Is There a Difference Between Teasing and Bullying?

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When you hear the word “bully,” what’s the first thing that comes to your mind? A scene from The Karate Kid where Johnny and his merciless gang of Cobra Kai’s pummel the vulnerable “new kid,” Daniel?  Or do you think about tweens being emotionally and psychologically degraded through verbal put-downs and social exclusions?  The latter example can be more difficult to address, because this more subtle form of bullying is often harder to identify.

A teen client was recently depressed because a classmate was teasing him and making fun of his football team. This went on for days. Because it was a friend, it made the situation especially confusing.  The teen was embarrassed and upset, and he had no idea how to handle the situation.  As a self-admitted “jokester” and “prankster,” I know that a little good-natured teasing is a normal part of friendship.  But I’ve also found that the fine line between humor and hurt feelings can be a precarious one to walk.  And sorting through those subtle nuances can be as tricky as untangling a kindergartener’s shoelaces.

This complicated grey area begs the question, “Where is that official line between harmless teasing and outright bullying?

Unfortunately, this is not only a tricky question to answer, but is perhaps the wrong question to ask in the first place. Rather than viewing these situations through our adult lenses (which can result in us being overly dismissive or too eager to get involved), I submit that it’s more important to consider how your child is being affected.  If he’s happy and comfortable with the teasing, it can probably be interpreted as good-natured ribbing. However, if he feels anxious, angry, or sad, then maybe things have crossed the line. And if your child is confused about how he feels, advise him to pay attention to his “gut instinct.”

So what can you do as a parent to help and educate your child on bullying and teasing?  Firstly, encourage conversations about this topic.  It’s especially important that you’re the initiator since many kids don’t want to talk about being bullied–because they’re ashamed or feel as if it’s their fault.  Asking direct questions like, “Are there any kids at school who tease you?” or “Do kids leave you out?” is a good way to get things started.

If you suspect your child or teen may be getting teased or bullied, here are some ways you can foster and maintain open communication:

  • Ask subtle questions like “Who do you normally hang out with?” or “Are there any kids at school you don’t like?  Why?”
  • Maintain close communication with teachers at school and through parent-teacher conferences.  Don’t exclusively focus on academics!  Ask your teachers questions about how well your child gets along with his peers, with whom does he spend the majority of his time, and if they’ve ever seen examples of your child being excluded or bullied. Even if his teachers haven’t noticed anything concerning, if you suspect problems, raising these question should promote future awareness.
  • Get your child involved in a social skills group to learn how to be more assertive, better read social cues, recognize annoying behaviors, and make friends
  • Teach your child to hang out in crowds – bullies like to target kids who are typically alone
  • Have your child practice ahead of time how she’ll respond to bullying—with assertive words, steady voice, eye contact, and strong body posture.  Your child can learn to visualize what she wants to happen—walking tall, shoulders back, strong voice saying, “I’m not going to listen to you talking to me that way.”
  • If your child is being teased by a friend, encourage him to say in an assertive voice, “That’s not funny. Please don’t say that anymore.”
  • Do not encourage physical retaliation – it will likely result in your child being disciplined at school.  Despite the prevalent notion that you should “fight back” to stop bullying, your child’s retaliation is just as likely to escalate a situation into something more violent or dangerous.
  • Work with your child’s school. It’s their responsibility to coordinate the response to bullying in school.
  • While your emotions are bound to run high, try to keep them under control. Stay rational and stick to the facts when working with school officials to remedy the situation.
  • Never tell your child to simply ignore the bullying. Giving this advice may make him feel as if you’re ignoring the situation and trivializing his problems. If he walks away feeling as if he shouldn’t have wasted his time, he may not open up the next time he encounters a problem.  You can also encourage him to use a sense of humor to throw off the teasers – acting as if the received verbal jabs are compliments, or responding to teasing with compliments.
  • Ask your teen to let you know about cyber-bullying ASAP, and never tell them to respond to it online.  If it gets too malicious, your Internet Service Provider may be able to help track anonymous cyber-bullies. You can also contact your ISP or web forum administrator to see if it’s possible to block future texts, emails, or posts from known cyber-bullies. If the bullying behavior gets really extreme or has threats of violence, extortion, child pornography, or hate crimes, contact the police immediately.
  • If your child has trouble opening up to you or you need additional help, seek professional assistance from an experienced child psychologist.
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About Kristen Wynns

Dr. Wynns is a child and adolescent psychologist who owns a child/adolescent specialty private practice in Cary, NC called Wynns Family Psychology. She has a Ph.D. and Master’s in Clinical Psychology (from UNC-Greensboro). At Wynns Family Psychology, Dr. Wynns provides therapy for kids ages 3 and up, parent therapy, and social skills groups and camps. She also provides psychological and psychoeducational evaluations for ADHD, Autism, Learning Disabilities, and Gifted. Dr. Wynns specializes in high conflict divorce cases by offering co-parenting therapy, reunification therapy, therapy for children of divorce, and a full menu of custody evaluations. Dr. Wynns also founded a parenting website called NoWimpyParenting.com.TM “No Wimpy Parenting” services are available to help parents struggling with behavior or discipline problems at home. Dr. Wynns is frequently sought out as local expert on child psychology and parenting issues for radio shows, t.v. news, magazines like Carolina Parent, and t.v. shows like My Carolina Today and Daytime. Dr. Wynns likes to say she is “doubly qualified” to give parenting advice because she is not only a child psychologist, but has two young children of her own (ages 10 and 8). See WynnsFamilyPsychology.com or NoWimpyParenting.com for more information.
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