Question: What are the chances that a bully will be among the group of campers you are responsible for this summer?

Answer: Zero.

Sorry, this is a trick question. Bullying is a behavior, not an identity. Instead of saying “that camper is a bully,” one can identify that a camper is engaging in bullying behavior. Similarly, we encourage you to use this framework when talking about bullying behavior that may come up at camp. Why? Because research indicates that labeling an individual as a bully can have a negative effect on their future, and perhaps more importantly, in the moment, it can limit the individual’s ability to change their behavior (Reiney & Limber, 2013). Labeling a child as anything should be avoided whenever possible — which is most of the time.

However, it is essential to identify, label, and call out bullying behavior correctly. “Labeling an incident as bullying influences whether [youth] tell an adult, as well as how adults respond to the report” (PREVNet, Networks of Centres of Excellences, & US Department of Health and Human Services, n.d.). Encouraging campers to report bullying and ensuring that adults respond appropriately to those reports are the keys to minimizing trauma and keeping the situation from getting out of hand. But before we dive into how we should respond, let’s start with the basics.

What Is Bullying?

In the US, bullying behavior affects one out of every five youth during their school years (, n.d.), and it has a very specific and narrow definition. Bullying is “unwanted, aggressive behavior . . . that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time” (, 2023). Another way to define bullying is “an ongoing and deliberate misuse of power in relationships through repeated behaviors intended to cause physical, social, and/or psychological harm” (VIC Government, 2024). Three elements must be present for behavior to be classified as bullying: power, intent, and repetition.

Power in this case refers to the person (or people) engaging in bullying having more of something than the intended target(s) of their actions. Typical examples include social status (popularity) and physical strength, but the imbalance can also be based on things such as privilege, authority, or knowledge of personal information. People who bully exploit power imbalances to their advantage by intimidating their targets, instilling fear, and making it less likely that the behavior will be reported. They also use their power to manipulate and control situations to their benefit, ostracize targets from their social groups and support systems, and in some cases, even gain further social status themselves (think Regina George and her followers in the movie Mean Girls). Because of the unequal playing field on which bullying occurs, undermining confidence and self-esteem are easy “wins” for individuals who bully.

Intent, the second element of bullying, refers to the fact that an individual who bullies is deliberate in their actions. It is not accidental; the individual is trying to cause either emotional or physical harm to their target.

Lastly, bullying is repetitive; it is a pattern of behavior. As distasteful as they may be in the social group at camp, single episodes of social rejection or dislike, disagreements, fighting, or meanness are not bullying. Instead, these may be indicative of conflict.

What Is Conflict?

Conflict is a disagreement, struggle, or argument between individuals in which both sides are able to express their views on an issue that they see differently. Conflict is normal and expected within the context of relationship building. To say it again and more loudly, you should expect conflict among your campers.

In fact, Tuckman’s Stages of Group Development (often referred to as the forming-storming-norming-performing model) states that as they build interpersonal relationships, groups must go through conflict (Stein, n.d.).

The “storming” stage happens after members of the group have gotten to know each other on a superficial level, as they begin to learn more about each other as individuals, build trust with each other, and figure out how to work together (or not). As social connections begin to take root, it is completely normal to see shifting alliances and allegiances between campers, complaints or arguments, clashes, and infighting. Experiencing these interactions, finding a way through them with the support of staff, and then moving on is the process that allows friendships and group relationships to solidify.

Bullying or Conflict — Does It Matter What We Call It?

Yes, it does matter. As you now know, these are two very different things.

Unfortunately, the “b” word gets thrown around casually and frequently. Typical and fully expected “storming” (conflict) is often mischaracterized as bullying. Campers may tell their parents/guardians that another camper bullied them, when what they actually mean is that there were arguments or disagreements, or someone was mean or rude to them. Without further context, the camp director is likely to get a somewhat frantic call about this behavior from an adult at home who is concerned that their camper has been, or is being, mistreated.

As a staff member, it’s essential that you can tell the difference between conflict (Normal. Expected. Typical.) and bullying (Not. Ever. OK.). Your supervisors at camp will rely on you to keep your campers emotionally and physically safe. They will also rely on your interpretation of campers’ interactions if bullying is being alleged. So, how can you identify the difference and determine whether what’s happening is conflict, bullying, or something else? The following grid outlines some of the differences.

