Bullying and Conflict: A Distinction is Necessary!

Bullying and Conflict: A Distinction is Necessary!

Discerning the truth is not always straightforward when faced with a situation involving two or more children. Similarly, the line between bullying and conflict can often seem thin. How do we determine whether it’s one or the other?

First, let’s look at the definitions.

Bullying, as defined in the Public Education Act, is:

Any behavior, word, act, or gesture, whether deliberate or not, that is repetitive, expressed directly or indirectly, including in cyberspace, in a context characterized by an imbalance of power between the concerned parties, having the effect of generating feelings of distress and of harming, injure, oppress, or ostracize.

We should never underestimate the intention of one party to harm another, whether through actions or words; in cases of bullying, it is often voluntary. Thus, we have four criteria on which to base our reflection: 1) the unequal power relationship, 2) the repetitive nature, 3) the intention to harm, and 4) the detrimental consequences for the victim.

Conflict, on the other hand, results from a disagreement between two or more people. There is generally no imbalance of power in a conflict situation, but if it escalates, it can lead to manifestations of violence, physical or verbal.

In a conflict, the wills or objectives of the involved parties are incompatible, and common ground is hard to find. All children experience conflicts or are subjected to teasing at one point or another. These situations are – unfortunately – part of the child’s socialization process. Also, all adults experience conflicts. To avoid them, we would have to cut ourselves off from the rest of the world and no longer have contact with any other human being! Therefore, we must teach children to compromise and to be fine negotiators!

Favor mediation during your child’s first conflicts and use conflict resolution approaches. Resolving a conflict peacefully allows for an equal balance of power between the concerned children and ensures they can quickly reach an agreement, in addition to teaching them to compromise.

Mediation and conflict resolution are not appropriate techniques for addressing a bullying situation. Due to the power imbalance between the two, the victim may tell you they lied to avoid further problems with their aggressor or aggressors, and you may then feel it was merely a conflict. Since the bullying is repeated, you will have missed an opportunity to stop the hostilities toward the victim; they will continue, perhaps with greater intensity, for a while.

A fight, an insult, or a single threat does not necessarily constitute acts of bullying, but they are violent and reprehensible actions that must be addressed. We prevent them from being repeated over time when we intervene appropriately. A good intervention restores the balance of power and deters the aggressor from repeating their actions. Generally, by bringing them to socialize and learn about each other, they can develop a bond without necessarily becoming great friends, or as we say, “best friends in the world.

This table shows the characteristics that help identify the notable differences between “bullying” and “conflict.”

The Differences Between Conflict and Bullying

Adapted from the table “The Differences Between Conflict and Bullying” on page 15 of the guide “Preventing and Reducing Violence and Bullying in School” by Camil Sanfaçon for the Jasmin Roy Foundation.




It is a normal situation, not necessarily negative.
It could be an accident; in this case, the “involved” children will tell you that the other hit them. Upon further inquiry, you’ll discover that the action was accidental.

In an an abnormal situation, the actions taken are intentional (not an accident).
A child repeatedly endures brutality and mockery from peers without saying anything.
Relationships Between Children

Generally, the forces are equal between the two. Each one will retaliate and “hold their own.
The involved children know each other and are usually friends.

The bully is in a position of power and abuses their control over the victim, who does not know how to defend themselves.
The involved children are generally not friends, even if it’s possible they once were.

Causes and Manifestations

The conflict arises from a disagreement, a difference of opinion, or perception.
Either child can trigger the conflict, not always the same one.
The conflict is unplanned; thus, there is no negative intention to harm since it occurs without any planning, without any of the children thinking, I’m going to hurt them.
Bullying occurs when the bully wants to use their power over the victim.
It’s always the same child who is attacked or insulted by the same aggressor or the same aggressors without being able to retaliate or defend themselves in turn.
Bullying actions are intentional and can be planned. The bully may warn silent witnesses of what they will subject the victim to. In some cases, the bully threatens and warns the victim they will continue, especially if they share their distress with anyone in hopes of getting help.

Problem Resolution

Children generally accept help to resolve the conflict more quickly.
Children may agree to rectify their actions.
In the case of a disagreement, after discussion and mutual apologies, an agreement is usually reached.
Often, the aggressor will blame the victim, not admit their fault, and not recognize the severity of their action.
For the bully to rectify their actions, they will often be forced to do so by an adult.
The victim does not have to apologize to the aggressor or have no actions to rectify.
Since there is no disagreement on a matter, the goal should not be to reach an agreement between the parties as an intervention.
Unless the victim denounces it or a witness does it for them, the situation persists and is likely to worsen.

All these characteristics are essential to remember to judge a situation accurately when dealing with children. Depending on the relationships a child forms with their peers, they may sometimes be the victim and other times the aggressor. Every child is undoubtedly a witness to situations of conflict and bullying, whether at school, in sports, recreation, etc.

It’s essential always to model how to resolve a conflict or seek help to stop bullying. Constantly remind the child whom they can talk to and what the best tools available are to help themselves or their peers.

Adapted from the Parent’s Guide to Violence and Bullying at School, Jasmin Roy Foundation and Desjardins Foundation, 2016.

To consult this resource: https://fondationjasminroy.com/initiative/guide-dinformation-aux-parents-sur-la-violence-et-lintimidation-lecole/

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