Teasing, Ages 1 to 3

How can I stop my child from teasing?

The short answer is you can't. Every child teases, from the peekaboo of infancy to the "I'm going to get you!" round-the-sofa chases of early childhood. But you can stop your child from teasing too much or too harshly.

Try giving your child these simple dos and don'ts:

  • Do tease a friend if it's part of a game or you're making him laugh. But if he gets sad or starts to cry, stop right away.
  • Don't tease anybody about his "blankey" or pacifier; lots of kids have things that comfort them.
  • Don't tease about bodies -- the color of a kid's hair, the fact that another kid still wears diapers. That kind of taunting is mean. (Tell your child that if he's unsure whether his words are mean, he should imagine how he'd feel if somebody said the same thing to him.)
  • Don't gang up with a bunch of kids to pick on somebody. If a group starts teasing one child, find an adult to break it up.
  • Do listen for "stop." That's what people say when they've had enough. Think of that word as a giant red stop sign telling you it's time to quit.

Why do toddlers tease?

Typically, for three reasons: as a way of testing their growing need for independence and control; as a response to new situations and people; and as an aggressive technique, for example, to goad another child into handing over a coveted toy.

Many toddlers start out teasing their parents. Your child probably loves to play "I'm going to get you!" -- you lunge for him, and he runs away, squealing with fear and delight. He's both scared you'll catch him and hoping you do. It's an easy way to experience the thrill of separation and reattachment, an important issue at this age.

Toddlers also learn to tease as they're introduced to new situations, such as daycare, and notice differences in the ways people look and act. Your child may realize that other children still suck pacifiers, for example, or notice that another child's hair is curly and red, and reminds him of a clown. Your child may verbalize what he sees by poking fun.

What's more, toddlers quickly learn that taunting can be a powerful tool in group play. On the playground your child may notice that teasing a particular kid can make him run to his mother instead of taking his turn on the slide. Or maybe another kid mocks your child for wearing a diaper, he doesn't know how to respond, and so he teases right back, which escalates into fighting and crying.

If you notice that your toddler teases in a hostile, manipulative, or defensive way, it's time for a talk. A child who teases too much or too harshly may be upset or uncomfortable with his environment; get him to tell you about his anger, fear, and frustration, and suggest gentler ways for him to respond.

Is it wrong for me to tease my toddler?

No, as long as you tease in a way that's not harmful or cruel.

Give your child a good example by joshing him in a playful and loving way, or as part of a game. Neither you nor your child should indulge in name-calling, snickering about bodies or body functions, or scornful chanting. Don't razz your child in public, especially if it will embarrass him. Calling him "my little piggy" or "pudding face" in front of his friends could give him a label he'll never lose. And don't confuse ribbing with discipline: Don't try to tease your child into using the potty, for example, or picking up his toys. Teach him how to do these things; don't shame him if he can't.

You're the most important factor in your toddler's psychological development. He'll model much of his behavior on yours. By observing limits when you tease, you show your child how to clown around in a way that not only doesn't hurt people but makes them like him.

References

Frances L. Ilg, M.D., Louise Bates Ames, Ph.D, Sidney M. Baker, M.D., Child Behavior: The classic child care manual from the Gesell Institute of Human Development. HarperPerennial 1992.

American Academy of Pediatrics, HealthyChildren.org. Teasing and Bullying. http://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/obesity/Pages/Teasing-and-Bullying.aspx

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