Why does my child get teased and what can I do about it?

Alan either comes home from school crying or in a bad mood. He says he has “given up on life” and “wants to die.” No one will play with him and even worse they tease him and make him feel stupid. Every day this kind of treatment is happening to thousands of our children.

First of all, the truth is that all children get teased. Some are more sensitive or more reactive to it than others. Teasing is the way in which children relate to each other. Children are not born with good social skills and manners and it takes years to learn them. When they sit nicely in well structured and organized classrooms, supervised by an adult, more civilized behaviour is visible, but out on the playground or at recess is where the uneducated, unsocialized childlike behaviour is unleashed in its pure form.

The recent research on sex differences clearly shows that boys and girls differ in their manner of relating to others. Boys tend to be more physical­ their teasing takes the form of poking, pushing, grabbing, etc. Girls tend to be more verbal– taunting, name calling, etc. Boys tend to hurt each other physically and to resolve their differences more quickly. Girls hurt each others’ feelings and differences can take weeks, months or even longer to resolve. Believe it or not, the purpose of this behaviour is to make contact, to connect and form relationships. This is socialization in its most primitive form.

Research also tells us that eldest and only children, by and large, have the most difficulty dealing with this undersocialized behaviour of other children. The reason for this is that eldest and only children have often interacted more with adults than with other children and come to expect that others will treat them with kindness and consideration, or at least with some regard to their feelings and reactions. This is, unfortunately, an unrealistic expectation to have of other children. When one has siblings, especially those close in age, one gets used to “rough” and often malicious behaviour. One develops skills at handling this behaviour. The behaviour of other children on the school yard is often considered mild in comparison to the treatment one receives at home from one’s siblings.

The eldest and only children I see in my office are often terribly hurt and insulted by the treatment they receive at the hands of other children. The problem is they personalize it and do not realize that other children are also being teased but that they react differently to it and therefore it doesn’t have the same meaning to them. It often helps to discuss this issue with them so they understand that they are not being singled out, that this treatment does not mean they are especially deserving of being teased. Children often come to the erroneous conclusion that because they are being mistreated, they must be lacking in some way, that they are unworthy, or inferior. These are dangerous and invalid conclusions to draw and children can be helped to understand that these conclusions do not have any merit.

As well, children and adults often think there are only two types of responses to a situation when they are being harassed. One is to do nothing or to “wimp out.” The other is to fight back, meeting aggression with aggression. Neither of these is really a good solution. Another suggestion often offered to children is to “tell the teacher.” This is fine if there’s a teacher around, but often teachers don’t get involved in what they consider to be mild and normal squabbles and at other times there is no teacher available to intervene. Eventually children must learn to stand up for themselves.

There is a third alternative, which is called assertiveness. Body language and tone of voice often convey more than the actual words one uses. Eldest and only children often get hung up on exactly what to say, finding the right comeback line. This often takes time and when one is being confronted on the playground time is something you don’t have. It’s more important to have one good line and to learn to use a strong voice and say it like you mean it. Simple lines like “Get lost!” “I DON’T like that!” said with vigour can be very effective. One of the more popular ones currently in vogue is “Get out of my face!” One of my person favourites is “Whatever,” followed by a shrug and a look of disdain. I also like “Thanks for the compliment.” Parents may cringe when reading that children need to be taught to use such language, but what are the alternatives? We don’t want our children slugging it out. We don’t want our children to be victims. Besides, taking the victim role only encourages the victimizer to do more of the same. We recommend that our children “use their words,” but words like “Please leave me alone,” may work perfectly with other adults, or with some children, but will often only leave you open for more attack on the playground. Children can practice being assertive at home with parents or in front of a mirror. Once they get into it, this exercise is fun, relieves them of feeling helpless, immediately improves their self esteem, and the icing on the cake is that it works.

Learning how to stand up for yourself and being able to send something back verbally when something has been thrown your way is important in life. We don’t want our kids to be slugging it out physically. We have to help them learn how to deal with the verbal banter that goes around.