Clear as day, I remember a girl in my elementary school named Alice. Alice came from a poor family and her clothes were often worn and tattered. Kids would groan and roll their eyes if the teacher asked them to sit next to her. To catch “Alice’s kooties” was the worst thing that could happen to us boys.
Teasing, ridicule and exclusion were her everyday experiences. I can still see her beleaguered smile and her sad, pleading eyes, searching for any crumb of acceptance from the other children. The memory I have of her still haunts me. This shouldn’t have happened to Alice, and as parents we need to make sure it never happens to our own children or other children in our schools.
A certain amount of teasing at school is to be expected. Anthropologists generally agree that childhood teasing is a universal form of social interaction. Playful teasing (in the form of kidding and bantering) can be a fun and positive social experience. Teasing between parents and children and between friends at school can be a bonding experience. But chronic, cruel teasing that is meant to ridicule and demean can be very harmful.
Bullying, which is a conscious, willful effort to hurt another person, is particularly harmful. Various studies suggest that 15 percent of school-age children are involved in the bullying cycle, either as bullies or victims of bullies.
According to other studies, children who are chronically teased or bullied see their grades go down, depression go up and end up with less self-esteem as adults. In extreme cases, such children resort to drugs or even violence and suicide to achieve relief from chronic teasing or bullying (the teen rate of suicide has tripled since the 1950s and anywhere from 5 to 10 percent of teenagers experience clinical depression). And bullies themselves have a statistically significant preponderance for ending up in jail as adults.
Beyond teasing between siblings that occurs in the home, the vast majority of episodes of teasing and bullying happen in the schoolyard. Almost all studies conclude that most bullying happens in the school environment (rather than going to or from school). And three-quarters of the bullying that occurs at school is centered in the playground. So what can we as parents do to help our children deal with this problem?
1. Talk to your children about whether they are teased or bullied at school. Explain to them that this isn’t tattling, this is standing up for their rights. They have the right to safe access to education. What adult would allow himself to be verbally or physically assaulted without standing up for his rights? Also be on the lookout for signs of being chronically teased, like unusual sadness, isolation and ongoing references to “not being liked.” If you can, visit your child’s playground every so often and observe the social interchange.
2. If you suspect that chronic harmful teasing and bullying are happening, take direct, decisive action. Don’t assume that schoolyard harassment is normal behavior. It’s only normal if we choose to accept it. Talk to school administrators, teachers and yard duty personnel and get to the bottom of it. Arrange to meet with all involved parties in one room (including the teaser and yard duty personnel) and come up with a specific plan to put an end to it.
If physical bullying is involved take it particularly seriously. Bring the bully’s parents and law enforcement people into the situation if you have to. Go to your school board if you’re not getting results from your teachers or principal. School personnel have a responsibility to protect your child from bullying and harassment while they’re at school.
3. Demand that your school have a no-nonsense, anti-bullying policy and program in place, along with conflict resolution and management programs. Schools don’t cause bullying, but without sufficient supervision and decisive action when bullying does occur, they can provide a place for it to happen. A great resource for developing good school policies and programs is Childhood Bullying and Teasing: What School Personnel, Other Professionals and Parents Can Do, by Dr. Dorothea Ross (American Counseling Association).
4. Within reason, help your children fit in with other kids. Be open to having other children over, encourage your children to participate in groups at school and help them deal with hygiene and clothing issues in a way that will help them to not stand out negatively.
5. With sibling teasing in the home, don’t allow one child to continuously pick on another one. Sporadic squabbling is one thing, but ongoing ridicule can be very detrimental long term. Sit down and have all parties discuss the teasing and agree to a plan to have it stop. Have your kids not be allowed to talk to each other for a while if teasing and conflict won’t stop.
6. Teach your child the “verbal judo” tools that he can use to respond to teasing and other hurtful words. It takes an adult to teach children to defend themselves against painful taunts. The best way to do this is through practice and role playing. We’re willing to practice reading and sports with our children, and we need to put in the same practice time with them when it comes to learning social skills. I recommend teaching the following tools to your children so that they can add them to their own verbal tool boxes.
The Power “I” is using a strong, assertive “I statement” to tell others how we feel and what we want. If a teaser says, “Where’d you get that big nose?” the response can be, “I want you stop bugging me,” or “I want you to cut it out!”
The Mighty Might is using deflective, conditional phrasing, as in “You might be right,” “That could be so,” “Maybe,” or “Possibly,” to respond to teasing. A child continues to use these statements until the teasing stops. If a teaser says, “Those are really dorky clothes,” the response can be “You might be right” or “Maybe.”
The Shrug is verbally shrugging off the teasing and saying something like “So what?” or “Who cares?” If a teaser says “You’ve got buck teeth,” the response is to act bored, look away, smile and say, “Who cares?”
The Reverse Tease uses sarcastic humor in response to teasing. If a teaser says “You walk like a penguin,” the response can be “Thanks for being so kind” or “Wow, you’re right, and what’s that hanging from your nose?” If your child is particularly witty this can also take the form of mild insults, like “Yeah, of course you walk like a hippo.”
The Reverse Tease can also take the form of sarcastic, chronic deafness, as in “What did you say?” or “I’m sorry, I can’t hear you” repeated over and over. The Reverse Tease should never be used with bullies who can be physically dangerous.
The Disappearing Act is used when teasing looks like it could get dangerous. Children need to learn to quickly get up and leave the scene, without saying anything, and go to where there are some responsible adults around.
Finally, if teasing won’t stop, kids need to be taught to ask teachers and parents for help. All sides, including the teaser, need to come together and develop solutions to the problem. Each side tells their side of the story and comes up with some solution options. The final solution should include some built-in consequences to follow up on if the parties don’t abide by the solution agreement. Again, kids need to understand that this isn’t tattling, this is standing up for the same rights that adults would demand in the same situation.
In the teaching process, children also need to understand that showing they’re not upset is as important as the words they use. Do role playing with your children and have them practice assertive body language and facial expression. And one last bit of advice: If our children are in a very bad situation with respect to teasing and bullying that doesn’t change no matter what we do, we need to get them into a different school environment — we need to find a new setting with different playmates and associates.
Stubbornly trying to get our children to assimilate socially in their current situation isn’t worth their long-term happiness. As adults, if we find ourselves in a very bad work situation, we get out of it. After doing everything to improve their situation, our children should also have this option of last resort – the opportunity to get out of a very bad situation.
Scott Cooper is the father of three children and author of Sticks and Stones: 7 Ways Your Child Can Deal With Teasing and Conflict (Times Books).