As soon as the kids goes back to school, questions about bullying spring up. While bullying has always been around us, it’s gained a higher profile in recent years.

With the increased awareness of bullying, however, has also come an oversensitivity. By that, I mean that many parents jump to the conclusion that their child is being bullied when they’re dealing with normal childhood interactions. Just as adults may not always be nice, can be impolite, and can exclude others, children will exhibit the same behaviors. They can be mean, rude, and block other kids from their playgroups. Just because a little girl won’t let your daughter join her game of tag doesn’t mean your daughter is being bullied. Just because another boy punches your son on the playground doesn’t make him a bully or your son a victim of bullying.

There’s no question that some children are bullies and others are victims of those bullies, and bullying is a bad thing. But there’s a big difference between kids who are engaged in rude or mean behavior, and bullying. A classmate who tells your daughter she’s ugly may be mean, but she isn’t necessarily bullying her. A kids who shoves in front of your son in the lunch line is rude, but probably not a bully.

The consensus among mental health experts is that bullying involves three elements. First, there’s an intent by the bully to harm others. Second, there’s some sort of power imbalance, whether it’s an age difference, a size difference, or something like a child whose family is well-off who targets a child from a poor family. Finally, there’s a pattern of repeated threats or aggressive acts with no remorse. If a bigger kid shoves your son down at the bus stop every morning and laughs at the bruises, you’re probably dealing with a bully. If it happens once, maybe not. (Despite today’s moms’ best efforts, little boys do still tend to play rough.)

Bullies don’t have to use physical aggression, either. Verbal comments and threats can hurt just as much. Some bullies use what’s known as relational aggression, such as threats to stop being friends or shunning another. And today, cyberbullying is becoming more common, whether over social media or through cell phones.

So if your child comes home crying one day because someone said something mean to her, don’t jump to the assumption that she’s being bullied. But if there’s a pattern that’s happening day after day, please dig a little deeper. And if your child is unwilling to tell you what’s going on, make an appointment with one of our counselors. Often, kids are more willing to open up to another adult, and if bullying is truly happening, we can give both you and your child proven strategies for addressing the situation.

Your kids are so worth it.

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