By Dr. Collie Conoley
Can’t you take a joke? I was only teasing! Teasing is part of everyone’s life. Each of us has a significant uncomfortable memory about teasing. Even though teasing is considered a type of bullying, teasing can range from an enjoyable to a hurtful interaction. Psychologists define teasing as an ambiguous message containing both humor and hostility. The ambiguity makes an appropriate response difficult: Was I just insulted? Or, am I too sensitive? The target of teasing often feels vulnerable.
Parents and teachers underestimate the pain teasing inflicts. Children rate teasing as the number one fear about entering high school. Retrospective studies link chronic teasing with many emotional problems including eating disorders, poor self-esteem, body image disturbance, and depression. Research indicates that teasing is worthy of adult attention!
Adult intervening can take two routes. First, the teaser should be stopped. Adults should label a teasing statement as harmful, so that the target of teasing is not left alone in defense. The teaser needs to be instructed in empathy training and character development.
Second, the target of teasing needs communication tools and a perspective on teasing that is protective. Children are typically told to ignore teasing or become aggressive with the teaser. The research on ignoring indicates that ignoring a teaser usually incites a more aggressive response from the teaser. Additionally, ignoring probably erodes the self-esteem of the target because of the inactive, helpless stance. Conversely, acting aggressive when teased is an active stance which could help self-esteem in the short run, but there are long term draw-backs. Aggressive action can easily escalate into a physical fight and recommending aggressive action communicates that harming another person is an acceptable value.
An effective response for the target of teasing is called affiliative humor. Affiliative humor focuses upon the humorous part of the teasing message. By focusing upon the humor in the teasing message the target takes control of the interaction and transforms the interaction into a level interaction rather than a one-down interaction. The message is that we are both funny and clever. Affiliative humor jokes about the topic without putting any person down.
Teasing is believed to be most harmful when it is repetitive. Physical characteristics are the most popular topics of a tease. As adults we can help children prepare themselves for the inevitable teasing. For example, our oldest son was continuously teased because he had red hair. Any physical characteristic that is not shared by most children or not culturally valued is a likely target for teasing. We should have prepared him with an affiliative humor response by telling him what to say and then practicing it around the house.
Dad: “Hey scrambled egg head! You got red eggs on your head!”
Son: “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful!”
Dr. Collie Conoley is a Professor in the Department of Counseling, Clinical, and School Psychology at UC Santa Barbara’s Gevirtz School.