Source: Jennifer Astles, DASA Newsletter, January 2014, TST BOCES

How To Intervene When Bullying Occurs

It would be ideal if we could prevent bullying from happening at all. That’s unlikely, though there are things we can do to lessen incidences. One of these is to proactively and intentionally work toward creating a “culture of includers,” getting your campers to buy in from day one to the idea that being kind is the best way to be cool at camp.

I realize that’s a hard sell. It’s still worth the effort. Teaching socially appropriate behaviors empowers youth to make good choices, not just at camp but also in their day-to-day lives and in their futures. It’s not enough to teach campers what they should not do. We have to also give them practice in promoting kindness, empathy, and inclusivity. The more they are empowered to include, the less bullying will happen.

When it does happen, bullying typically falls into four categories:

  • Verbal — such as name-calling or threats
  • Physical — for example, hitting, taking someone’s belongings
  • Cyber — digital/online
  • Social, also known as “relational bullying” — involves damaging the target’s relationships or reputation by spreading rumors or controlling who can be friends with that person

While physical bullying is the category most often witnessed because it is so blatant, in reality it accounts for less than one-third of bullying incidents (, n.d.). The most commonly reported type of bullying is actually verbal, then social, then cyber, then physical.

Intervening firmly, clearly, and quickly in any of these types of bullying is crucial to curbing the behavior. Your camp will likely train you on their specific policies and procedures, but here are some general tips to get you started.

Stop the Behavior

It sounds obvious, but the first key step is to interrupt the bullying as soon as it is brought to your attention. You may not be aware of initial acts of bullying behavior, but once you are aware, make it a priority to disrupt the pattern immediately.

Remind Campers about Expectations and Provide Examples

Use a respectful tone as you firmly and clearly remind campers what the expected behavior is at camp. Keep the focus on the behavior; you’re not trying to embarrass the camper who has engaged in bullying. Your goal is to send a clear message that this behavior is not acceptable — and also to explain specifically what you want to see instead.

For example, you may take the camper aside and say, “Sam, the expectation here at camp is that each of us is kind to all others. Bullying is never OK. It isn’t allowed here. Telling other campers that they can’t include Jamie in games or you will hurt them is bullying. It’s serious and unacceptable, and I don’t want to hear again that this has happened. Can you tell me in your own words why this behavior is not OK?” Ensure that the camper understands how and why what they are doing is considered bullying, as well as why it isn’t acceptable at camp.

Once you believe that they understand the situation and the seriousness of the concern, help them identify ways to redirect their actions and words more appropriately. You might say to Sam, for example, “You don’t have to be friends with everyone in the group, OK? I do expect you to coexist with them respectfully. What ideas do you have about how to do that?”

Report It, Each and Every Time

Bullying is behavior that needs to be reported upward. No matter how well you address the situation at the group level, your supervisor needs to know that it has happened and make note of the particulars. This is essential for ongoing communication with the parents/guardians of the campers involved, as well as to support you and your co-counselors in ensuring that the behavior really has stopped.

To underline the seriousness of the situation and help the camper make the connection between their actions and potential consequences of those actions, you can let the camper know you’re making the report. For example, you might say: “I think we’re clear on the expectations now, and I appreciate that you have agreed to change this behavior. Bullying is taken very seriously here, so I am going to let the camp director know that we’ve had this conversation.” It’s not a threat, and should not be said in a threatening tone. But it should convey the message that you’re not keeping this camper’s bullying behavior a secret. Remember that individuals who bully collect and use power as currency; you don’t want them to think for one minute that you are contributing to their collection.

Interventions to Avoid

Just as important as what you should do when responding to bullying is what you should not do.

