What is Bullying?

The Federal government, via their StopBullying.gov website, defines bullying as “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” (click here to read the definition in its entirety.) Try teaching that to a group of elementary school children! Indeed, even adults struggle with clearly understanding what constitutes bullying. Yet before we can seriously address an issue, we have to understand what it is.

Just joking around, rough housing, or bullying?

Much of the confusion comes from the fact that what society has tried to define as Bullying is in reality an entire spectrum of different, but often related, phenomena. The spectrum of behaviors spans from being inconsiderate to defamation, from rough housing to assault, from mean to sociopathic. The venn diagram below is an attempt to give clarity to the federal definition – to more precisely delineate the different phenomena using the current vernacular, with a couple slight modifications. The physical is represented by purple spheres, the verbal, or Communicative, by blue, and Social, or Relational, by green.
bullying venn 3

Consider that teasing, name-calling, taunting, and rude hand gestures, as well as hitting, pushing, pinching, and tripping are listed as bullying behaviors on the Federal site. How does the joking around and rough housing of childhood become symptomatic of pathological behavior? One way to distinguish between healthy play and having gone too far is the willingness of the participants. Once verbal acts are “unwanted,” they could be viewed as rude and inconsiderate. Unwanted physical acts, on the other hand, become assault.

The acts labeled Social, or Relational, Bullying are different than the other two in that there isn’t really an acceptable level. Telling others not to be friends with someone, spreading rumors about someone, and embarrassing someone in public are all rude and inconsiderate. Purposely leaving someone out seems to be the exception – are people really expected to invite everybody to their party?

What transforms these otherwise typical human behaviors from rude & inconsiderate into bullying is three-fold. Rude, or inconsiderate behavior becomes bullying when: (1) there is an imbalance of power,(real or perceived) (2) the behaviors happen repeatedly, (or could be) AND (3) it is intentional. (note: intentionality was part of the earliest definitions of bullying, but is missing from the current official definition)

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

-Abraham  Maslow (The Psychology of Science)

It should be apparent that there is no simple, one-size-fits-all fix for such a multifaceted issue. A sincere proposal to teach our children how to deal with all of this must therefore acknowledge the full-spectrum of what we term bullying, accurately differentiate between phenomena, and develop a set of skills appropriate for dealing with each.

Our purpose at Werneck Family Jiujitsu is to help provide our students with a toolbox: a set of skills to help them successfully navigate these confusing waters. Our goal is to help our students:

  1. develop the self awareness to be resilient in the face of such rude and inconsiderate behaviors as teasing, name-calling, being singled out, left out, or talked about.
  2. learn to differentiate between rude or inconsiderate behavior and so-called bullying behavior.
  3. develop an appropriate plan of action for each of the phenomena.
  4. develop an effective set of skills to deal with each of the phenomena.

We want our jiujitsu family to enjoy safe, healthy, and productive lives. Life on the mat is a great place to start.

See you there.

image credit: Acoso escolar

Don’t Throw The Baby Out With The Bathwater

With October we’re witnessing the transition to fall. Cooling temperatures bring about change, as green turns to gold, brown, and crimson, and we ramp up for the upcoming holiday season. The kids are plotting their Halloween costumes, as parents finalize plans for Thanksgiving and the Christmas season. October is also National Bullying Prevention Month, therefore we will be discussing various aspects of bullying over the next five weeks.

In his paper Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology, Nick Haslam discusses how concepts like bullying have been expanded to “encompass a much broader range of phenomena than before.” They are extended outward to include new phenomena and downward to include less extreme phenomena. Potential benefits of such expansion include recognizing formerly tolerated negative behavior as problematic, and increased sensitivity to others suffering or maltreatment. The cost of this creep, however, may very well create more problems than it fixes.

Some Bullies tease, but not all teasing is bullying.

Teasing is one of the casualties in the ever-expanding definition of Bullying. The two are often used synonymously in the media and much of the available “anti-bully” literature. This semantic overlap has led to much confusion and mis-information for parents. It is also a headache for teachers and school administrators. As they work to establish legally mandated “learning environments free from distractions,” they create so-called zero-tolerance policies regarding bullying. In other words, NO TEASING ALLOWED.

There is an extensive body of academic literature studying the many cultural facets of teasing and it’s beneficial role in human communication. As explained by Kruger, Gordon, and Kuban (2006),

“To be sure, some teasing is designed with the sole purpose of hurting, humiliating, or harassing the target of the tease. But often, individuals tease to flirt, socialize, play, enhance social bonds, teach, entertain (themselves, the target, or an audience), or to express affiliation, affection, and even love (p. 412).”

In The Good, the Bad, and the Borderline: Separating Teasing from Bullying (2009), Mills and Carwile thoroughly discuss teasing, it’s relationship to bullying, and it’s value as a communicative device. While teasing can be used by bullies in a negative, aggressive manner, teasing also plays a very beneficial roll in our interpersonal interactions.

Teasing is very nuanced, utilizing humor, innuendo, sarcasm, and irony to indirectly communicate the intended message. Even as adults we oftentimes misinterpret the intent of someone’s witty or sarcastic quips. How can our children grow into strong, high-functioning adults, if they aren’t given the opportunity to develop this skill?

Mills and Carwile provide the Teasing Totter model to help those who would try to teach children to discern between the varying degrees of appropriate, healthy teasing. For a more in-depth look click here.

Teasingtotter

Rather than eliminating all forms of teasing in a misguided attempt of protecting our children, as parents and educators we need to do the hard work of distinguishing between the positive, beneficial forms and the negative. We need to allow children the opportunity to fine-tune these skills themselves, and help guide them through the sometimes murky waters of human communication. This understanding will make them stronger, more resilient, and more safe, enabling them to more effectively discern healthy human interaction from the threat of a bully. Otherwise, we’re just throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

See you on the mat.

image credit: stopbullying.gov


Haslam, N. (2016).  Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology, Psychological Inquiry, 27(1). Retrieved from: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2690955

Kruger, J., Gordon, C., & Kuban, J. (2006). Intentions in teasing: When ‘‘just kidding’’ just isn’t good enough. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 412􏰀425.

Mills, C. B. (2009, April). Communication Education. Retrieved from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Carol_Bishop_Mills/publication/263612607_The_Good_the_Bad_and_the_Borderline_Separating_Teasing_from_Bullying/links/58a72725a6fdcc0e078ae9c7/The-Good-the-Bad-and-the-Borderline-Separating-Teasing-from-Bullying.pdf