behavior can also be considered bullying if the offending person has been told what they are doing is rude, and they persist anyway… even if they say they “didn’t mean it that way.”

Final Thought

It’s so important for kids to know the difference between bullying, teasing, being mean, and being rude. If we don’t teach them how to identify bullying (and how to handle it), then there will be a lot of false reports of bullying at schools. At the same time, we need to be careful not to discourage kids from reporting bullying and mean behavior. Talking with a trusted adult is the first step in getting help.

As a full time Anti-Bullying Speaker, my mission is not just to raise awareness about bullying, and it’s not just to help kids define it either. My focus is finding practical methods that reduce bullying in schools and build positive character in students.