  1. Avoid giving cliché advice such as “Don’t let it get you down.” This can have the effect of invalidating campers’ feelings or implying that bullying isn’t as serious an issue as it is.
  2. Don’t suggest that bullying be ignored. In her article “6 Terrible Pieces of Bullying Advice,” Sherri Gordon suggests that it’s good when children don’t react in the moment to bullying because doing so can encourage the person doing the bullying to continue or escalate their actions. However, Gordon adds that adults should not suggest that children ignore that the bullying itself is happening — they should always tell an adult (2021). Along the same lines, don’t tell campers who report bullying that they are being a tattletale. It takes a lot of courage to stand up to bullying, and reporting concerns to adults should always be encouraged.
  3. Don’t use mediation to “referee” individuals in a bullying situation. Mediation should never be used to remedy a bullying situation. When one side has control or power over the other (as with bullying), it is impossible for the two sides to come to an equally restorative conversation. In fact, it can cause the bullying to escalate and even go “underground,” where it becomes harder for staff to spot. Additionally, with mediation, your role as a staff member is to be an impartial facilitator, helping each camper share their side of the story as they work toward a resolution. But with bullying, your role is to take a very clear side: this behavior is not OK.

In Conclusion

If you remember nothing else about what to do when bullying behavior does arise, remember this: when adults firmly and clearly take a strong position against it, bullying behavior is more likely to stop. Keep an eye out for the inevitable conflicts, and don’t forget that those disagreements aren’t harmful; they are actually helping campers build stronger friendships. Hopefully, incidences of true bullying behavior will be minimal, in part because you’ll be proactive in creating a culture of includers and encouraging your campers to be kind to each other.

Emily Golinsky, MS, provides training, consulting, and advocacy for camps, schools, and youth development organizations through her company Bright Moose LLC. Emily welcomes feedback and conversation at

References (n.d.). 11 facts about bullying.

Gordon, S. (2021, August 7). 6 terrible pieces of bullying advice. Verywell Family.

PREVNet, Networks of Centres of Excellences, & US Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). The role of teachers and other school staff in bullying prevention.

Reiney, E. & Limber, S. P. (2013, October 23). We don’t use the word “bully” to label kids. (2023). What is bullying?

VIC Government. (2024, January 19). What is bullying?

Stein, J. (n.d.). Using the stages of team development. MIT Human Resources.

Test Your Knowledge:
Is It Bullying or Conflict?

1.  Sam and Morgan are the same age and in the same group at camp. The first day of camp, Morgan invited Sam to play a game, but Sam respectfully declined. Morgan has since approached Sam every day for two weeks to ask Sam to play. Morgan has few friends and seems desperate to make friends with Sam. Sam is beginning to feel harassed by Morgan.

2.  Janice, a very popular camper, initiates and organizes different games every day during free time. Sarabeth, who is small for her age and very shy, is not invited to play, but all the other campers are. Janice says since she organizes the games, she gets to choose who plays, and she doesn't want Sarabeth included. Sarabeth sits all alone during the games and looks very sad.

3.  During lineup Tuesday afternoon, Avery, a well-established leader of the group who has been at camp for five weeks already this summer, pushed Riley, who just joined the group on Monday. Riley told the counselor and Avery apologized. The next day, Avery blocked the path so Riley couldn't leave the dugout after kickball. Riley got the counselor again, and Avery apologized again. At crafts the following day, Avery took Riley's lanyard and threw it in the garbage. Riley told the counselor again, but this time is crying and doesn't want Avery's apology.

4.  Carl and Troy eat together at the fourth-grade lunch table. Carl has accused Troy of stealing the dessert from his lunch. Troy argued back that he hadn't stolen it, and their voices got loud, attracting the attention of other campers and staff. When the counselors came over to see what was going on, both boys angrily insisted their side of the story was the truth and that the other camper was lying.

Answer 1: Conflict. While Morgan may be disappointed that Sam says "No, thank you," it's done politely, and Sam has the right to choose not to join in. While the situation is repeating itself, there is no issue of power dynamics or intent to harm here. Certainly, there are things staff can do in this situation to assist with the social dynamics between Sam and Morgan - but it isn't bullying.

Answer 2: Bullying. There is repetition, power play, and intent here. This needs to be addressed firmly and quickly, and the staff person involved should ask themselves if they noticed Sarabeth's distress at free time. If not, they may want to practice scanning their group more intentionally during those less-structured times to prevent this kind of behavior from happening again.

Answer 3: Bullying. There is clearly a power differential and intent behind Avery's actions. Additionally, even though Avery is doing something different to Riley each day, she is repeatedly behaving aggressively. The repetitive action doesn't have to be exactly the same.

Answer 4: Conflict. This is normal, expected storming behavior of two peers who are navigating their experience at camp together. A big hint that this is conflict is that the two boys are equally upset, and both need support to find a solution to the problem.