Is it Conflict or is it Bullying? What’s the Difference?

Think, pair, share
Work through the Conflict Resolution vs. Bullying Prevention Worksheet with a partner. As you do so, try to refine your ability to distinguish between conflict and bullying. What are the features of each that guide you in choosing an appropriate intervention strategy?

Conflict is a disagreement or a difference of opinion or interests between equals. The people involved in a conflict may disagree vehemently and emotions may run high. When conflict is badly managed, it may result in aggression. In a conflict, both parties have power to influence the situation. That is their goal.

Conflict may be an inevitable part of group dynamics, but bullying is not. In each, a different response is required.

When schools consider implementing a peer conflict resolution model, it is important to ensure that the selected model is not applied in bullying situations, and that it does not replace adult support. Knowing how to resolve conflicts without resorting to aggression is an important skill for students and adults. Various models for conflict resolution in school environments exist. Peer mediation, and other methods are aimed at cultivating dialogue between the students involved in the conflict. Unfortunately, these methods for conflict resolution are sometimes mistaken for bullying intervention strategies. This can lead to damaging and even dangerous situations. Imagine, as a student who has been bullied, being required to face your tormentor to explain the impact of the bullying, then having to listen to the perspective of the tormentor. We would never expect this of an adult.

When the elements that characterize bullying are present in a situation where there is aggression, conflict resolution is not a recommended response. Instead, adults need to ensure the safety of the student who is targeted and ensure that the student (or students) who has bullied, or encouraged the bullying, takes responsibility for his or her actions. Characteristics of a bullying situation include:

  • an imbalance of power;
  • the intent to harm;
  • worsens with repetition over time;
  • the distress of the child or teen being bullied, often including fear or terror;
  • enjoyment of the effects on the child or teen being bullied by the person (people) doing the bullying;
  • the threat – implicit or explicit – of further aggression.

Some examples of when conflict resolution strategies should and should not be used.