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Anti-bullying vs. bullying prevention: Do the terms we use make a difference?

Dr. Danielle Quigley

Erin Reiney and Dr. Susan P. Limber wrote an excellent post for stopbullying.gov about why it’s important to drop the labels when we’re talking about bullying among children. They made some critical points about why the way we talk about bullying is important: how labels harm and typecast children, how they fail to recognize the fluidity of behaviour in different situations and contexts, and how they place blame on the child and don’t allow us to recognize the power of other contributing factors. Being recognized as a “bully” or “victim” by teachers, mentors, peers, and parents can be very harmful to children. No matter what the child tries, these reputations are almost impossible to shake. In reality, children with reputations for being aggressive bully others at the same rate as children who don’t have this reputation (Craig & Pepler, 1998). So, the labels themselves are not accurate and they’re harmful to children.

I want to extend the argument that our language matters even further. The language we use to talk about bullying truly matters when we talk with children and youth about these issues. When I started doing research in bullying prevention and intervention, I learned very quickly to become self-aware. Self-awareness is about paying attention to how we speak and act around children and youth, as well as other adults. Children model their language and actions after our words and behaviours, so we need to be especially careful and deliberate in how we treat and talk to others.

Children and youth are acutely aware of the negative language we use, and when we say anti-bullying, what it actually sounds like is anti-bully. It sounds all too reminiscent of the zero-tolerance policies that abound – they sound alright in theory as they appear to mean “we don’t tolerate this behaviour” but they are less appealing when implemented as their reality is: we don’t tolerate this person. When speaking to teachers, parents, and administration, my former PhD supervisor, Dr. Tina Daniels, says: “when it comes to bullying, let’s be hard on the problem but soft on the person.” Bullying is a serious issue in schools and organizations today, but it’s always important to remember that these behaviours: 1) are learned; 2) are being tried on by children and youth to see how they work and how others react; and 3) can be changed. They are behaviours after all, not character traits.

We know that having an anti-bully approach to bullying is not the answer. Many organizations and governments have reversed their zero-tolerance policies and adopted a more positive approach to their language around the issue (Ontario has a bullying awareness and prevention week, for example – link to https://www.edu.gov.on.ca:443/eng/safeschools/prevention.html). Bullying is a set of behaviours and when we work toward preventing them, we need to recognize the power of our language and talk about it that way too. We’re working on bullying prevention, not anti-bullying. Can you hear the difference?


Craig, W. M. & Pepler, D. J. (1998). Observations of bullying and victimization in the school yard. Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 13, 41-60. doi: 10.1177/082957359801300205

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