How can I get my child to stop teasing?
The best course is to help him develop his emotional intelligence (loosely defined as the ability to cope with one's own feelings as well as those of others). This will enable him to sense when his teasing is mean-spirited, hostile, or simply inappropriate. Here are some tips:
- Cultivate your child's compassion. Talk to him about feelings -- how emotional blows can hurt as much as physical ones. "You wouldn't throw a rock at that boy, would you? So you shouldn't call him a 'zit-face' either."
- Give your child a simple test he can use to judge if his teasing is playful or hurtful: "How would I feel if someone said this about me?"
- Talk to your child about the when and where of playful teasing. You may want to limit or preclude ribbing during meals, when it interferes with family conversation, or when you're visiting friends. Explain these boundaries to your child. Tell him that during these tease-free periods he must express himself without resorting to sarcasm or jokes at someone else's expense.
- Ask your child's teacher for the titles of some age-appropriate books about the distress caused by teasing. Read and discuss them with your child.
You should also scrutinize your child's environment for reasons he might be feeling anxious or fearful. Middle childhood is a time of venturing into the new worlds of neighborhood and school. Constant or inappropriate mocking of others suggests your child is having trouble adjusting. Help him by discussing new situations together and even role-playing ("I'll be you, and you pretend to be an older kid on the playground"), so he can figure out how to respond when he's challenged or uncomfortable.
Finally, examine your own behavior and that of other family members. By this age, your child's inability to stop teasing may reflect his role models at home. Do you rib your children at length, even after they plead with you to stop? Do you tease inappropriately, that is, about the way people look or the habits they have? Are you confusing razzing with teaching and discipline -- for instance, do you communicate your frustration about your child's messy room by calling him "Mr. Slob"? Make sure that your own teasing (and that of everyone else in your household) is good-natured, not aggressive or manipulative.
Why does my child tease?
At this age, there are lots of possible reasons. Developmentally, middle childhood is a time of dramatic change as formal schooling begins and kids learn more about what other people expect of them. Your child's increasing language skills are one of the simplest explanations for his teasing. In the third or fourth grade, children begin to enjoy word play such as making puns and -- unfortunately -- delivering insults. Teasing can be a way to show how smart they are.
Socially, this is also a time when children start to value abilities that other people admire, such as throwing a football or reading a long book. School-age children want to be liked and accepted by their peers; the downside is that anyone who doesn't conform may get noticed -- a child with frizzy hair, a child whose parents don't live together, a child who speaks one language at home and another at school. Children may tease to express their uneasiness with these differences or, worse, to seek power over the kids who seem different.
Emotionally, kids often tease because they feel vulnerable or powerless. This defensive mechanism can quickly become aggressive as well.
When should I get help for my child's teasing?
Seek professional help if the behavior begins to hamper your child's ability to perform in school or to interact with family and friends.
Uncontrollable or abusive teasing can be a sign that emotional, physical, or developmental problems are causing your child to lash out in frustration. Your family doctor or pediatrician can offer guidance or refer you to a family counselor, child psychiatrist, or other mental health professional.
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