Drama vs. Bullying: Parents Need to Know the Difference

Bullying is a legitimate problem. However, it’s also become a misunderstood buzzword that can be incorrectly applied to run-of-the-mill teenage drama. So as your kids start school and inevitably run into these problems, it’s important to know the definitions of bullying and drama so you can better handle them both. Follett Corporation (@follettnews), parenting educator and New York Times bestselling author Rosalind Wiseman and more than 1,000 Twitter users discussed this topic during the #FallBackToSchool Twitter party on August 27, 2015. This conversation between parents, students, and experts revealed the need for concrete definitions.

According to Wiseman, drama is a conflict between two or more people, but it’s a two-way street without victims or aggressors. Drama can be serious and hurtful, but it’s often a one-time event that is ultimately smoothed over by the students themselves.

Bullying, on the other hand, is when one person repeatedly uses (or threatens to use) power over someone else who doesn’t have any. The actions are premeditated and one-sided, Wiseman said, and take place over a period of time for the sole purpose of humiliation and intimidation. Bullying usually requires intervention before long-term damage is done.

It can get confusing and there’s often overlap, but it’s vital to know the difference because drama and bullying should be handled in different ways, depending on the circumstances. Here are a few pointers on how to tell the difference between the two, as well as tips for dealing with each.

Is it disgust or dehumanizing?
If you’re hearing about conflict where “Suzy did this” and then “I did that” and “OMG, how could she say that,” you’re likely in the drama zone. In that case, it’s important to talk things out in a way that helps your child come up with a solution they can implement on their own, Wiseman said. But if a child reports being the victim of constant verbal or physical attacks for something about him or her as a person and not a specific conflict, that is likely bullying and will require outside help.

Is it “cyberbullying” or drama?
Let’s say your daughter usually hangs out with a group of kids, but one day she isn’t invited. She looks on Instagram and finds a picture of all her friends with the caption “Here with all my besties!” and she’s hurt because she wasn’t asked to attend. “She has every right to be upset because she’s not feeling included, but this is not necessarily bullying,” Wiseman said. In a situation like this where neither adults nor the school has to get involved, it’s best to listen to her complaints and support your daughter, however she chooses to handle it.

If it’s drama or bullying, don’t escalate the situation.
Parents love their kids a lot, so it’s tempting for them to freak out if they discover their children are the subjects of bullying. Avoid that temptation. “If parents overreact, many kids will shut down and they’ll be much less likely to talk with you about problems in the future,” Wiseman said. Even if you think your child has told you the whole story, remember the blame is seldom 100 percent on one person. Start by thanking them for coming to you in the first place, and then calmly let them know you’ll work together to figure out a solution in which they feel more control.

If it’s drama, don’t be overbearing.
If you’ve determined it is regular drama, don’t resort to platitudes and clichés. Too many parents automatically launch into advice and start fixing problems for their kids. However, the goal is to enable them with the tools to solve the problem themselves. “If you get your kids to talk to you, don’t insinuate that they have to do everything you’re advising just to please you,” Wiseman said. “That can be a huge and unrealistic hurdle for kids. Instead, let them know they already did a great job in coming to you, and they don’t have to follow your advice for you to be proud of how they’re handling things.”

If it’s bullying, let your kids choose a trustworthy adult.
Parents need to be prepared for the fact that kids might not choose them as confidantes. Wiseman tells kids to think about the adult in their lives who deserves a leap of faith on their part, and who can be trusted to help think through the problem they’re having. The adults usually chosen by children, according to Wiseman, are opinionated but not judgmental, reliable, and honest. “Parents should say ‘I just want you to know this happens and my goal as a parent is for you to know it doesn’t make you weak, but part of handling things on your own is recognizing when you’re in over your head and need help. It doesn’t have to be me as a parent, let’s just figure out who that person is, and I don’t need to know what’s going on unless your physical safety is in jeopardy,’” Wiseman said.

For more helpful school tips and advice on a broad spectrum of topics, review the #FallBacktoSchool Twitter Party on Storify.

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