Teasing Isn't Funny

By Sara Teichman, PsyD

Dear Dr. T.,

My eleven year old worries me because he seems so overly sensitive to teasing that he actually falls apart when he is teased. This is problematic in school, but more so at home, because my husband has a reputation for good-natured teasing.

How do I help my son grow a tougher skin so he is not so vulnerable and easily hurt?

Dr. T.,

There is no way that I am aware of to inure oneself to pain- whether it is physical or emotional. Pain is pain, and though some of us may cope better than others, we all feel it -and generally go to great lengths to avoid it. Being the object of teasing is hurtful, particularly to an individual who is sensitive by nature. Though an individual may learn to react better- i.e. control his response to the teasing - the pain is still there. So, to answer your question- though your son may learn to appear unfazed, he will never get used to teasing, in the same way as a person with headaches never gets used to his migraines.

We all know people who enjoy teasing or what they might refer to as ‘kidding around’ and they generally seem to be decent people. Most of us have also been in the position of being the object of teasing and can remember how uncomfortable that exactly was.

So, what exactly is teasing? Is it ever an acceptable form of communication?

Teasing is a form of humor and certainly, the person doing the teasing finds the process both funny and enjoyable. When the teasing is gentle and mild, and the victim has the ability to both ‘get it’ and poke fun at himself, teasing can be okay even for the person being teased. It becomes a sharing of our petty frailties in a non-threatening, gentle way. This kind of teasing generally occurs among equals who feel secure in themselves and in their relationships.

More often, however, the teasing party has great fun, but at the expense of his victim. The victim may feel powerless to stop the teasing because to do so makes him look like a poor sport and earns him the insult added to his injury when his tormenter says, “Can’t you take a joke?” Stuck between appearing to be a bad sport and feeling the humiliation of the moment, many victims chooses to be silent and hope it all goes away.

Children are particularly vulnerable to teasing, especially when the teasing is done by an adult in their lives. Our children are taught to respect their elders and to refrain from challenging their actions. So, the child feels confused: he does not feel good in the situation but does not understand why. He sees that the others, especially adults, find the situation acceptable and even humorous, so he doubts his right to feel bad. The child’s lack of clarity about his boundaries and his understandable difficulty in asserting them may lead to poor self-esteem and sense of self. It sounds like your son is suffering some of these repercussions and could use help in dealing with the ramifications of teasing.

There are a number of suggestions I might make here; some for the adult and some for the child.

Some adults lack self- awareness and an observing ego. They would never be mean or cruel to a child – consciously. However, like many of us, they just are not aware of what they are doing while they are doing it. They may be modeling how they were spoken to by their parents and/or teachers, or be using a communication style that is appropriate with equals who can defend themselves, but not with children. Developing an awareness and consciousness of their behavior at the moment may go a long way in eliminating the teasing.

In addition, some adults need to develop an understanding of how hurtful teasing is and what a compromising position it puts the child in.  A useful reminder is that the definition of “fun’ is two people enjoying themselves. Fun is when both players have fun, not one. So, we ask the tot who is bothering the baby- but claims they are only having fun-“Is this game fun for two people or only one?”

Similarly, we can use the same measuring stick for teasing- Are both people having fun or only one? If only the teaser is enjoying himself,  but at the expense of the other, the teasing must stop.

In contrast, the basic rule of thumb for the person being teased is that he needs to ignore the teasing and pretend it is not happening. This advice stems from behavior theory which postulates that behavior that is ignored [no reinforcement] will die out. We do see that ignoring works if the child is able to ignore consistently for a long time. The tormentor gets bored of the non- response and finds someone else to tease who will gratify him with a reaction.

However, when the person teasing is the father, the child is trapped: he does not have the option of ignoring. In such a case, the child needs protection because there is no way he can protect himself. At a private time, in a private place, and in a respectful manner, you want to have a discussion with your spouse and review some of the points referenced here. Perhaps you might ask your husband if he might like your help in eliminating this negative behavior so that you both can work as a team. Oftentimes, just the awareness alone of how the behavior affects others is enough to stop the person in his tracks.

 This situation is a hard one because Mom is caught between her child and her spouse. But, if Mom cannot protect her child, perhaps the intervention of a third party could be helpful.

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