I grew up in a family that teased each other. As a child, I remember sitting at our family dinner table and peeling off the chocolate frosting of my Hostess cupcake to save until after I finished the cake. My dad took the frosting and held it up to his mouth saying, “Yum, this looks good enough to eat!” I was horrified that he was about to eat my favorite part of the cupcake and started to cry.
“I’m just teasing,” he said, and handed the frosting back to me.
At the time, I was too young to realize that he was setting an example for my two younger brothers who teased me relentlessly when I was growing up. My father wrongly believed that teasing made you tougher. He was a teaser not a protector. But as an adult, I realized that the opposite was true. Teasing can make a child overly sensitive or even turn him into a bully. Teasing can be passed down from generation to generation.
Parents and Grandparents Set the Example
Teasing has many faces, says Marlene Greenspan, MA, LPC. It can be used to make jokes, it can be used to play tricks, or it can be used to hurt someone as offense or defense.
When adults tease children who do not know how to respond, teasing can be very harmful. When a child is whiny and crying all the time, those around the child can become very irritated, tempting adults to call the child a crybaby, exacerbating the situation.
In fact, laughing at the child encourages other children to do the same thing and only magnifies the problem. Even worse, it destroys the role of protector that an adult should be for a child, especially a parent or grandparent. Once the siblings start using an insulting epithet in front of strangers or neighbors or the teased child’s friends, others will pick it up and apply it.
Instead of helping the child who needs emotional strengthening, it aids in his/her destruction. If parents ever wonder why their child has behavioral issues further down the line, an episode like this can be a likely starting point. As easy as it is to start, that’s how difficult it is to reverse.
When children are teased, they learn to tease others, which can lead to bullying. In fact, teasing is really steps away from bullying, if the behavior continues and if it is becoming hurtful.
Sometimes teasing is a way for someone to release their anger at someone, particularly when making fun of someone’s name or physical weakness. Fun can turn into meanness with the snap of a finger. For most cases, once they take hold, they become nasty and painful.
Responsibility of Parents and Grandparents
Adults play an important role in teasing situations. Sibling teasing reflects the parents’ approach to each one. There is no question that everyone can have aggravating traits and living with those traits can be very annoying. The responsibility of a parent or grandparent is to guide each child through the more annoying phases without letting distress overwhelm everyone.
In the case of a whining child, you should try very hard to remind the whiner to use her/his words instead of crying. If the child needs a quiet place to calm down before s/he can do so, you can ask the child to please go to her/his quiet place, either physically or in her/his imagination until ready to try again. This puts a great load on a parent who is at his/her wit’s end to do this, but it is the parent who sets the stage in the family. Children learn more from watching parents in action than they do from being told what to do. If a sibling picks up on a parent’s teasing of another sibling, the family unity can suffer a serious blow.
Since no one is perfect and teasing is often a recurrent behavior, it’s important that parents set the rules for the children to know what is and what is not acceptable at a time when the family is not in a critical situation. Family meetings are a great place to talk about issues like teasing. You can teach children kind behavior and role play how to respond to teasing and stop doing it.
If the family has just had an unhappy episode that led to teasing, it’s important to discuss it to see how each one could have treated each other more respectfully instead of making fun at the other’s expense. The discussion needs to be age appropriate. Take a few minutes to point out how each one could have hurt someone’s feelings. Then apologize and try hard not to do it again, or stop it if it starts again. Remind everyone involved about the previous discussion and review if necessary. If parents are consistent, children will learn to be appropriate, including the chronic whiner.
If you notice that your children are being teased in school, in clubs or on teams, inform the teachers or leaders. Bring constructive suggestions to the adults involved to try to reduce the difficulty. Children should be guided to get past teasing to hurt people before it gets to bullying, which is so much more serious and difficult to improve.
Playful teasing between parents and their children can be a way to strengthen relationships, bring up difficult topics, and just have fun — but parents need to recognize when teasing crosses the line and becomes hurtful. “Teasing done well should be enjoyed by both sides, it should be playful,” says Carol Bishop Mills, PhD, associate professor at the University of Alabama. “But you need to pay attention to your child, if he looks away, tears up, does not engage in banter, you have to recognize that they are not enjoying it.”
There are also rules about what is okay and not okay to tease your child about. Appearance and weight are both taboo, but teasing kids about safe topics, like a like a messy room, or things that can be easily changed, provide teachable moments, says Bishop Mills. Teasing should also be a two-way street. “You have to be willing to let your child tease you about things.” If they go too far, you have to make sure not to snap at them, and instead make it a teachable moment, she explains. “Tell them that you know you meant to tease, but you hurt my feelings — this helps kids learn boundaries.”