Dr. Emi Garzitto
Stop Using the Word Bully
A Guide for Parents
In the majority of cases what we call “bullying” is someone poorly managing their own nervous system. What we must do is help everyone get practice at naming and regulating their feelings, taking responsibility for their actions and repairing harm. We as adults need to give the message that we will help empower children to stand up to unkind behavior and that we will help them practice this at every turn.
A seven year old boy is playing on the monkey bars. He has a hard time managing his excitement and as he progresses through the monkey bars, his body becomes more and more uncoordinated and unpredictable. Other children around him begin to feel unsafe and they move away and try to get him to slow down or stop. But it is too late and his knee strikes another child in the face causing a significant injury.
An eight year old girl consistently pushes other girls from the back or pulls on their hair whenever she feels like she is not getting her way or when she feels others are excluding her in their play. A 12 year old girl puts a note in one of her classmate’s backpack. In it she calls her classmate “fat and ugly” and says “we only hang out with you because we feel sorry for you.”
In all three of these cases, parents responded by reporting these incidents to teachers or administration and calling it bullying. Are any of these three incidents examples of bullying? No, technically they are not. Does it matter that we use the word bullying to describe unregulated, mean or unkind behavior? In my view, absolutely, and here is why.
An act of bullying requires two things; one, an imbalance of power. The person doing the bullying needs to have more power than the person who is being bullied.
The second requirement is that the behavior has to be repeated.
A grade 7 boy asking for lunch money from a grade 3 boy, repeatedly is an act of bullying. A grade 7 boy asking for lunch money from a grade 3 boy once is not.
A grade 5 girl who repeatedly socially excludes the one vulnerable girl who does not have the cognitive or social emotional skills to stand up for herself is a bully. A grade 5 girl who socially excludes her peer is not.
Peer to peer teasing, unkindness, disregulation, rough play or name calling is not okay. Both the ‘victim’ and the ‘perpetrator’ need help in managing their feelings, standing up for themselves, creating boundaries, and repairing harm. They need a hand. Not just from the teacher, the counselor and the administrator but from the parents, the siblings, the school community, support workers and playground supervisors. Unkind behavior or disregulated behavior provides a learning opportunity.
The big problem I have when we use the word bully is that we immediately position two children – one as the bully and the other victim. The bully must be stopped and the victim must be protected. In real cases of bullying, I think this is absolutely true.
But in the majority of cases what we call “bullying” is someone poorly managing their own nervous system. What we must do is help everyone get practice at naming and regulating their feelings, taking responsibility for their actions and repairing harm. We as adults need to give the message that we will help empower children to stand up to unkind behavior and that we will help them practice this at every turn. When a child comes home and tells you they have been bullied, our first job is to investigate the incident and make sure everyone is safe. The next step is to help empower our children to name the exact behavior, (X is calling me names, spreading rumours about me, not letting me join in the soccer game, ect.). Once the exact behavior has been named, we help the child practice strategies that would help them push back or problem solve.
A great book to help you do this is, “Blue Cheese Breath and Stinky Feet” by Catherine Depino. https://www.amazon.ca/Blue-Cheese-Breath-Stinky-Feet/dp/1591471125