Written by Dru Ahlborg, Co-Founder and Executive Director of BRRC

Bullying is a pervasive issue that affects individuals of all ages, backgrounds, and walks of life. It leaves both emotional and physical scars, and its impact can be long-lasting. In order to address this problem effectively, it is essential that we use the right words when discussing or speaking about bullying. Our choice of language not only reflects our understanding of the issue but also shapes the way it is perceived and dealt with by others. It is crucial that we are thoughtful and intentional in our communication surrounding bullying, ensuring that our words empower and support those who have been impacted by it.

Included below are words that are often used in conjunction when speaking about bullying. Choosing our words and phrases wisely ultimately increases understanding about bullying and will help those who are impacted by bullying.


Bullying vs. conflict

At BRRC, we are deliberate about how we talk about bullying. One of the things we discuss with our parents is properly labeling an event bullying or conflict. Quite often school officials label events as conflict when it is indeed bullying.

Stopbullying.gov states “bullying is 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.” The markers of bullying include:

  1. Imbalance of power
  2. Intent to harm
  3. Threat of further aggression

Conflict, on the other hand is a disagreement or argument in which both parties express their views. There is equal power between the children involved and it generally stops when one child realizes they are hurting the other person.

Bullying and conflict need to be dealt with differently. If bullying is happening at school, the adults in charge are responsible to stop the bullying. Conflict however can sometimes be solved by the children themselves, or by some coaching from adults. Conflict can be “solved” whereas bullying must be “stopped.”


Victim vs. target

At BRRC, we are very intentional about referring to a child who has been bullied as a “target” rather than a “victim”. Instead of labeling individuals as “bullying victims,” it is more empowering and respectful to use the term “bullying targets.” This shift in language recognizes that individuals who have experienced bullying are not defined solely by their victimhood but deserve to be seen as individuals who have been targeted unfairly. By using the term “bullying targets,” we not only avoid further stigmatizing or marginalizing those who have endured bullying but also encourage a more compassionate and supportive approach to addressing this issue.


Taunting vs teasing

The words taunting and teasing are very different from one another. Taunting is the verbal action that involves humiliating, cruel and demeaning comments that are often referred to as “jokes.” When taunting occurs, laughter is directed at the target and is meant to diminish the self-worth of the person being laughed at. Teasing is verbal, playful interactions done among friends. It is not laughing at someone but is intended for both parties to laugh together.

Teasing can cross a line and become hurtful. When there is an objection, the person doing the teasing will stop. With taunting however, when someone gets upset, the behavior will continue. We often hear schools refer to verbal bullying behavior as “teasing” when it should be labeled as “taunting.” Taunting is hurtful and oftentimes can lead to additional bullying behaviors.


Flirting vs verbal sexual bullying

There are rather large differences between flirting and verbal sexual bullying. Schools sometimes downplay this form of verbal bullying and it is important to know the differences. Like teasing, flirting has a playfulness that sexual bullying does not. Flirting is an invitation for two people to get to know each other better. Flirting stops when one party declines the invitation. This banter is not intended to harm another and includes flattery, compliments and intended to make the other person feel attractive and in control.

The nature of verbal sexual bullying can be different for the genders. Words used to verbally assault boys in a derogatory manner are terms that define them less than being a male or a boy (sissy, pussy, wuss) or homophobic terms (gay, fag, queer). With females and girls, the verbal assaults will often objectify their body or demean their sexuality (fat, dog, cunt, slut, whore, easy). Many times, the child who is engaging in bullying will state they are just “teasing.”


Retaliation vs Defending Yourself

Schools quite often talk about a bullying target “retaliating” in physical incident and therefore inciting equal consequences for both the aggressor and the target. Defending oneself involves taking reasonable and appropriate actions to protect oneself from further harm. The focus is asserting their rights and prioritizing personal safety. Children who are the target of physical bullying behavior will sometimes strike back. It is imperative to investigate bullying incidents and determine if a child was attempting to protect themselves. Retaliation is the action of harming someone because they themselves have been harmed. It is an act of revenge. When a child takes measures during a physical altercation to protect themselves, it should be labeled as defending oneself. If a bullying target plans harmful actions against their aggressor to “get back” at them, then that would be labeled as retaliation.

Using appropriate language about bullying is incredibly important. The correct use of terms and words will better defend a bullying target and opens an opportunity to educate others about the differences in behaviors. We are here to assist in defending bullied children through advocacy, education and proper language.

“Words are containers for power, you choose what kind of power they carry.”  ~ Joyce Meyer