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Bullying Defined

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

girls laughing at others

This is the first post in a three-part series about bullying. The second article outlines the warning signs of bullying and the third discusses the legal implications when a student is accused of bullying.

By Erin Herzeelle

Over the past several years, bullying has received increasing attention in the media and on school campuses as more and more children have fallen victim to the aggressive behavior. Parents and administrators are on alert for signs that children are the victims of bullying—or the perpetrators. Given the consequences, it’s important to understand the difference between bullying, rude, and mean behavior.

Many students experiment with aggressive behavior as a means to gain social status or acceptance. With guidance and intervention, many students recognize that this strategy is ineffective, short lived, inauthentic, and typically results in negative disciplinary consequences from parents and schools. In other words, many students come to realize that the connections formed with peers based on a common target or targets are not substantive, deep, or long lasting.

Furthermore, many students develop guilt over teasing, ostracizing, and degrading another individual and begin to feel compassion for the peers whom they have intimidated. In fact, some experts have argued that weathering these adolescent social struggles helps build empathy for those in an aggressor role, advocacy for those in an upstander role, and resilience for those in a targeted role. However, without intervention, these behaviors can grow into more repeated and ongoing harassment—bullying.

Rude, Mean, or Bullying Behavior?

Bullying is aggressive, purposeful, repeated behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. In order for actions to be considered bullying, the behavior must be intentional, unkind, and recurring as well as include some imbalance of power between the parties involved. Many parents, students, and teachers have erroneously labeled a behavior as bullying when not all parameters are met. Inaccurately labeling an interaction as bullying can cause a smaller social conflict to become a much larger problem involving school administrators and possibly the local authorities. In addition, mistaking mean behavior for bullying can strip students of the opportunity to navigate social struggles independently as well as develop skills such as empathy, advocacy, and resilience. At the same time, failing to intervene in bullying situations can have negative consequences. Many victims of bullying behavior have an increased risk for doing poorly in school, dropping out of school, and developing mental health conditions, to name a few. Therefore, understanding the difference between mean and bullying behavior is critical to supporting all students developing social and emotional needs.

Here is a chart that provides a quick reference for delineating rude versus mean versus bullying behavior.

Unintentional Intentional,
Not repeated,
Not repeated,
    Power imbalance
and target. 
Ex. Age/grade,
physical size,
social status,
academic ability, etc.
Example: Sylvia
walks by a
lunch table
asking her
friend, “Yuck,
what is that
fishy smell?”
Sylvia does
not notice
that Bob
has a tuna
fish sandwich
and that
he feels
eating his
having heard
her comment.
Example: Sylvia
says to Bob,
who is eating
a tuna fish
“Tuna fish
is disgusting.
Your lunch
is gross.”
Bob gets up
and moves to
another table.
Silvia walks
by Bob’s
lunch table
and finds
about his
lunch to
pick on: "Only
babies eat
peanut butter
and jelly
"Your soup
looks like
vomit." "Nice
lunch box; it
looks like my
Bob tries
sitting on the
other side
of the cafeteria
and eventually
starts eating
in the

Note that interrupting all of these types of behavior is encouraged as rude and mean behavior, when perpetuated, can lead to bullying behavior and are simply unkind behaviors that do not build community. All parties involved—the aggressors, observers, and targets—are all urged to disturb these behaviors by drawing a crowd or gathering allies for the target(s), scattering the crowd with specific focus on drawing the target away from the aggressor(s), changing the subject, and/or replying with quick retorts (stop it, over the line, too far).


About the Author


Erin Herzelle is a counselor and tutorial teacher at Landmark Elementary•Middle School (EMS). Prior to joining Landmark, she worked in education in a variety of roles including kindergarten teacher, career counselor, and alumni director. She has a master's degree in school counseling and mental health counseling.

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