Today, Dr. Mary is discussing teasing and provides parents some tips about what they can do at home if their child is being teased.
Q: My 10-year-old son is very sensitive, and sometimes overreacts when his friends tease him in a playful way. This is something his teacher noticed last year and something I'm now noticing more and more at home when he's playing with his friends. Is there something we can do at home this summer so that he's better able to handle this when he returns to school in the fall?
A: Your son is not alone. Teasing or being called names is one of those things that nearly every kid encounters at some point in their childhood, albeit some more than others. It can range from friendly, playful bantering, where the intent of others' comments is meant to be silly or funny, to outright mean-spirited and hurtful, where the intent is to embarrass your child. It's not surprising that the most common thing that tweens are teased about is their appearance, followed by abilities, identity (gender, ethnicity, religion, and culture), behavior, family situations, possessions, opinions, names, feelings, and friends. Boys around your son's age often poke fun at girls about developmental changes in their bodies.
Some things that you can do at home to help your son deal with his teasers include the following:
Talk about it. Initiate a conversation about the teasing. For example, you could say, "I noticed that you got really mad at Stephen when he called you a klutz. Can we talk about it?" Be sensitive to and acknowledge his feelings, but resist the urge to let any feelings of anger you may have allow you to overreact or volunteer to handle the situation for him. Try to determine if the teasing was playful, or if it was more damaging or even bully-like. For instance, "Tell me what happened," "Has this ever happened before?" "What did he say?" "What did you say/do back?" "What happened then?" "Is there something else you might have done?" etc.
Establish the type of teasing. Talk with your son about playful versus harmful teasing. He may not realize that there is a difference between the two. For example, "It's friendly teasing when Stephen is being silly and playful. When he does this, he is not trying to make you feel bad or hurt your feelings." "When Stephen teases you about how you look or about how you do in school, he's making fun of who you are and doesn't care that hurts your feelings. This is not friendly teasing."
However, it isn't only the content of the comment, but also how it's delivered, along with those all important nonverbal clues. So help your son identify other signs of friendly and unfriendly teasing. For instance, with friendly teasing, he might see some of these signs in his friend: joking tone of voice, relaxed body posture, a friendly facial expression such as a smile, a friendly gesture like a mild slap on the back or push, etc. In contrast, with unfriendly teasing the following signs may be observed: mocking tone of voice, threatening body posture, mean facial expression, etc. You may even take this a step further by role playing the difference between the two to show your child how the same benign comment ("I really like your haircut") can have varied intent based on the manner in which it's conveyed.
You will need to repeat this distinction often. In addition to this, discuss with your son about why children tease others. Some reasons kids tease: to be funny and get others to laugh; because they may feel badly about themselves; to gain attention; because others are doing it; to get even. If teasing has evolved into threats, if your son is fearful of those teasing him, or if he's in physical danger, then he's likely being bullied rather than teased.
Respond to teasing comments. Teach your child ways to respond to his friends' teasing statements. There are a variety of options, so pick the ones that he feels most confident using and practice them:
- Ignore. If your son has difficulty with quick responses, he may consider ignoring the comment by just walking away without even looking at his teasing friend. Or he could pretend he didn't hear the comment at all and turn his attention to something else nearby. Ignoring is more difficult to do when there is nowhere to go (e.g., on the school bus), so better used somewhere like the playground.
- Agree. Saying something like, "Absolutely!" or "Thank you. I do hear that a lot" will throw the teaser off guard and inject some humor into the situation.
- Question. "Why would you say that I'm a coward and hurt my feelings?" "Why would you say something like that?"
- Sarcasm. "Like anyone cares?" Your son would have to match his nonverbal cues to his sarcastic tone of voice.
- Assertiveness. In a firm tone, "I don't like it when you tease me about my weight," "It makes me mad when you make fun of me in front of our class; knock it off." Talk with your son about letting his real friends know how he feels about their behavior.
If the teasing is playful, talk with your son about perhaps just letting it slide, if he can. If it's unfriendly teasing, your son needs to decide how he might respond. It's best not to say things like, "I'm telling," "You're going to get in trouble," or "I'm going to tell my dad." Responses like these can make the teasing worse.
Also, it's best to stay calm and to avoid crying. It's alright to cry at home, but crying around kids who tease may worsen the situation. If your son tends to have difficulty managing his emotions, discuss possible calming strategies (e.g., taking deep breaths, distracting thoughts, counting backwards, etc.). Once your son decides to respond, have him look the teaser in the eye, and using a firm, confident voice, give his friend the practiced response. He should avoid any cross-teasing or hurtful comments and just walk away.
Dr. Mary Rosen is here each week to provide answers to your most pressing school issues. She's a school psychologist, licensed counselor, graduate school instructor, and parent.
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