By Dr. Collie Conoley

cconoley.jpgCan’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

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


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