Specific Strategies to Teach Your Child to Deal with Teasing

In selecting the appropriate strategies to teach your child, you will need to determine the specific strengths and weaknesses your child may have socially. You can do this by observing your child interacting with friends and siblings. Next, take time to think about your child’s temperament. Temperament includes activity level, intensity, adaptability, initial reaction to situations and people, general mood, sensitivity or emotional reactivity, distractibility and persistence. All children are not the same. Finally take your child’s age into consideration.

The best strategies fit your child’s situation, age, skills, temperament, and the seriousness of the teasing incidents. Teaching your child the skills described below takes time and effort. The behaviors must be modeled and practiced if your child is going to be successful. The payoffs are significant for your child. Payoffs include safety, self-confidence, resiliency, ability to handle difficult or frightening situations, and the belief your child develops that he or she has the ability to master and to change challenging situations.

Begin by teaching self control strategies first. Start with a discussion about teasing, carefully and explicitly describing situations when your child should try to handle the teasing himself/herself and when he/she should not try to manage the teaser. Describe the difference between teasing, bullying and harassment. Carefully define dangerous situations. Your child must not try to manage dangerous situations himself or herself. Always teach more than one strategy to combat teasing so that your child always has a second one to try if the first doesn’t work out and in fact, three well-mastered strategies are best.

The first skills to master are described here.

Decide if the situation is safe: Your child must not try to handle situations that are not safe. Unsafe situations can be recognized when the teasing occurs in a very isolated place with no other children or adults around, when the teasers are much older or bigger, when the teasing involves pushing, tripping, or threats, and when the teasing occurs over and over. In these cases children need to get help and to report what is happening to them to an adult as soon as possible (use the word ‘report’ rather than ‘telling’ given the sanctions against telling in schools.

Stay calm: It is important that the teaser does not see that your child is upset or scared. Control of emotions needs to be taught first. This takes lots of practice, especially for children who are emotionally reactive, timid or impulsive.

Relaxation: Teach several relaxation strategies, deep breathing or counting backwards. Relaxation strategies do not work in stressful situations, unless they are practiced in situations that are not stressful. Practice with your child several times a day, making a game of the techniques or calling them ‘daily exercises.’

Body language: Practice assertive body language with your child. Find pictures in magazines in which the individual looks powerless, and ones in which the models appear assertive. Point out body posture and facial expressions. Act out assertive postures including stand tall, looking directly at the other person, tightening jaw and arms, relaxing the rest of the body.

The following strategies are for emotionally young children, for children with disabilities, and for children who are emotionally reactive and get upset quickly.These are nonverbal and/or internal strategies.

Avoid the teaser: Avoiding the person who is teasing is an important strategy for some situations. Remind your child to go a different way, and to stay near other children or adults. This is a safety strategy for teasing verging on bullying, and for children who do not yet have the skills or confidence to use the strategies that they are learning.

Shrug: A quick technique is to shrug your shoulders and walk away.

Ignore the teasing: This is most common advice given to children. Anger and tears exacerbate the teasing. Staying in control is very difficult for some children. It requires active and intense effort. Your child must have adequate emotional control to pull this off. For this strategy, your child needs to be careful not to look at the teaser or respond to the teaser. Be sure to teach that prolonged teasing is bullying and this needs a different response. Ignoring doesn’t work when used alone, your child needs to also use one of the internalizing strategies while ignoring the teasing.

Self-Talk: Teach your child by modeling talking to yourself. This is a silent pep talk technique. Help your child practice saying very quietly (and later to himself or herself) , “I don’t like this but I can handle it,” or “I don’t believe what this kid is saying about me,” or “I have a lot of strengths.” This requires ability to concentrate when stressed.

Visualization: Ask your child to picture him/herself as a ball and the words that the teaser is saying are bouncing off. Or, to pretend that there is a shield or bubble around him/her so that the words can’t get through. Teach you child that he/she can refuse to listen to the put-downs, protecting himself with an imaginary bubble or an invisible protective shield. Some children can imagine themselves as a super power figure who is safe from put-downs and teases.

