Is It Peer Conflict or Is It Bullying? Back »

Written by Karelyn Farrand (former SDSU Extension Regional 4-H Youth Program Advisor).

Peer relations is an important part of children’s social and emotional development. As children grow and mature from elementary school to middle school and then into high school; they are sure to run into peer conflict, disagreements and in some situations bullying. Conflict between and among peers is common, and not necessarily a bad developmental opportunity.

Normal conflict allows youth to pick up social and communication skills needed to resolve these situations. However, bullying, an extreme form of peer conflict, may cause significant emotional and physical harm, which may lead to aggressive behaviors when youth lack the social skills to deal with their frustrations. Therefore, it is important for youth, as well as adults, to know and understand the differences between conflict and bullying and to promote and use positive conflict-resolution techniques.

So, what is normal peer conflict? Peer conflict is a mutual disagreement between peers or among groups of peers. It is considered a conflict between people of equal or similar power; friends. It occurs occasionally and is an unplanned situation where the offender(s) are not seeking power or attention. Occasionally, peer conflict may result in some type of violence or result in serious harm, however, the offender will usually have comparable emotional reactions, demonstrate some remorse and actively try to resolve the situation.

So, how is bullying different than peer conflict? Traditional bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged peers that often takes place repeatedly over time or has the potential to be repeated, over time. Generally, bullying occurs when the perpetrator has a real or perceived power imbalance over the victim. Refer to Recognizing the Difference Between Normal Peer Conflict and Bullying Chart below.

Recognizing the Difference Between Normal Peer Conflict and Bullying*

Normal Peer Conflict
Equal power or friends Imbalance of power; not friends
Happens occasionally Repeated negative actions, or predictable
Accidental Purposeful
Not usually serious Serious with threat of physical or emotional harm
Equal emotional reaction Strong emotional reaction from victim and little or no emotional reaction from bully
Not seeking power or attention Seeking power, control, or material things
Not trying to get something Attempt to gain material things or power
Remorse – takes responsibility No remorse. Blames victim.
Effort to solve the problem No effort to solve problem
Roles change – chaser can also be chased and vice versa. Roles stay the same – chaser always chases.
*Source: Adapted from Bully-Proofing Your School: Teacher’s Manual and Lesson Plans and A Guide to Bullying Prevention programs.

Types of Bullying

Bullying can take on many forms:

  • Physical: hitting or punching
  • Verbal: teasing that has turned to taunting or name-calling
  • Psychological: nonverbal or emotional bullying - intimidating someone through gestures, rumors or social exclusion
  • Cyberbullying: aggression using the internet, mobile phones or other cyber technology to:
    • Send mean text, email, tweets, Snap Chats or instant messages
    • Post nasty pictures or messages about others in blogs or on Web sites
    • Spread rumors or lies about someone by using someone else's user name or pretending to be someone else
    • Intentionally exclude someone from an online group.

How to Help: Positive factors

To help youth navigate through normal conflict or bullying situations there are three types of positive factors: Individual, Family and School.

  • Individual Factors: Include problem solving skills, self-regulation skills and language skills.
  • Family Factors: Include healthy attachment to parents, positive family relationships, consistent family structure and consistent parent monitoring. 
  • School Factors: Include supportive peer relationships, school connectedness and an involvement in extra-curricular activities.

Youth that have not developed these necessary individual social skills lack the skills needed to correctly process social information which leads to misinterpreting social cues and assuming others have a mean intent during conflicts. Youth engaging in aggressive behaviors may exhibit: poor impulse control, low frustration tolerance, limited ability to generate alternative responses to stress and limited insight into the feelings of themselves and others. Since these youth have fewer social skills they tend to lose control more quickly and engage in aggressive behaviors during times of stress.

In addition, youth with aggressive behaviors may be experiencing inconsistent parenting, poor parent child relationships and little or no parent support, as well as, experiencing deviant peer relationships, academic difficulties and low self-esteem to participate in school extra-curricular activities.


  • Child Trends, Research – to-Results Brief, Assessing Bullying: A Guide For Out-Of-School Time Program Practitioners, Pub. #2009-42, Oct. 2009.
  • Child Trends, Research – to-Results Brief, Assessing Peer Conflict and Aggressive Behaviors: A Guide For Out-Of-School Time Program Practitioners, Pub. #2009-43, Oct. 2009.
  • Youth engaged in antisocial and aggressive behaviors: Who are they? In Handbook of school violence and school safety: From research to practice (pp. 3 -19), Jimerson, S., Morrison, G., Pletcher, S., & Furlong, M., 2006.
  • Take A Stand Curriculum, AgriLife Extension, September, 2009.
  • A Guide to Bullying Prevention Programs, North Carolina University of Extension,
  • Bully-Proofing Your Child, First Aid for Hurt Feelings, Garrity, C., Barr
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