Is It Teasing or Bullying?

By Judy S. Freedman, M.S.W., and Mimi P. Black, coauthors of Ease the Tease

Is It Teasing or Bullying?When a child says, “I’m being bullied,” parents and educators are right to take these words seriously. Research has shown that targets of bullying are more likely to suffer from chronic stress, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and physical illness. They are also more likely to resist going to school and to suffer academically.

When the source of the hurt appears to be verbal rather than physical, it’s common for adults to wonder whether the child is being teased rather than bullied. Conversely, a limited understanding of the distinction can contribute to an unfortunate misuse of the bullying label. So, what is the distinction between teasing and bullying, and how might it matter?

Some view the difference as a matter of degree. But since teasing and bullying require different approaches, we feel there’s a clear and important distinction: teasing has escalated to bullying when it is deliberate, repeated, and unchecked.

Cruel and hurtful teasing involves making fun of someone. It includes ridicule, name-calling, putdowns, verbal insults, and gesturing, as well as annoying actions. Cruel teasing also includes exclusion.

Verbal bullying includes repeated and persistent name-calling; hostile teasing and taunting; slurs regarding race, sexual orientation, and religion; and abusive remarks that are sexual in nature. Bullying often begins as mild teasing, as the bullying child searches for a vulnerable target. Once the child gets a rise out of a target, the teasing usually escalates and becomes more intense and persistent.

Fortunately, most kids can confidently handle teasing on their own when they are empowered with helpful tease-easing strategies. But when the problem and the hurt persist, it’s time for adults to help.

When a child approaches you with their concern, it’s best to use an active listening approach. Thank the child for trusting you, and ask open-ended questions to gather details about the situation. Either ask the child directly or be alert for any clues that the child feels unsafe. It’s crucial to assess the child’s feelings about their physical and emotional safety because when a child feels unsafe, intervention is a must.

In your conversation, determine what, if any, strategies the child has tried to address the situation on their own. Have they exhausted their known alternatives? If not, offer to be their role-play partner as they practice effective strategies and strengthen their tease-easing muscles.

Your guidance and support are deeply valuable, including when you overhear teasing between children. But keep in mind that most teasing happens out of earshot of the adults who can best intervene in those situations. Because of this, children who witness teasing are in a powerful position. How can they be encouraged to go from being bystanders to being upstanders?

Kids are highly influenced by the attitudes of others their age, so why not tap into the powerful, bullying-busting power of peers?

We suggest weaving upstander responsibility into the fabric of your classroom culture.

In group discussions with younger children, help them define what teasing is and how it affects others. Young learners in particular are sometimes unaware that their words are hurtful.

As part of class team-building efforts, consider inviting children to design an expectations poster. You can prompt ideas for expectations by posing questions such as, “If you were being teased, what would you want your classmates to do?”

Remind children that they are a team beyond the walls of the classroom, and so the expectations still apply. Appeal to their desire to model good behavior for younger children.

Time spent on empathy-building skills reaps outsized rewards. Take advantage of this month by leading class discussions around bullying and teasing, and remind children that  in their classroom every month is Bullying Prevention Month.

Judy Freedman | credit: Michael Lee PhotographyJudy S. Freedman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W., is a licensed clinical social worker with more than thirty years of therapeutic and educational experience with children, adolescents, and adults. During her more than two decades as a social worker in elementary schools, she created the Easing the Teasing program, which empowers kids with essential skills and strategies to handle teasing incidents, and which was the basis for her parenting book Easing the Teasing: Helping Your Child Cope with Name-Calling, Ridicule, and Verbal Bullying (Contemporary Books/McGraw Hill). She gives presentations and workshops to parents, educators, mental health professionals, recreational personnel, and students. Judy received the Illinois School Social Worker of the Year Award in 2011. She lives in the Chicago area with her family.


Mimi P. BlackMimi P. Black, Ph.D., is a psychologist, bullying prevention specialist, and actor. She has published articles on several developmental psychology topics and given invited addresses on bullying prevention to school administrators, faculty, parents, and students. For more than 25 years, she has played countless roles in various media as an on-camera and voice actor. Mimi has worked on both sides of the camera in the development of children’s educational television programs. She lives in the Chicago area with her family.

Ease the TeaseJudy and Mimi are coauthors of Ease the Tease

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