Positive thinking: This strategy is for a child who is less reactive and feels okay about him/herself. Explain to your child that she/he has the power to choose how to act when someone is teasing. Your child can decide that it isn’t worth the trouble to get upset, or can decide that there is no way that the teaser is going to win by seeing her/him upset. Help your child see that he or she doesn’t have to let the other person have power and the person who has the power is the one who stays in control.

The next set of strategies require more assertive behaviors and are for children who are ready to try an approach that requires a momentary confrontation.

So?: Bill Cosby recommends repeating the word ‘So?’ in response to teasing in his book ‘The Meanest Thing to Say.’ This strategy must be executed with appropriate nonverbal communication, so it needs practice. The nonverbal gestures would include a quick smile, a slight tip of the head and a slight shrug of the shoulder before walking away.

Leave assertively: Teach your child to say, “I’m leaving” or “I have more important things to do,” or “Go pick on someone else.” This strategy is for situations when the person teasing is ‘in your child’s face.’ Teach your child to say, “I’m out of here. See ya!” and to walk away quickly.

Make one assertive statement: Say to the teaser “You can’t talk to me like that,” or “Leave me alone ,” or “I don’t have to listen to this,” or “Quit bugging me.” Practice making only one assertive statement. Be sure that your child understands that may not work. If it doesn’t work, a different strategy needs to be used immediately. Therefore, when practicing, teach several strategies at the same time.

The next several strategies are for when your child feels a little more in control. These strategies require more skill, more confidence and of course, more practice.

Distraction: Teach your child to talk about something else to distract or divert the focus of the teasing statements. Make a short statementabout a nearby game or activity, a class, or what is going to be served for lunch.

Broken record: Teach your child a script to say over and over, until the teasing stops because it is no longer fun. Example: “enough already” or “cut it out,” or “cool it”. This needs to be assertive but not challenging. The statement needs a shrug, a scrunched up face and shake of the head or a slight smile respectively. This strategy requires more skill than the previous one because the nonverbal behavior is very important along with the statement. Remind your child to check if the situation is safe before using this skill.

State the obvious: Teach your child to comment on what the other child is doing. “You’re kicking my chair.” This requires an accompanying nonverbal gesture such as raised eyebrows and pursed lips.

The next several strategies are for children who have some confidence and are beginning to be good actors. Practice these with your child before your child tries them out, so that your child learns to use appropriate body postures, facial expressions, gestures, and an appropriately firm tone of voice along with the words.

Dealing with Whispers: Teach your child to ask, “Do you have something to say about me?” when peers are whispering and laughing. Assertive body language and an exaggerated facial expression works well here.

Negative Questions: Teach your child to ask questions, which are designed to neutralize what is being said. “I don’t understand what is so interesting about my glasses.” An innocent expression works well with this strategy.

Ask for Repetition: Simply ask calmly and without emotion “What did you say?” Usually the teaser doesn’t know what to say next and will say ‘skip it.’ If the teaser repeats the comment, stare blankly and walk away.

Go with the Flow: Teach your child to say: “Tell me something I don’t already know,” or “Makes sense to me,” or “Ya, sure.” If the tease is about ball handling skills, you child might say, “Hey, you’re better than me, I’m still learning.”

Agree with the facts: This is one of the easier ways to handle a tease but it requires emotional control. The Teaser says “You have a million freckles.” Your child responds, “Right. ”The teaser says “You’re a crybaby.” Your child says, “I’m a sensitive person.” When the tease involves mistakes, teach your child to say, “You’re right, I blew it.”

Respond with a Compliment: It is effective at times to answer a tease with a compliment. If your child is teased about the way he runs, you teach your child to say “You’re a fast runner.” If the tease is about poor academic performance, teach your child to say, “You’re good at this, how about helping me?”

