From the May 2019 issue

Why Elementary Kids Tease Their Friends and How to Tame It

Hassling buddies. Picking on peers. Wonder why elementary kids tease each other? Here's how it can be beneficial – and how to address it when it goes too far.

Green monster with a rubber band and purple monster with glue
Illustration by Brett Mosser

“Ohmigosh, Aunt Becky! This guy in my class farts all day and it is so funny!”

This was my 7-year-old nephew’s response to my seemingly simple question, “How do you like school?”

For a second, I was concerned the kid was being teased and my nephew had joined in. He reassured me that the kid started the joke on his own.

That said, kids – especially boys, it seems – at this age are prone to teasing. Even buddies throw lines like “You’re such a baby!” or “You suck!” at each other.

Good-natured razzing is one thing, but over time, these remarks can damage self-esteem, says Jillian Gismondi, a licensed professional counselor with the Child and Family Solutions Center in Farmington Hills.

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Here, she sheds light on why teasing is so common among elementary-aged kids, how it can be helpful in some ways and how to make sure your kid isn’t crossing a line.

Building language skills

Children could tease each other for an array of reasons and each case is different, Gismondi says. It could be good natured, an attempt at humor or a testing of social situations.

Why do kids do it? A couple key reasons are often at the root, HealthDay notes. First, they’re learning new language and becoming increasingly impressed with word play – such as making puns or insults.

Second, kids are starting to notice which abilities and traits in their peers are admirable and which are different from their own.

And a third factor, adds health website Verywell Family, could be a child’s environment. If parents and siblings tease each other, it’s more likely that a child would go into school with that same language and behavior.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear that kids who tease aren’t necessarily intending to be mean. “Teasing isn’t usually meant to hurt someone’s feelings, whereas the intent behind bullying is trying to answer, ‘How do I harm someone?’ whether that means physically, verbally or emotionally,” Gismondi explains.

Taking out the trash talk

Both teasing and bullying – its more sinister counterpart – can have terrible effects on children’s self-esteem over time. Victims and perpetrators alike have trouble in school, Gismondi says. Victims may have a sudden drop in grades, begin refusing to go to school, or even have an increase in depression or anxiety. Bullies will have trouble controlling themselves in classrooms, extracurriculars and social settings.

“They are not able to learn or be as successful as possible because they are worried about what else is going on,” she says. 

If your child has been teased, Gismondi suggests exploring ways to boost his or her self-esteem.

“Find an activity that best fits their skill set – something that they know they can excel at,” she says, and make sure the child is 100 percent involved. “You can do this by making a list (of activities), looking at each activity separately and letting the child pick one or two.”

Whether your child is on the receiving or delivering end of the teasing, Gismondi stresses discussing differences in the home.

“It’s important to let kids learn we all have positive and negative experiences; to help them learn how to move forward from negative experiences and be the best person we can,” she says. “Teach children to accept who they are and that we need to accept others for who they are – even if they are different.”

Signs to watch for in kids

Not sure if your child is being teased? Be mindful of some clues, especially if he or she isn’t forthcoming with details.

When children are teased long-term, they could develop social anxieties. These issues tend to have a slow escalation. While being teased, children initially try to fire insults back or avoid the conflict. However, if there is a lack of adult intervention, kids may begin to act out, knowing that they are not being heard.

Gismondi suggests trying to work things out between the children teasing each other by having the teaser write a note of apology (or orate one for parents to write) or apologize in person.

If apologizing doesn’t work, seek help from school administration or even through counseling.

“With every situation with kids, counseling can help get feelings out and teaches coping methods,” Gismondi says.

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