teasing and name calling

Teasing and name calling can bring very real trauma to your child. Likely, there are some “normal” life events you would do a lot to keep your child from going through.  There are some events that almost every child goes through.  But not all children get through these events unscathed.  For some children, things like teasing or name-calling by their peers can be very painful, even traumatic.

Help for Teasing At School

Mary Elizabeth is a friend of mine who has a nine-year-old son named Lance.  She called me one day because Lance had come home from school angry and in tears about an incident on his school’s playground.  It seems that some of Lance’s classmates, other boys he usually played with, decided for some reason that Lance was on the outs with their group.  They ostracized him from their play and taunted him about his rather prominent ears.  These were some boys Lance had been playmates with on and off since Kindergarten, hence he was hurt and puzzled that he’d been treated so unkindly and unfairly.

I knew this was a hot-button issue for Mary Elizabeth because of her own childhood experiences.  She’d shared with me that her father had been career military, so Mary Elizabeth was a new kid in class almost every year she was in school.  As a child, she was quiet and bookish, and slow to make friends.  She also had what she calls her family curse—the prominent ears inherited by her son.  Whether it was her ears or just the fact that she was the new kid, she was often excluded, teased and made the butt of cruel jokes by other children.  She was too often alone and lonely, and painfully self-conscious.  Grade school was a traumatic time for Mary Elizabeth, so she was very sensitive to her son’s experiences with his classmates even though they’d lived in the same town all Lance’s life.  She was just terrified that Lance might experience some of the same pain that made her own childhood so miserable and painful.  She wanted to do everything she could to protect her son from even a small part of her experience, and that was why she called me.

Mary Elizabeth was not much interested in hearing from me that the kind of experience Lance had with his peers was a common experience for most children, and an opportunity for him to grow socially and to express the values he’d been taught in his family.  Rather, she wanted to know what she could do.  Here is what I told her, and if you have a child or a grandchild in elementary school, you might find it useful as well:

Teasing and Name Calling: Developmental Stages

School age children like Lance, that is, children between the ages of about seven to eleven, are going through a developmental stage in which they become very interested in forming relationships with their peers.  In fact you may hear your child talk about his or her “best friend” for the first time during this stage.  Kids are learning to play together in teams and the first interests in competition usually start during these years.  At this stage, being included, and feeling like they belong with their peer group, become very important.

If you haven’t figured it out already, you should know that children in this age range have brains that are not yet fully developed.  It isn’t just a difference in the amount of experience and learning they have.  They aren’t like small adults.  They do not yet have the capacity to take what they know about one situation and apply it to another.  They don’t have a clear concept of the future and rarely think about it unless they want to count the days to the trip to Marine World that’s coming up.  They are very much concerned only with what is happening here and now.

This is, as it so happens, the age when kids tend to engage in teasing and name-calling—sometimes in anger and sometimes in order to fit in and be accepted by their peers.  They also become better able to use words in a cruel manner or to tell jokes that make fun of others. Their sneaky-skills grow by leaps and bounds during this stage, too, so don’t be surprised if you find you weren’t aware of the teasing and name-calling that was going on practically under your nose.

I cannot emphasize strongly enough how important it is to intervene when this happens because teasing and name-calling are behaviors that can lead to bullying.  Being a victim of bullying can have serious and far-reaching effects on a child, anything from lowered self-esteem to thinking about suicide, and even actual suicide.  And being a bully sets that child apart from others in a negative way and can start the child who bullies on a path to ever increasing negative social behavior that certainly has no good ending.

Like I told Mary Elizabeth, if you’ve never sat down with your child and talked about what your family’s rules are about teasing and name-calling––or hitting, spitting and stealing, for that matter––there’s no better time than the present.  Your child is old enough to understand you at this stage, and old enough to make choices about his or her behavior, even when upset.  Just one caution: they are very concrete thinkers at this age.  They really do need to know exactly what you expect of them.  You can’t assume they’ll figure out that the rules they have at home also apply at school and apply even when they are upset or feel they’ve been treated unfairly.  So have a sit-down talk, or a family meeting––or however you do it at your house, and talk about what your family rules are for them.  Keep it simple and straightforward, and try to limit it to three rules at a time if you can.  Any more than that and they’ll start thinking about what’s for lunch.