These next few strategies are assertive. Make sure your child has the temperament that fits these strategies before teaching them. Don’t make the mistake of overestimating your child’s ability to pull these off, and don’t assume that your child has your confidence and experience because you wish that this were true. However, for the right child with adequate emotional control and confidence, these can be very effective strategies.

Desists: These statements are designed to stop the teaser in his tracks. “I didn’t do anything to you, why are you teasing me?” “That’s not funny” or “I don’t like this,” “Could you please stop?” or “Stop it.” The nonverbal behavior used with this strategy is important. Practice standing tall, using direct eye-contact and setting a firm expression.

Fogging: Agree with everything that the teaser is saying. Say, “Yes that’s true,” or “I see what you mean,” or “Makes sense to me.” Teach your child to say “Thanks, I love compliments.” “Hard to believe isn’t it?” “Old clothes are in, didn’t you know?” “You made my day.”

Come-backs: Ask your child to remember what was said and help develop comebacks to use for specific teasing such as name-calling or mimicking. Comments such as “Don’t blame me for your problems ,” or“Get a life” might work for older children, and sayings such as “I’m rubber, you’re glue, It bounces off me and sticks to you,” may fit younger children.

Reframing: This is a strategy which changes your child’s perception about the negative comment. Turn the tease into a comment. If your child is being teased about wearing glasses, the teaser might say, “Thanks for noticing my glasses” or “Thanks for noticing me.”

The final few strategies require skill, confidence, and self-control. Socially skilled and quick thinking middle school students can learn them and use them. They aren’t for every student.

Disarming humor: Use humor, laugh about the tease, make it playful. A one-liner might be enough to make the teaser stop. Laughing can turn a hurtful situation into a funny one, but it requires sophistication to do this successfully.

“I Feel”: “I feel statements” are for older students although they don’t often work very well. This is a technique used by adults and may not work with children, especially younger children because the teaser may not respond. This strategy works best for children when it is used within earshot of an adult. If it is used when there is no help around, it can invite more teasing. Practice checking to see that an adult is within earshot, making eye contact, speaking clearly, using a polite tone of voice, and saying, “When you said ___ I felt ___ because ___. Please stop.”

The final strategy should be included in every lesson for all children.

Ask for help: Tell your child that sometimes you need to find an adult and get help. If the teasing doesn’t stop, is dangerous, the teaser threatens to hurt you, or if the teaser touches you, tell an adult as soon as possible.

Notes to parents:

  1. It is critically important to help your child understand when it is dangerous to try to manage the teaser. When the teaser is older, much stronger, when the teasing takes place in isolated areas with no one around, when your child feels threatened or is hurt the child should get help. Bullying and harassment should always be reported. Your child can distinguish between teasing and bullying in this way. When the teasing is prolonged, when it is threatening, when violence is threatened, or when it involves touching or physical contact it is not simply teasing. Make sure that your child understands that reporting something that is dangerous or very hurtful/embarrassing/cruel is not tattling, it is ‘smart’ and ‘right’. If your child has issues around tattling and the situation is not immediately dangerous, suggest that your child warn the teaser that he/she will tell if the teasing doesn’t stop. Once warned, it is more acceptable to tell.
  2. Remind your child to play with friends, don’t stay anywhere where she or he is alone. Avoid alleys. Don’t hang out with bullies or play near them. You may need to help some children form friendships so that they are not alone on the playground or before and after school.
  3. It is not a good idea for parents to confront the child who is teasing for several reasons. First, this makes your child even more powerless, because mom or dad needed to step in. Second, your child may become a friend of the person doing the teasing next week, or next year. Third, it makes it difficult for the kids to ‘make up.’ Don’t confront the parents of the child teasing especially if you think that bullying is going on. Even parents whom you think may be reasonable or whom you think you know may see the situation differently.

Disclaimer: Material on the William James INTERFACE Referral Service website is intended as general information. It is not a recommendation for treatment, nor should it be considered medical or mental health advice. The William James INTERFACE Referral Service urges families to discuss all information and questions related to medical or mental health care with a health care professional.