Fine Line Between Teasing and Bullying

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Childhood teasing is a universal form of social interaction — but childhood bullying is not. What to know.

I remember Alice.

Alice’s clothes were often worn and faded. Kids would groan and roll their eyes if the teacher asked them to sit next to her. To catch “Alice’s cooties” was the worst thing that could happen to us boys. Teasing, ridicule and exclusion were her everyday experiences. I can still see her beleaguered smile and her sad, pleading eyes, searching for any crumb of acceptance from the other children. The memory I have of her still haunts me. This shouldn’t have happened to Alice, and as parents, we need to make sure it never happens to our own children or other children in our schools.
Yet a certain amount of teasing at school is to be expected. Anthropologists generally agree that childhood teasing is a universal form of social interaction. Playful teasing (in the form of kidding and bantering) can be a fun and positive social experience. Teasing between parents and children, and between friends at school can be a bonding experience. But chronic, cruel teasing that is meant to ridicule and demean can be very harmful. And as we know, too much so today, bullying — the conscious, willful effort to hurt another person — is particularly harmful. Various studies suggest that 15 percent of school-age children are involved in the bullying cycle, either as bullies or victims. According to other studies, children who are chronically teased or bullied see grades go down, depression go up and self-esteem plummet. In extreme cases, such children resort to drugs, violence or even suicide to achieve relief from chronic teasing or bullying (the teen rate of suicide has tripled since the 1950s, and anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of teenagers experience clinical depression). And bullies themselves, if their behavior doesn’t stop, have a statistically significant preponderance for ending up in jail as adults.
Beyond teasing between siblings at home, the vast majority of episodes of teasing and bullying happen at school. Almost all studies conclude that most bullying happens in the school environment (rather than going to or from school). And three-quarters of the bullying that occurs at school happens during recreational activities.

What can you do to help your children deal with this problem?

1. Talk to your child about whether he is teased or bullied at school.
He may not want to own up, but tell him it’s not tattling, it’s standing up for his rights. What adult would allow himself to be verbally or physically assaulted without standing up for his rights? Also, be on the lookout for signs of chronic teasing, like unusual sadness, isolation and ongoing references to “not being liked.” If you can, visit your child’s school every so often just to observe the social interchange.

2. If you suspect that chronic harmful teasing and bullying are happening, take direct, decisive action.
Don’t assume that harassment at school is normal behavior. It’s only normal if we choose to accept it. Talk to school administrators and teachers to get to the bottom of it. Arrange to meet with all involved parties in one room (including the teaser) to come up with a specific plan to put an end to it. If physical bullying is involved, take it very seriously. Bring the bully’s parents and law enforcement people into the situation if you must. Go to your school board if you’re not getting results from your teachers or principal. School personnel have a responsibility to protect your child from bullying and harassment while he’s at school.

3. Demand that your school has no-nonsense, anti-bullying policies and programs in place, along with conflict resolution and management programs.
Schools don’t cause bullying, but without sufficient supervision and decisive action when bullying does take place, they can provide a place for it to happen. A great resource for developing good policies and programs for schools is the book, Childhood Bullying and Teasing: What School Personnel, Other Professionals and Parents Can Do, written by Dorothea Ross, Ph.D. (American Counseling Association, 1996).

4. Within reason, help your children fit in with other kids.
Be open to having other children over, encourage your child to participate in groups at school, and help him deal with hygiene and clothing issues in a way that will help him to not stand out negatively.

5. With sibling teasing in the home, don’t allow one child to continuously pick on another one.
Sporadic squabbling is one thing, but ongoing ridicule can be very detrimental in the long term. Sit down and discuss mean teasing at home and make a plan to have it stop. Have your kids abstain from talking to each other for awhile if conflicts won’t cease.

6. Teach your child “verbal judo” tools so he can respond to teasing and other hurtful words.
It takes an adult to teach children to defend themselves against painful taunts. The best way to do this is through practice and role playing. We’re willing to practice reading and sports with our children, and we need to put in the same practice time with them when it comes to learning social skills.

Give Your Child a Verbal Toolbox

• The Power “I”
The power “I” is using a strong, assertive “I statement” to tell others how we feel and what we want. If a teaser says, “Where’d you get that big nose?” the response can be, “I want you stop bugging me,” or “I want you to cut it out!”

• The Mighty Might
The mighty might is using deflective, conditional phrasing, as in “you might be right,” “that could be so,” “maybe” or “possibly” to respond to teasing. A child should continue to use these statements until the teasing stops. If a teaser says, “Those are really dorky clothes,” the response can be “you might be right” or “maybe.”

• The Shrug
The shrug is verbally shrugging off the teasing and saying something like, “So what” or “Who cares?” If a teaser says, “You’ve got buck teeth,” the response is to act bored, look away, smile and say, “Who cares?”

• The Reverse Tease
The reverse tease is using sarcastic humor in response to teasing. If a teaser says, “You walk like a penguin,” the response can be, “Thanks for being so kind,” or “Oh, that really hurts,” or “Wow, you’re right, and what’s that hanging from your nose?” If your child’s particularly witty this can also take the form of mild insults, like, “Yeah, of course you walk like a hippo.” The reverse tease can also take the form of sarcastic, chronic deafness, as in “What did you say?” or “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you,” repeated over and over. The reverse tease should never be used with bullies who can be physically dangerous.

• The Disappearing Act
The disappearing act is used when teasing looks like it could get dangerous. Children need to learn to quickly get up and leave the scene, without saying anything and go to where there are responsible adults present.

• Solution Time
Finally, if teasing won’t stop, kids need to be taught to ask teachers and parents for help. All sides, including the teaser, need to come together and develop solutions to the problem. Each person tells his side of the story and comes up with some solution options. The final solution should include some built-in consequences to follow up on if the parties don’t abide by the solution agreement. Again, kids need to understand that this isn’t tattling, this is standing up for the same rights that adults would demand in the same situation.
In the teaching process, kids also need to understand that showing that they’re not upset is as important as the words they use. Do role playing with your children and have them practice assertive body language and facial expressions.
And one last bit of advice: If your child gets into a very bad situation with respect to teasing and bullying that doesn’t change no matter what he does, you need to get him into a different school environment — find a new setting with different teachers and kids. Stubbornly trying to get your children to assimilate socially in a current terrible situation isn’t worth his long-term happiness.
As adults, if we find ourselves in a very bad work situation, we get out of it. After doing everything to improve the situation, our children should also have this option as a last resort — the opportunity to get out of a very bad situation.

Scott Cooper is the author of Sticks and Stones: 7 Ways Your Child Can Deal With Teasing, Conflict and Other Hard Times. Cooper is married with three children and is a former teacher, coach and Boys and Girls Club volunteer.

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