Look, parents, children do things for a reason, even at this age.  As a parent, you can find out why your child called a classmate names or teased another child.  If you know why your child did it, then you can give her or him an alternative behavior to try next time.  That way you aren’t asking him or her to do nothing, when in the child’s mind, the situation calls for some kind of a come-back.

Children Teasing

So, say you got an email from your child’s school letting you know she was disciplined for teasing and name calling a classmate.  What do you do?  First of all, it’s really important that you say something rather than letting it go.  After listening to her tell you what happened, you can tell her what the charges are.  Then, for example––and use your own words if you try this––you could say something like

I’d be very proud of you, Janie, if you would remember our family rule about not name-calling and instead just tell them how angry you are with them.  You can even tell them what you are angry about.  Just don’t call them a bad name, even if you really want to.  Okay? Will you promise to do that next time?

Notice you’ve done three things with this kind of response.  You reminded the child of the family rule that you all talked about before.  You gave encouragement and suggestions for the alternative, desired response.  Finally, you’ve extracted a promise you’re your child to use the alternative response next time.

If the alternative response you’re asking for is new behavior for your child, you can help her practice this response by role-playing it with her until she is comfortable with it.  Let your child play herself or himself and you play the other child.  Practice until your child is able to do it without hesitating or until she is rolling her eyes at you when you say “let’s try it once more.”

Children Teasing: My Friends Were Doing It

If, on the other hand, you discover your child was teasing or name calling because his peers were doing it and he wanted to fit in, don’t be surprised or too worried.  This is the age where this kind of thing is most likely to happen. You can be a very big help to your child in guiding him to understand his behavior and to make better choices.  A parent might try something like

“It feels good to know your friends like you, and to feel like you belong, doesn’t it, Johnny?  Tell me, do you think the kid you teased today felt like he belonged and was liked by you guys?  Probably not, huh?  How do you think you would feel if that was you instead?”

After you’ve discussed things with your child, be sure to be very clear and down-to-earth about what you expect of him.  For example (using your own words, of course)

“Son, in our family, we don’t tease or name-call others because we know it hurts them.  But it also is bad for you because when you are mean to another person, you can’t be proud of yourself. Dad and I would be very proud of you if you didn’t do it”.

Most children will be the object of someone’s name-calling or teasing at some point during this stage of development.  If your child is upset by being teased or called a name, take it seriously and listen to him or her.  You can help your child cope with these experiences by letting him know that kids will keep teasing if he gets upset about it.  Help him practice keeping an “I don’t care” expression on his face.  Sit down with him and come up with several “come-back” lines he can use when others say mean things to him.  Practice the facial expression and the come-back lines by role playing with him so he can remember what to do and say even when he is upset.  The goal is for him to be able to not give the teasers any ammunition.

I really want to give you parents a word of caution at this point, and that is this: it is unwise to encourage your child to tease or name-call back when it happens to him.  Doing the bad behaviors in return will not make him feel good about himself and can easily escalate to more serious behaviors, including violence.  It is much better to show him how to use his wits as I described above.  That way, he will feel more powerful and feel good about himself.

Keep an eye or an ear on how the situation is going, however.  I suggest you make it a habit to check in with your child about the events of his or her day.  You may already do some form of this.  To monitor the status of any name-calling or teasing incident, ask about it specifically.  Don’t assume everything is okay if your child doesn’t mention it.  If it appears to be getting worse instead of better, that would be the time for the adults to take the situation in hand by bringing it up with teachers, principal and/or the other child’s parents.  And, of course, if it becomes a problem that continues in spite of your best efforts, calling on a family counselor or therapist would be a good step to consider.

That’s what I told Mary Elizabeth, and that’s what I’d tell you, if you asked me.  You are, after all, your child’s best bet when it comes to helping him or her deal with life’s small but very real traumas.