Teasing & Bullying: What’s the Difference and What to Do

This article is by our resident school counselor at Radical Parenting. Check out her bio and other articles or submit a question at School Counselor’s Corner: Q&A with Dr. A.

Awww, parents….I know, there is nothing more heart wrenching than hearing your child describe how a once close friend has become the source of great distress due to their hurtful words or actions.  It hurts at 4 years old and hurts just as bad at 17.  Ugh – teasing, bullying – aren’t you just sick of hearing about them?  Don’t you just wish kids could be kind to one another? I know I do, but there are some real things you can do to help your child deal with these situations, learn important life lessons along the way, and actually come out stronger in the end!  Here are the top 7 things I think you should know when it comes to these subjects:

1)   KNOW THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TEASING & BULLYING:  Here is how I define bullying: chronic misbehavior targeting a specific individual or group with the intention of causing physical or emotional harm.  If the situation is not chronic, aimed toward a particular person, or causing harm, than it probably falls into the category of teasing.  This is an important distinction when you discuss the situation with your child or child’s teacher.  Calling everything “bullying” tends to seem exaggerated and may make your child feel like a real victim with little power and they may be reluctant to engage with other students again.  How you present your information (and how often) may also affect the way in which situations are handled by your child’s teacher or school.  If you are chronically complaining about minor issues, your information may not be taken as seriously as you would like.  Remember the boy who cried wolf that we remind our kids of – same goes for us parents.  Don’t overreact, but DO present facts and look to problem solve as a team with your child and their school.

2)   TEASING IS NORMAL: Yes, that’s right.  Despite our best wishes, teasing and banter between friends is perfectly normal during the adolescent years.  Think about you and your adult friends.  Do you ever tease each other in good fun or gossip about each other?  Do feelings get hurt occasionally within your social circle?  For 99% of us the answer is probably, “YES.”  As adults, most of us have learned how to handle these incidents without a great deal of drama, but that’s because we have had practice!  Unfortunately, our kids have to go through some of these experiences in order to get practice and become experts in shrugging off minor issues and confronting big ones appropriately.  However, just because teasing is normal doesn’t mean it is nice or should be tolerated.  Continue to encourage your student to do the right thing each and every time!

3)   KNOW YOUR CHILD – Every person has what I call “soft spots.”  For some it is their weight, other it is their glasses, or being short.  Whatever it is, comments on this topic may sting more than on another topic.  For instance, let’s say a group of boys call a boy in the school play “gay.”  Although he may not like it, he may also not pay much attention to the comment because he is secure, confident, and happens to really like theater.  He may let it roll off his shoulders, but if they made the same comment to a boy on the football team who is inwardly questioning his sexuality – you may have a brawl on your hands or a suicidal student.  See the difference?  You may not have expected those reactions from those kids, but it all depends on what their soft spot is inside.

We all have our areas of weakness, but you have to remember – there are plenty of overweight children, kids with glasses, or short people that don’t get teased on a daily basis.  What is it about your student that draws negative attention?  If you know your child’s soft spots, help them come up with a witty comment to dismiss any banter that may come their way, so they are prepared.  Hear a “four-eyes” comment?  Come back with a, “I know.  You think these glasses are bad?  You should have seen the last pair I had.  They were like coke bottles.”  It is really hard to razz a kid who agrees with you.  Once kids know that the teasing won’t get to someone, they have more respect for them and will leave them alone!  Most kids are just looking for a reaction and once they get one – they’ll keep going.  If your child stays calm and doesn’t verbally defend every comment, the teasers typically lose steam and power.

4)   NO BLAME: This is a tricky one.  Please understand that I never blame a child for being teased or bullied, but parents have to have their eyes wide open.  If your child is consistently being pushed around by other kids (figuratively, not literally), there are a few things you need to think through before you go into their school claiming they are being bullied.

a.     Is your child a part the situation in any way?  Often times I find that parents have a difficult time believing that their child may be part of the problem.  Children are smart and naturally try to defend their actions by telling a story that highlights other kids’ negative attributes and makes them look a little more innocent than they really are.  The best thing you can do to investigate the situation is to ask questions.  Don’t go in to the school slinging blame onto another child, but go in asking about what your child’s relationship is like with their peers.  State facts and listen – your child’s teacher should have a realistic feel for what might be going on!

b.     If you truly find that your child is the victim and the teacher is agreeing, we have to think about two things:  One, does this teasing fall into the realm of normal?  How often are you hearing complaints about this same child and how severe is the teasing?  If the answer is infrequent or mild, maybe you need to hang back a bit.  Ask your child how they plan to solve the problem and see if they can come up with an appropriate solution on their own.  This is very empowering and shows you trust them to handle their own situations.

