The short answer is: It’s complicated. Sometimes teasing is harmless and playful. Other times it can be used to hurt others. And even playful teasing can hit raw nerves or be misinterpreted, especially when kids struggle with social skills.
Here’s what you need to know about the difference between teasing and bullying, and how to help kids navigate these tricky social waters.
Teasing Is a Type of Communication
Good-natured teasing is a way for people to communicate with each other. It’s a social exchange.
Many kids tease each other to bond or form relationships. When the best kid on a basketball team misses a dunk, and a teammate says, “Hey, Magic, nice shot,” they can both laugh it off. The teasing shows each other they can joke around and still be friends.
Done in the right spirit, this banter can be positive. When kids tease each other about clothes, musical tastes, or behavior, it helps them learn to deal with constructive criticism. It’s part of how they relate.
Kids also use teasing to influence each other, and change behavior for the better. If a teen keeps staring at a boy she likes at lunch, her friends might say, “Seriously, are you looking at Kevin again? Just talk to him already!” This teasing teaches a social rule (don’t stare too much) and encourages her to act in an appropriate way.
But teasing can also be used to communicate the negative. It’s often used to establish “top dog” among kids. For example, a group of girls might tease one in the group about her weight. Or kids might tease to encourage bad behavior: “What a little wimp, Sam, you won’t even try the cigarette.”
Also, what’s playful to one child may not be playful to another. In those cases, teasing can lead to hurt feelings.
With these negatives, why not discourage teasing completely? Like any communication, teasing has its purpose. Some topics that are awkward to raise in serious conversation are easier to raise through teasing.
Teasing can also be fun. Think, for example, of the back-and-forth banter that happens in any romantic comedy.
Bullying Is Meant to Hurt
Verbal bullying is different from teasing. It’s not done to make friends, or to relate to someone. Just the opposite: The goal is to embarrass the victim and make the bully look better and stronger.
The tricky thing is that bullying may start out as teasing. But when it’s done over and over and is meant to be hurtful or threatening, it becomes bullying.
Verbal bullying includes calling a victim names, taunting, and sexual harassment. It can happen in person, through texting, and online through social media and email.
Bullying also involves an imbalance of power. Bullying victims usually don’t provoke it. Rather, kids may not be able to defend themselves because of their physical size, or because of their social position in school or in a group. And if a victim gets upset, bullies typically don’t stop. The bullying may even get worse.
Unlike kids who are being bullied, kids who are being teased can influence whether it continues or ends. If they get upset, the teaser usually stops.
Teasing and Kids Who Struggle Socially
Teasing can be hard to understand for kids who struggle with conversation or reading social cues. One big challenge is knowing how to respond. Some kids can’t yet tell if someone is teasing them in a good-natured way, or trying to bully them. This can be confusing and lead kids to say or do inappropriate things.
Many kids also have trouble making friends. This can lead them to put up with teasing that hurts because they want to remain part of a group or be liked.
Sometimes, kids who are trying to tease end up bullying. For example, a child may say something mean-spirited to another, thinking it’s playful. This can lead to an argument. Or a child may react angrily to a comment that’s friendly, which may cause other kids to keep their distance.
To address these struggles, it’s important to teach kids about the rules of conversation. Help kids sort out when teasing is OK and when it becomes hurtful or borders on bullying. One way to do this is by role-playing with them. This lets kids practice a situation where they get teased, don’t like it, and need to respond.
Questions to Ask Kids About Teasing
Maybe you’ve heard that kids are teasing your child or your student at school. You can ask a few questions to see whether it’s good-natured or harmful:
Are the kids who tease you your friends?
Do you like when they tease you?
Do you tease them back?
If you told them to stop teasing, would they?
If you told them that they hurt your feelings, what would they say sorry?
If the answer to any of these question is “no” or “I don’t know,” then it may be a case of negative teasing or even bullying. It’s important to find out more.
Find out how to teach kids to defend against bullying. And learn what steps to take if a child is being bullied at school.