“How many of you have ever been teased?”
When I ask this question to elementary-age students, almost every hand goes up. When I inquire about what teasing is, they consistently reply, “Teasing is when someone makes fun of you, hurts your feelings, or calls you names.” The follow-up question is, “How many of you have ever been bullied?”
Few, if any, children raise their hands. Not to minimize bullying, however, I learned many years ago, that we need to see teasing and bullying on a continuum, rather than using the terms interchangeably….especially with young children.
Teasing can take many forms, from playful and jovial, to demeaning and hurtful, and all the way to hateful and abusive. It is helpful to explain to children that fun and friendly teasing involves having fun with someone.
Friendly teasing causes everyone to laugh and smile. Many children are surprised to learn that joking around can be friendly teasing, because they generally perceive teasing as negative and hurtful. Many of you might tease your kids in a fun, friendly, and affectionate way.
Cruel and hurtful teasing involves making fun of someone. It includes ridicule, name-calling, putdowns, verbal insults, and gesturing, as well as annoying actions. Cruel teasing also includes exclusion. Some of these subtle and often hard-to-see behaviors are alienation, gossip, rumor-mongering, the silent treatment, eye-rolling, glares, and stares.
Although these behaviors peak in the middle school years, they are also occurring very frequently in pre-school and elementary school settings. Children may be purposely excluded from a game or activity or told they cannot sit at a certain place at the lunch table. These behaviors are often referred to as "mean girls" behavior, however, boys can be involved as well.
Unfortunately, there is no general rule of thumb for determining when teasing is likely to become harmful, because not all kids will take the same words, gestures, or other behavior the same way. What is hurtful for one child may not hurtful for another. If we view teasing on a continuum, there is affectionate and friendly teasing on one end and abusive teasing, taunting, and bullying on the other.
FRIENDLY TEASING > HURTFUL TEASING > HOSTILE TEASING/BULLYING
Some experts view the difference between teasing and bullying as only a matter of degree. When cruel teasing and taunting occur repeatedly over time, these behaviors can be considered bullying. Bullying is characterized by an imbalance of power. The bully is usually bigger, older, smarter, or stronger socially and verbally. Or the power imbalance can be created by having a group victimize one person. The goal is to exert power over the victim.
Bullying is often thought of as visible and observable physical aggression such as hitting, pushing, slapping, kicking, poking, pulling hair, biting, shoving, threatening with a weapon, stealing, or destroying possessions. Some bullies may use physical force to get their way.
However, most bullying is actually verbal. Verbal bullying includes repeated name-calling, hostile teasing and taunting, slurs regarding race, sexual orientation, and religion, and abusive remarks that are sexual in nature. Consistent exclusion and ongoing "mean girls" behavior are also considered bullying.
Technology has increased opportunities for abusive texts, e-mails, websites, and postings on social media. Bullying is deliberate, and the hostile and abusive words and actions are intended to harm…whether it be face-to-face or electronically.
Bullying often begins as mild teasing as the bully carefully searches for a vulnerable target. Once the bully gets a rise out of his or her target, the teasing usually escalates and becomes more intense and persistent. When children are able to respond to teasing with tools and words that empower them to react quickly, effectively, and confidently, they are less likely to become victims of bullies!
Stay tuned for the “Easing the Teasing” strategies!
About the blogger: Judy S. Freedman, a licensed clinical social worker and bullying prevention specialist, is the author of Easing the Teasing – Helping Your Child Cope with Name-Calling, Ridicule, and Verbal Bullying.' She lectures and conducts workshops for parents, educators, and mental health professionals throughout the country. She recently spoke at the National PTA Convention in San Jose, California. Learn more about Judy and her work at www.easingtheteasing.com.