Family Matters

Why It’s So Hard to Tell If Your Kid Is Being Bullied

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It’s National Bullying Prevention Month, and until really recently, I was feeling pretty smug that my kids — ages 4, 6 and 8 — had largely escaped either being a bully or being bullied.

To be a bully, it seemed you had to torment your peers. To be bullied, it seemed you had to be the tormentee. But what I’ve learned is that the definitions are not always so clear-cut. Moreover, they’re almost beside the point: if a kid — or his mom — feels like another child is being mean for the sake of being mean, it’s time to pay attention.

A few weeks ago, my son, a third-grader, came home complaining about the boy who sat next to him in class. They’d been paired to work on a project, and the boy had yelled at him, my son said.

“Really?” I said, surprised. “In the middle of class?”

Yes, insisted my son. They’d disagreed, and the boy delivered a verbal dressing-down, very loudly. My son was mortified.

He’d told his classmate not to yell at him. Or so he said. Although he has no problem telling his squabbling sisters where to get off, he turns meek when it comes to speaking up for himself outside his family circle. And aren’t meek kids a bully’s prey of choice?

MORE: What You Need to Know About Bullying

In many school districts across the country, children learn from kindergarten onward about standing up to bullies. In my children’s schools in Seattle, there are anti-bullying posters on the walls and anti-bullying speakers who address the kids in schoolwide assemblies. Mothers tote their babies into classrooms as part of a campaign to instill empathy in schoolchildren. Kids bring home brochures in their backpacks.

Traditionally, bullying evokes images of a hulking kid roughing up a beanpole in the boys’ bathroom. It seems insidious and obvious, like you’d know it when you see it.

Was my son being bullied or was I being a reactionary Mama Bear? I wasn’t sure.

I delivered an impromptu pep talk about the importance of being assertive and not letting others treat you badly. Then I promptly forgot all about it.

Until the next week, when he shared that this same boy had humiliated him in the school-bus queue, throwing this barb: You’re the worst tablemate in the whole world. It would almost have been laughable had I not heard the hurt in my son’s voice.

Was this bullying? It had happened twice, so there was repetition, which is a critical element of bullying.

Megan Moreno, an assistant professor of pediatrics at University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of a recent “Advice for Patients” column about school bullying published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, says the definition of bullying has evolved.

“In the old days, bullying was getting pushed around on the playground,” she says. “Now we’ve realized that both verbal and physical abuse have consequences.

“The thing about it,” acknowledges Moreno, “is it’s still hard on a day-to-day basis when it’s your kid to know what counts.”

She recommends coaching beleaguered children to say something as simple and direct as, Hey, you need to stop it. Resist the temptation as a parent to fling yourself into the conflict; many times, children can resolve the problem on their own. If they can’t, of course, it’s appropriate to loop in teachers or other adults.

MORE: Why Kids Bully

Earlier this month, TIME put together a mongo package on bullying. In one piece, about re-thinking anti-bullying strategies, I found a clue that seemed to offer a realistic window into my son’s experience:

… An emerging area of psychological study is looking at the formation of enemies — the adversarial and antipathetic relationships that are prevalent in classrooms (and, most likely, in the faculty lounge too) … The problem is that without a clear definition of what constitutes bullying, children who exhibit any type of unfriendly, negative or exclusionary behavior are punished as bullies …

“It’s easy to take it a step further to think of dislike and bullying as the same, but they’re not the same,” says Melissa Witkow, an assistant professor of psychology at Willamette University and author of a landmark study that found an association between mutual antipathies and a higher level of social development. “As adults, there are people we don’t like, but we’re not beating them up. We’re not harassing them. A lot of adults think that kids should only have positive relationships, but that’s not possible.”

According to Witkow’s interpretation, my son had merely had a couple run-ins with a kid who just didn’t like him (this, despite my boy’s reigning stature as the 2010-11 winner of his grade’s “humanitarian award”). Suck it up, Mom, Witkow seemed to say, and move on.

So I did. But not without first chatting with the boy’s mother — actually my husband did that, with far more finesse and studied casualness than I could have mustered — and again reinforcing to my son the importance of standing up for himself.

Without a word from me, his teacher also helped smooth things over, switching up the assigned seating. My son’s now got three new seatmates. As far as I know, they haven’t proclaimed him the best tablemate in the world — he’s got a tendency to be kind of messy — but neither have they dubbed him the worst.

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.