9 year old David comes home from school and told his Mum that his friend said him he was a loser in front of a group of friends.
15 year old (in tears) Talia has her Dad pick her up from a party because a girl in another class told someone she likes her friend’s boyfriend.
6 year old Joseph tells grandma that he hates school because the other kids try not to not play with him.
If you’ve worked with young people for any length of time, you will know of course that kids and teens have negative experiences with other children and young people very frequently. From the age of 4 (when physical aggression starts to decrease) feeling hurt, frustrated, distressed and disappointed when interacting with friends and classmates becomes increasingly common.
For example, one study found that children report having a conflict with one of their good friends approximately once per fortnight. Another study found that approximately 60% of children and teens report having a “mutual enemy” (someone they dislike and who dislikes them) which presumably is associated with at least some negative interactions. Other studies find that - depending on how you ask the question - 1 in 4 children/young people say they have experienced “bullying” during their primary or secondary years.
These experiences generally occur without adults being around. On study found that twice as many occur in the playground than in classrooms themselves and in the last 5 years increasing numbers of negative interactions occur “online” on social media, messaging apps, discussion boards and other forums.
An interesting side note, research shows there are some differences in negative peer experiences for girls and boys. Girls (in general) report having “closer” friendships (they share more information and rate their friends as more important to them than boys do), and also rate their conflict as more distressing to them than boys. Girls conflict and peer problems are also more frequently about relationships – “I know more/am better friends with X than you” - compared to boys, for whom conflict is more likely to be about competition: “I’m better/have more than you”.
As you can see, both boys and girls initiate, put up with and need to manage negative peer interactions of some kind very frequently, far more than most adults do.
Bullying versus Mean/Rude Behaviour and Arguments
In the last couple of years, as professionals we have worked hard to teach children and teens about the difference between two different kinds of negative interactions with their peers: bullying (power differential, targeted, repeated) and “rude/mean” behavior (equally powerful peers, not repeated, or not intentional, resolves quickly).
Many young people seem to have received this message loud and clear – I’ve heard young children be able to spout this definition with great confidence: “I did NOT bully her, there was no difference in our power status!” said one indignant 7 year old in my presence recently!
On the whole, I think this distinction has been extremely helpful for families in normalizing and “decatastrophising” some of the difficult situations young people face with their friends. It has also helped young people to manage their distress more effectively and directed adult attention to where it is needed most.
Potential risks with the “bullying – mean/rude behavior” distinction
However as much as the bullying – mean/rude behavior distinction has been helpful, I think there are two risks which can arise while we are making this distinction.
Risk 1: Assuming that all negative interactions between peers can be classified as either “bullying” or “mean/rude behavior”.
While we have a good working definition for bullying versus mean/rude behavior – we should not pretend this is an easy classification system. Bullying and mean/rudeness fall on two ends of a continuum and frankly some behaviours fall in the middle.
It’s important to understand and acknowledge “the grey areas” rather than assume we (let alone children and teens) can neatly classify all negative interactions as either “bullying” or “not bullying“
Risk 2: Dismissing the distress which comes from rude/mean behavior and arguments
The second risk is the potential for us to underestimate the distress, and potential damage “not bullying” behaviours can be for some kids and teens.
I know when I’m working with children or teens who are reporting difficult peer interactions, I’m silently assessing the behavior as I hear about it as to whether it meets a definition of bullying behavior. I wish this wasn’t the case, but I’m sure I have subconsciously sighed a small sigh relief at times when it doesn’t: “not bullying”.
In a way, this is not a surprise. When we recognize peer behavior as bullying we are understandably going to have increased concern for young people (knowing the impact it has on mental health) as well as going to have increased responsibilities and actions we need to take. Of course we would rather – for children, young people and ourselves – that negative peer interaction be lower level and “not bullying”.
But there are times when I need to remind myself that rude/mean behavior and arguments between peers can also be significantly distressing – and potentially damaging - for some young people.
Understanding the distress children and young people experience as a result of mean/rude behaviour and arguments
To understand how much tough “not bullying” can be for some young people, it can be useful to reflect again on the nature of their friendships.
Like adults, many children and young people have deep and real connections to friends.
Unlike a lot of adults however, many young people spend extended numbers of hours every day with their friends. In addition, they don’t have a job (which for many adults provides a sense of meaning and self esteem). They don’t have a partner or (many) same aged family members with whom they can share their life’s journey. They also don’t have a well-developed sense of self and their place in the world.
In addition, from an evolutionary perspective, preteens and teenagers have a strong and subconscious instinct to form connections with their peer group. The preservation of our very society relies on young people forming their own tribes and relationships with peer groups.
For some (particularly older) children and teenagers, their friendships and peer relationships are very emotionally intense. I’ve heard some writers talk about them as akin to “love affairs” for adults.
In other words, for many children and young people, a great deal of their identity, enjoyment or life and meaning much of comes from their peer relationships.
Therefore, when children and young people are rejected, dismissed, ignored or insulted - although it may not be “not bullying”– it can still be a source of deep hurt, sorrow and lead to problems.
Research shows that pre and early adolescent children (ie 10-14 year olds) are particularly vulnerable to friendships ending and may experience significant loneliness, sadness and symptoms of depression. Other research suggests that lack of strong friendship connection is associated with emotional distress.
8 year old John who I’ve worked with over the course of several years, often tells me about his loneliness and sadness at school. He responds unhelpfully and not surprisingly, kids are frequently rude to him and unkind. He is not experiencing bullying. But the rude behavior he experiences deeply distresses and tires him.
15 year old Jodie, also a long term client, told me about persistent arguments with a small group of friends she hangs out with. Some of them are particularly nasty. She is not experiencing bullying. But she never has a day at school when she feels relaxed or accepted, and many days she feels distraught about what has happened.
Arguments and mean/rude behavior can be significantly distressing for children and young people and we need to continue to monitor and support young people to manage this.
Of course we absolutely don’t want to give young people the message that negative peer interactions are abnormal, terrible or something which they can never manage on their own. Taking it seriously doesn’t mean we don’t encourage children and young people to develop resiliency and learn skills to manage this on their own.
However (and I’m sure like most of you) I’ve found that stopping to acknowledge the distress, discomfort and struggle kids and young people go through when they tell me about rude/mean behavior and arguments (“that sounds tough”, “I can see why that would hurt”, “I’m sorry this is something you have to manage”) has been really helpful in my work with young people.
I’ve also found it helpful to do this with parents/caregivers (“It’s always hard to see your child hurting”, “I can imagine you feel somewhat helpless”, “I’m sorry you have to hear your teen feeling so upset about this”).
This kind of empathy and acknowledgement of the negative peer interactions has allowed me to then more easily go on to work with a family to talk about the differences between bullying and mean/rude behavior, to normalize these interactions, to help them stay calm and use strategies to better manage the negative interactions themselves.
If you work with primary aged children in conflict, the following resources on Calm Kid Central might be helpful: Parent Training (helping your child confidently manage peer conflict and problems video series) and Child Videos (That’s Mean: How to manage tricky and “mean” behavior with others)