Teasing, bullying and name-calling are all common behaviors in childhood. A study in 1999 found roughly 20% of children in elementary and middle school – 5 million children – reported being a victim of teasing or bullying. In response to the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado and other schools, the US Department of Education conducted a study in 2002 and found that more than two thirds of the shooters had been victims of chronic bullying. While not all bullying and teasing incidents lead to violence, children who are targets of such behaviors frequently experience significant health and emotional problems, which often last a lifetime. Children as young as 5 years have experienced school avoidance and failure, social problems and a whole host of somatic complaints including stomach aches, headaches and chest pains. Problems older children encounter as a result of bullying and teasing include substance abuse (smoking, alcohol, illegal drug use), depression, gang involvement, and poor academic performance.
The key to changing the way children interact is for all of the adults in their lives –parents, teachers, coaches, counselors, and others – to work together to change the social climate so that bullying is no longer acceptable. Conversations about respecting others start early, in Kindergarten. Teaching your child good communication and social skills at home will go a long way toward his or her success in school. Similarly, the way a child is disciplined at home will lay the foundation for his or her interaction with other children at school. It is important for parents to set limits for a child’s behavior at home and not allow aggression, ridicule or teasing toward siblings or other family members. Be aware of your behavior toward your child, and what type of environment you foster among siblings. Parents are important role models. The parent who disciplines their child with yelling or hitting is teaching their child to react in that manner with other people. The parent who uses hurtful teasing such as put-downs, name-calling or ridicule with their child or condones it among siblings, sets the tone for that child to respond similarly with their peers. If children are witness to their parents handling disputes with a physical response, or using exclusion or manipulation among friends or family members, or bad-mouthing individuals or groups of people, it will be difficult, if nearly impossible, to hold them to a higher standard.
Teasing seems to be far more acceptable today than in years past. Watch some of the popular sitcoms on television and listen to the put-downs between adults, between family members, and especially among adolescent children. Through watching, children learn that the way to be funny is to be insulting; the way to dominate others is by verbally attacking them. Parents should not ignore their child’s behavior when they observe them being mean, but rather intervene, condemn their behavior and express their disappointment rather than anger.
While most parents try their best to keep the lines of communication open with their children, it is difficult to learn about everything that is going on in a child’s life. Chances are if your child is being bullied, he or she may be reluctant to tell you about it for fear you may try to intervene. The following warning signs may indicate that your child is being bullied:
When your child complains of being teased or bullied, it is important to try your best to understand the experience from your child’s point of view. Listen, listen, listen! Do not minimize or rationalize the situation, as that is a sure way to shut your child down and guarantee he or she will not come back to talk to you the next time it occurs. Do not overreact, as a parent’s overreaction often results in the child overreacting. Ask your child to describe the teasing, including where it is happening, and who is the teaser. Validate their feelings and convey support, with some gentle reassurance that you know it is painful but that they can handle it. Help your child understand that he or she is not to blame in any way and that the bully is the one with the problem. Stress to them that they cannot control what other children may say, but that they can learn to control their own reactions to the teasing, and that in doing so, they may reduce the incidence of teasing they experience.
Parents can teach their children some of the strategies listed below, to empower them and reduce their feelings of helplessness (see Freedman, 1999 for additional information). As children use these skills and realize they are effective strategies, their sense of competence and coping skills are strengthened.
The best thing that parents can do to help their child socially is to support their friendships. Welcome their friends to your home, and allow your children to spend time with their peers. Get to know their classmates. Socialize with other families. It is not important that a child be popular. All he or she really needs is one or two good friends. Friendship gives a child what he needs socially to help pull him through the tough times.
If your child is the teaser or bully, you should take the problem seriously. Children who are aggressive and bullying when they are young are at high risk for social problems later on in life. First off, it is important to find out why they bully. Reasons can vary as to why children act this way, but may include the following:
Parents need to discuss these issues with their child in a nonthreatening manner to learn as much as they can about their child’s motivation for bullying. While occasional bouts of teasing are normal, children who regularly do this to others may experience serious difficulties. Over time, these patterns become ingrained and habitual. Reports from other adults, or your child’s peers, painful as they can be to hear, are a valuable source of information. Teachers can assist by monitoring your child and providing feedback, and redirecting bullying behavior.
Getting a handle on a child’s bullying behavior is not an easy task, and is one that requires a significant amount of time and commitment from parents, teachers, and sometimes, mental health professionals. The following are a few guidelines for how parents can reduce bullying behavior:
Cosby, Bill. (1997). The meanest thing to say. New York: Scholastic.
Faber, Adele, and Elaine Mazlish (1998). Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too. New York: Avon Books.
Freedman, Judy S. (1999). Easing the teasing: How parents can help their kids cope. Early Childhood, pp. 1, 4.
Sheras, Peter. (2002). Your Child: Bully or Victim? New York: Fireside Press.
Information on bullying and services for victims and aggressors.
Information and tips about bullying for parents and children.
Help for students being bullied at school. Loads of tips and advice for students and parents.
The nation’s largest mental health website.
Provides referrals to anti-bullying groups and resources in your area.
Rappaport, Ph.D. is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist specializing
in child and family issues. Dr. Rappaport has over 15 years of
experience working with children and families experiencing chronic and
life threatening illness. She is a consultant to the Jenna Druck
Foundation which provides support to families that have lost a child
In addition, Dr. Rappaport has a private practice in Del Mar, CA.