Two, is your child a “teacup” or are you a “superhero parent”?  Does he/she tend to be overly sensitive to comments and/or do you tend to swoop in and fix every problem for them?  If two is your answer then read over assertiveness skills – they are going to need them and you may have to take your cape off for a while (as hard as that might be).  I keep mine in the glove compartment just in case!  The hardest part of growing up is letting your kids falter a bit, but it will give them much more confidence and strength in the end.

5)   SOLUTIONS:  Assertiveness is by definition an appropriate, honest way of communicating your needs.  This is an invaluable tool.  All people will have individuals in their lives that they dislike.  It may be a peer in high school or a boss as an adult, but in any case we all need skills to deal with different personalities.  Wouldn’t it be great to give your child the gift of problem solving and “people management” early on in life?   Just think about how smooth life will be for them.

The first step in doing this is listening.  Sometimes our kids come to us with issues, but don’t really want us to do anything.  They just want a sounding board, so before you go call the principal or another child’s parent (this is almost always a NO-NO) and embarrass them to no end, ask them if they need your help or if they want to take care of it themselves.  If they do want help, try to help them come up with solutions, practice starting a difficult conversation or witty comebacks that won’t start a battle.

If your child is still struggling, try to encourage your student to talk to their teacher or school counselor.  As an adolescent, parent involvement can be humiliating and create further problems for them.   If you are at your wits end and nothing seems to be working, there are counselors and psychologists who can work with your child both inside and/or outside of school to improve their social skills and assertiveness.  Sometimes it is nice to step out of the picture and let the professionals do the work.  They can practice various scenarios and give your student more confidence in handling situations independently.  Don’t take it personally, you may be saying all the right things, but at this age almost any adult is more interesting and knowledgeable than you!

Lastly and most importantly, you know your child best.  If they are floundering too long and you are concerned the teasing is going too far or affecting their functioning in any way (academically, socially, or emotionally), you may need to step in.  Just try to be discrete and include your child in the plan – your child will appreciate this attempt!

6)   PRACTICE WHAT YOU PREACH:  If you want your child to learn proper assertiveness skills, show them the way!  When you and your spouse disagree on something, model good behavior during your argument.  Fight fair!  The same goes for social issues.  Don’t gossip in your household.  If your children hear you, they believe it is okay and will probably do the same at school, which will undoubtedly get them in trouble.  This even applies to the teasing situation.  If your kids hear you blaming everyone else for their misery, then they will believe they are a victim of what the world brings their way and have no control over their happiness.  Instead, grant them the ability to shrug off minor problems and teach them how to handle the major ones appropriately.  Remember, they will be going off to college shortly and you want them to have the skills to make these distinctions and the confidence to handle problems on their own!

7)   BULLYING SHOULD NOT BE TOLERATED:  If your child is truly being chronically targeted, your school should be doing something about it!  Don’t tolerate being pushed aside or minimized, climb the chain of command until you get some results!

This article is by our resident school counselor at Radical Parenting. Check out her bio and other articles or submit a question at School Counselor’s Corner: Q&A with Dr. A.

If you liked this article get more Radical Parenting in our new book: Do I Get My Allowance Before or After I’m Grounded?

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  • Neena

    You bring up some very good points about bullying. Especially when you talk about the fine line between teasing and bullying. It is hard sometimes to recognize the difference.

    Also self confidence goes hand in hand with assertiveness. Both of these are great tools for every child to have.

    I wish that in this world everyone could get along.

  • http://WebsiteURL Chelsea

    It’s important to know what causes bullying, whether your child is the bully or is the one being bullied, as discussed in this article:

    http://www.byparents-forparents.com/causesbullies.html