Focus on the Family

Mean Kids or Bullies: What’s the Difference?

Teaching children how to recognize the difference between unkindness and being bullied

“Have you ever been bullied?” I asked my daughter.

“Yes,” she replied. She shared how a younger girl had randomly walked up to her and told her she was
ugly. This was not what I had expected her to say and realized I had to teach my daughter how to
recognize the difference between unkindness and being bullied.

Bullying is a deliberate, usually ongoing attack on another person’s worth or dignity. Focus on the
Family counselor Tim Sanford says that parents can help children understand the difference between
bullying and run-of-the-mill rudeness by asking them three questions about a person’s behavior. I
used descriptions of green-, yellow- and red-light behavior to ask my daughter the three questions
Sanford suggested:

Green light

Ask your child: Do you think this was an accident or that the girl was trying to joke with you?

Some kids may simply say or do things that hurt your feelings. When you let them know that what they
did was hurtful, they often apologize and try to correct it. An example might be someone who cuts in
line, and when you inform him of his mistake, he apologizes and finds the real end of the line.
These people might unintentionally cause pain, but once they are made aware of what they did, they
work to correct it. These kinds of people often make good friends.

Yellow light

Ask your child: Do you think this was a sign of immaturity or selfishness? Was the
person trying to look smart or clever in front of friends?

Sometimes kids are selfish and immature. They have little interest in another’s feelings and are
focused on getting their way. For example, someone grabs a pencil off your desk because she didn’t
bring one.

In these cases, kids should say, “Stop,” “Don’t do that” or “I don’t like that.” The person probably
won’t apologize but will likely give back your pencil. You want to proceed with caution in
developing a friendship or spending a lot of time with kids who continually treat others this way.

Red light

Ask your child: Do you think she was trying to make you do what she wanted you to do? Was
she looking to make you feel bad so she could make herself feel better?

Some kids seek to have power and control over you. Their unwanted, aggressive behavior is often
predetermined, and most of the time, mean. An example of a red light is when someone stands in the
doorway with his arms crossed and head cocked back, and he won’t let you leave the room. Is this
person concerned about the door or protecting what is behind him? No. Even if he pretends to “just
be joking,” his true objective is to get you to do what he wants.

Bullies don’t do these actions just once, but several times. When kids recognize these consistently
hostile actions, they should get help from an adult.

When I used these definitions and talked to my daughter about green-, yellow- and red-light
situations, she eventually put the girl who was mean to her in a yellow-light category. Helping my
daughter try to see the motivations and personalities behind different kids’ behaviors has helped
her become wiser about the types of kids who could be bullies and those who might make good friends.

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