Terrible Teasing

Q:   Reading your column last week on a child being teased and not confiding in her parents brought back memories of my own experiences in camp and school when I was young. Even today, as an adult, a certain tone of voice or aggressive behavior by another adult will cause me to feel anxious and fearful, bringing me back to those scary times.

I also did not share my feelings with my parents as they were from the previous generation and believed all you have to do is “ignore it” and it will disappear. Unfortunately it did not. Every year the same scenario would repeat itself. All I wanted to do was become invisible so no one would notice me.

Today I am in therapy to attain confidence and assertiveness and wish many times that there was some way to stop the teasing for everybody everywhere. Maybe this letter is the first step.

Thank you for addressing this issue.

A:   Believe it or not, there are actually adults (particularly men) who feel that teasing among family members is a form of endearment. Try as one might to convince such a person that the victim is bothered by the teasing, the teaser fails to understand the impact of it. Unfortunately, there is also an element of aiming to gain a sense of superiority over a more vulnerable person; the teaser feels “higher” because he succeeded in making someone else feel lower. These people see teasing as a harmless form of entertainment, not as the leitzanus that it is. If an adult is doing the teasing, he must be told that he is crippling the child victim’s self-esteem and creating permanent resentment toward the parent engaging in this demeaning behavior.

If siblings are teasing one another, a parent can speak to the teaser to get at the source of his behavior. The teasing may be a product of a sibling relationship that needs to be improved. In truth, relationships are cyclical in nature, and no one person is always responsible for the conflict. One child is usually “getting back” at the other by teasing, and the victim and aggressor may continually switch roles.

To stop the cycle of blame and recrimination, parents should work on creating a joint goal for their children. By creating a common sibling goal (i.e., a reward system for the children as a group), the cycle of negative verbal and other interactions can be stopped. An improved sibling relationship becomes a reality due to the self-control exhibited by the siblings, with the agreed goal/reward in mind. (Perhaps a password or signal can remind a sibling who is weakening in his efforts to exhibit self-control to re-focus on the goal.)

Equally important, a child needs to know how to respond to teasing, whether at home or in school. The advice to “just ignore it” is simplistic and limited in effectiveness. If the victim’s facial expressions continue to reflect pain, this shows that he or she is not dealing with the teasing.

A helpful suggestion: agreeing with or joining the teaser. “You’re so stupid!” “You’re entitled to your opinion.” Someone sticks out his tongue. “I like your red, red tongue!” More effective than ignoring the teasing, such comebacks liberate the victim. Agreeing with the teaser ensures that the entertainment the teaser is after will be directed against himself; the teaser will not achieve his goal of raising himself at the expense of the victim.

The best way to acquire this skill is by role-playing to practice it with your child. By being prepared to respond effectively, much unnecessary pain can be avoided.