When Is Teasing Bullying?
“Oh honey, I’m only teasing”, I say smiling as I ruffle my six-year-old’s thick thatch of blonde hair. He’s annoyed that I’d gently ribbed him about the adorable cowlick on his head, and his need for a haircut. “Teasing isn’t allowed at school. It’s bullying”, he says with a grave look in his blue eyes. This stops me in my tracks. Is playful teasing really the same as bullying? I’d mostly thought of teasing as a form of affection, especially within the family and with close friends.
Because the line between teasing and bullying can be blurry, many schools adopt zero-tolerance policies for both behaviours. Nonetheless, the ability to recognise and respond appropriately to light-hearted teasing is a valuable social skill. Communication researcher Carol Bishop Mills, PhD, finds that the lighter side of teasing benefits our social
lives by building and strengthening relationships and helping us navigate conflict. But teaching youngsters to recognise the differences between kidding and tormenting isn’t easy. In general, kids grasp the concept of affectionate teasing around age 10, Mills says. (Although, she adds, a child who is accustomed to good-natured kidding by parents may understand it earlier.)
Context and the nature of the relationship is key to understanding the meaning behind words. “When kids get teased, they tend to focus on the negative or challenging content”, Mills says. “Try to get them to take the perspective of others by asking, ‘What do you think Reece was doing?’ and talk through that”. Discuss nonverbal cues that the other child exhibited. Ask questions like, “Was he laughing? Was he trying to play? Did he look mean when he said it?” Then, discuss teasing from your child’s point of view. “When you teased Leila, did you want her to cry? Oh, you were playing... maybe Reece was playing too!” “It’ll take several attempts. It’s not an overnight process”, Mills says.
When teasing morphs into bullying
Of course, youngsters also need to recognise when teasing isn’t playful. “If it hurts emotionally, socially or physically, it’s not funny”, says Deb Woodard, licensed professional counsellor and certified school counsellor. “If persistent, it can become what is formally identified as bullying”. Point out body language and verbal signals that indicate that the target of the tease isn’t happy. Role-model, role-play and discuss situations as they arise. And respect your child’s personal boundaries if he doesn’t want to be teased about something— even if it starts out playfully. “Even children who are too young to identify and express hurt feelings verbally, may cry or physically push away those who think they mean well”, Woodard says.
Arm your child with skills to assertively manage putdowns. Author and educational psychologist Michele Borba suggests firm statements like: “I want you to stop teasing me” or “Why would you say that?” (For more ideas, check out micheleborba.com.) If teasing continues, raise the possibility with your youngster that the remarks may not really be about them, but about the teaser. “Kids tease because they’re playing with words (rhyming), exploring new ideas (boyfriend/girlfriend), pointing out differences (height, hair colour, glasses, etc.) or to exert peer pressure”, Mills says. While teaching kids to stand up for themselves and confidently express their feelings builds resilience, encourage them to immediately seek a trusted, safe adult if they ever feel scared or threatened.
Teasing is okay when
- Both parties are laughing, smiling and joking with each other
- Both individuals sense that the teasing is playful and not hurtful
- The person being teased responds playfully
- There’s a balance of power in the relationship
Teasing should stop immediately when
- Facial expressions convey that the other person is feeling hurt by the comments
- Taunting or cruel name-calling is used (jokes related to race, weight, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religion and disability are unacceptable)
- Comments are derogatory in nature, insulting and mean-spirited
- The teaser shows disdain or dislike for the other person
- There’s a power difference between the individuals. For example, one is the “popular” kid and the other struggles in social settings
Source: Carol Bishop Mills, PhD, University of Alabama
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Freelance journalist Christa Melnyk Hines and her husband love to joke with their two school-aged sons, who are happy to tease them right back. Christa is the author of Happy, Healthy & Hyperconnected: Raise a Thoughtful Communicator in a Digital World.