Bullying is a word often used today in a variety of contexts that don’t always apply to it’s true definition. Very often I hear the word bullying used by parents and children the moment any kind of conflict is experienced. While there are times when bullying is the appropriate descriptor for an experience, there are others when it is not.

Bullying involves an imbalance of power between two parties. This imbalance of power may be physical or social. A physical imbalance of power would be the common image of a larger or stronger person using their physical advantages to exert dominance over the other person through physical force or intimidation. An example of a social imbalance of power could be the “popular” student using their social status to alienate another less “popular” student. When bullying is involved, the imbalance of power is utilized to purposefully hurt the other person. Bullying may involve verbal harassment, physical assault, or coercion. Verbal harassment and coercion may be experienced in person or via texting, chat forums and social media. Feelings of remorse are unlikely for the aggressor when bullying is involved even after observing how their behavior has impacted the other person. When bullying is identified, it is common to observe strong resistance from the bully to hold themselves accountable for their actions. To address bullying effectively, the bully needs to experience consequences for their behavior and understand that the behavior will not be tolerated. The bullying victim needs to be validated and understand that the bully’s behavior towards them was not their fault.

Conflict on the other hand, is a natural part of learning how to communicate and interact with others effectively. It demonstrates how to give and take, as well as teach important problem-solving skills. Conflict involves two parties coming to an impasse and communicating their discontent to the other person. When it comes to conflict, resolution strategies are an effective means of addressing the concern in the form of compromise, and recognizing when and how one or both parties contributed to the conflict. Conflict resolution strategies are not often helpful when bullying is identified. Unresolved conflict can lead to bullying if one party decides to retaliate.

Recognizing the difference between the two experiences is important for a variety of reasons. Kids who regularly refer to conflict as bullying are at risk for failing to learn important conflict resolution strategies. Mislabeling conflict for bullying also inhibits others from learning how to accept responsibility for their role in a conflict with friends or family. It’s important that the distinct differences between these two terms be recognized and emphasized so that today’s youth can learn important skills necessary to realize their full potential.

Yolanda Gonzales, MEd, LPC
Inmindout Emotional Wellness Center, LLC


Gordon, S. (2018, January 29). How to tell the difference between conflict and bullying [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.verywell.com/conflict-and-bullying-difference-460495

Zirpoli, T.J. (2013, November 18) Bullying behavior. Retrieved from https://www.education.com/reference/article/bullying-behavior/