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When Teasing Isn't Funny

Kimberly Demucha Kalil
April 16, 2015

Teasing can be playful and fun when done in the right spirit. But how do you help your kids see that line between teasing and hurting someone's feelings? Here are a few tips to get you started.

Many families like to engage in playful teasing like tickling, gentle mocking or calling each other silly names. But it can be confusing for children to know when joking around is all in good fun and when it goes too far. "If the teasing had good results, making people laugh and relieving stress in a social situation, then it was obviously appropriate," says Israel "Izzy" Kalman, a licensed school psychologist and founder of Bullies2Buddies, an online resource to help kids get along and treat each other with kindness.

He adds that if the behavior has a bad effect -- meaning, if it made someone feel badly about themselves or made others uncomfortable -- then it's inappropriate. When it does become a problem, look deeper to find the root issue causing the mean-spirited joking and badgering.

Healthy or Hostile?
When your child teases his peers, it generally involves a mutual feeling of joking around. "It is a healthy natural human social behavior, and children begin doing it from a very early age. It is the basis of humor," Kalman says. "I have a grandson who is about one-and-a-half years old. Sometimes he will hold some goody out to me, and when I reach to take it, he quickly withdraws it and laughs. When kids get better with language, they will start using words to tease people."

Though light-hearted joshing is natural and allowable -- ribbing a friend in a kind way about the milk he spilled and laughed about -- this type of joking can quickly turn from fun to hurtful, if it turns to taunting or if other kids join in. "The goal of teasing is to bring the teaser and teasee closer together," says Julia Cook, a keynote speaker, former guidance counselor and the author of "Tease Monster" and 50 other children's books about social and behavioral issues. "It helps satisfy a desire to fit in."

Joking like this typically starts as an attempt to be funny or to cope with an uncomfortable situation, according to Cook. It turns negative when kids fail to see their behavior is no longer funny, but hurtful. Your child may tease others in an attempt to fit in, to get more attention or to make herself feel superior to others, all of which may challenge her ability to make (or keep) friends.

No matter the reason your child teases others, here are five ways you can help stop the behavior:

  1. Clearing the Confusion
    Educators, parents and caregivers can work together to help children recognize the difference between joking around and just being mean. Cook's "Tease Monster" and other books like it are great tools in the classroom or at home to help kids understand the issue.
  2. Talk About It
    "Kids understand math," Cooks says. Explain this issue like it's a math problem. Does what you're saying and doing add to someone's life (addition and multiplication)? On the flip side, "Mean teasing cuts you apart and takes away from who you are (division and subtraction)." Joking with another can multiply the good feelings they feel about themselves or take away self esteem. Using words and concepts that kids understand is the first step in making sure everyone is clear about what's nice joking and when it can turn bad.
  3. Discourage Teasing
    When your child teases, explain why it's not appropriate or fair to treat his friend this way. Reinforce the idea of empathy with your child -- encourage him to think about how his words make others feel. Would he feel happy or sad if someone said that to him? Help him see things from his friends' points of view, and talk to caregivers about using these techniques.
  4. Lead by Example
    Though you and your neighbor know that your joke about his brown lawn is all in good fun, your child might not be able to tell the difference. As you're dealing with this behavior, watch your own words when your child is in earshot to avoid confusing her.
  5. Get Other Caregivers on Board
    Teaching children when to tease and when not to tease is a group effort. Clue in your child's caregivers and teachers about your plan to stop this behavior and ask them to offer gentle reminders to your kid when they spend time with him.

    And check out Child Behavior Problems: Coordinating With Other Caregivers.

Though situations like this can be discouraging, your child will get better at stopping teasing with some practice and help from you. "Like all social skills, people get better at it over time," Kalman says.

Kimberly DeMucha Kalil is a freelance journalist and software consultant living in Southern Arizona with her husband and two children. There is a five year age difference between her kids, which means there are lots of teasing, bickering and occasional tears.

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