How Do I Know if it's Really Bullying?

How Do I Know if it's Really Bullying?

Mischa comes home crying because the kids “bullied her” during lunch again. Luke is upset that “the bullies” wouldn’t include him in basketball after school. The principal called because your angel Tom pushed another student down in the hallway. Is it bullying?

Google the word bullying and you will get 78,700,000 in .16 seconds. October is National Bullying Prevention Month. Founded in 2006 by the PACER Center, a parent training and information center for families of children and youth with all disabilities located in Minneapolis, NBPM has grown to encompass thousands of events and activities across the country, with plenty of resources, handouts and activities to support both organizations and individuals who want to learn and do more. And bullying is serious business. But, misinterpreting something as bullying can also be problematic.

“When we label something as bullying, it’s a ‘default setting’ that can let people option out of taking responsibility,” says Debbie Cardash, LCSW and Coordinator of Social Work Services for REACH (Resources for Educational Achievement, Collaboration and Health at Chicago Jewish Day Schools). “It allows a focus only on the bully. And, by labeling someone the ‘victim,’ things like teaching good social skills and setting boundaries can be misinterpreted as ‘blaming the victim,’ as opposed to simply providing the child with more tools in their tool box,” says Cardash, who also created a Social Skills and Anti-violence training program for the YWCA Evanston Shelter.


Bullying is a pattern of behavior designed to hurt, that is repeated over time, and there is a power differential, “that’s not to be confused with really awful behavior that’s not acceptable, but it’s not always bullying,” says Cardash. “Many school interactions may boil down to rules that were taught, but perhaps not enforced, from toddlerhood: Keep your hands to yourself and don’t touch other people’s stuff. That is often a basis of what is taught in social skills classes. It’s not to blame the victim, but to look at behaviors that might be provoking a response.”


For parents, says Cardash, if your child comes home saying he or she was bullied, it’s important to ask:

  • What happened?
  • Has this person ever bothered you before?
  • What happened right before this happened?

It could be that Luke didn’t get invited to play basketball because he was late, and the 5 on 5 teams were already full and in the middle of a game. Mischa might be touching other people’s food, even after she was politely asked to stop. If there are siblings at home, is there any interaction there that might be provocative if replicated at school?


When in doubt, there are plenty of social skills groups and curriculum designed for children of all ages and developmental ability. The top three tips, says Cardash, are:

  1. Respecting peoples boundaries, both physical and their stuff, whether it’s a backpack, toys, or items on someone’s desk at work;
  2. Identifying provocative behaviors—when someone says stop it means stop…kids need to know where they start and another person begins.
  3. Knowing expectations in different settings—the rules may be different at home or at school, or in different cultures. It’s helpful for kids to understand that and to be able to shift behaviors as the situation demands

And, finally, practice does help. If your child is getting picked on because they aren’t as good at baseball, and it’s important to him or her, head outside and practice with them. Or find what they are interested in and sign them up. If it’s shyness around meeting new people, practice at synagogue, with friends at home or in public, making eye contact and shaking hands to say hello.

Parents play a key role in modeling social skills (or recognizing when a child might need extra help with social skills) to teach kids to be successful and thrive independently in world.

“Resilience at home also can help a child cope with stress from bullies or other challenges of growing up,” says Robin Stein, Director of Response Center, which provides a number of programs and workshops for teens and in schools to address bullying prevention. “What messages are we sending our own children by our comments and behaviors? “ asks Stein, noting that both being an ‘upstander,’ someone who might intervene if they witnessed someone being bullied, or actually being a bully oneself, is learned at home. “As adults and parents, if we exude fact that we’re confident in ourselves, able to stand up for ourselves and set healthy boundaries, then we can help our kids be healthy.”

For information on Social Skills Groups, Anti-bullying curricula and more, please call us at 855-ASK-JCFS (855-275-5237), or visit

Photo Credit: APCL on flickr