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Family Files

RIP: Distinguishing Between Peer Conflict and Bullying

A concerned parent once approached me with a myriad of questions on bullying. Why was her child being excluded from the peer group? What about name calling – is that bullying? Why is her child being picked on? What can she do to help? As the questions went on, one in particular stood out to me: "Is this normal?" It became clear: this parent was having difficulty distinguishing between "normal" peer conflict and bullying.

Parents have a plethora of resources to consult in the area of bullying. A google search of the term "bullying" will yield 94,200,000 results in a matter of milliseconds. While there is no doubt a wealth of information on bullying and, as October is National Bullying Prevention Month, parents may ask themselves, "How do I tell the difference between bullying and normal peer conflict?"

One approach parents can use to distinguish between peer conflict and bullying is using the acronym RIP. There are generally three components of bullying:

RRepeated. The action of the bully is generally a repeated action, occurring time after time.

IIntentional. The target does not knowingly provoke the bully and, as such, the bully is intentional with their behavior/actions.

PPower Imbalance. In bullying situations, there is a real or perceived power imbalance between the two parties. This imbalance can be physical strength, access to information, or even popularity.

In contrast, "normal" peer conflicts differ from bullying situations in the following ways:

  • The children involved are of equal power or are friends.
  • The conflict that occurs is occasional or often accidental.
  • There is an equal emotional reaction to the conflict to both children and power or control is not being sought.

Having disagreements with peers is a normal developmental task of childhood; bullying, while it may be a common childhood experience, should not be tolerated. Trying to discern between the two may be difficult as a parent. It may be helpful to assess the situation closely – assessing if the action is Repeated, Intentional, and involves a Power Imbalance.

Using the RIP concept is a great tool to help parents distinguish between bullying and peer conflict as the response to each differs. Conflict can be a good thing for children to experience – helping them to learn how to resolve conflict, how to give and take, how to come to an agreement, and how to problem solve. Developing conflict resolution skills in children can teach how to listen to and work with others.

Parental response to bullying takes two main forms: support and report. Supporting your child means maintaining open lines of communication, actively listening to their experiences, avoiding blame, and empowering him/her. Informing your child's teacher or school of bullying incidents is also key.

For more information on responding to bullying situations, visit these excellent resources:


Responding to Bullying

A Parent's Response to Bullying

Stop Bullying Now: Advice for Parents and Guardians

Children and Bullying a Guide for Parents