What do you do when your child comes home from school in tears and tells you that the kids in class have been mean again? Should your react strongly to this and consider it evidence of bullying? Or do you brush it off as teasing and try to get your child to learn to deal with it?

What’s the Difference?

Teasing and bullying are closely related. Both involve situations in which children are made fun of, belittled and forced to feel separate or different from the group. The difference tends to lie in the intensity and balance of power of involved in these actions.

Teasing in its mildest form can be playful. However, teasing typically is done to evoke feelings of annoyance, irritation and discrimination in the victim. However, in teasing cases, although the victim may feel bad, the balance of power between the teaser and the victim tends to be close to equal. In other words, someone who is teased, if they have enough self-confidence, can still turn the tables on the teaser and tease them right back. 

Bullying is different. There is a clear imbalance of power between the perpetrator and the victim. Bullying involves the intimidation and mistreatment of a weaker person or someone in a vulnerable position. It is also done with a clearer intent to harm the victim. Bullying can be physical, but it can also only be psychological. It leaves the victim with deep scars and is typically characterised by intimidation, oppression, harassment, mistreatment, abuse and persecution. Someone who is being bullied holds so little power in the relationship that they are unable to defend themselves, much less retaliate on equal terms. 

Are Either of These Behaviours Acceptable?

The short answer to this question is no. Bullying of course, is clearly unacceptable as there is a malicious intent and a far greater degree of victimization involved. 

But both teasing and bullying result in the victim feeling singled out and persecuted by the group. Whether or not there is an intention to harm the victim, teasing can still result in feelings of misery, discrimination, fear and self-loathing. 

Adults can be just as guilty as children of both teasing and bullying. How many of us can remember comments which a relative might have made which were considered to be “in good fun”, but which left us feeling self-conscious and uncomfortable? The psychological damage continues to stay on into adulthood. Even when the teasing is thought to be done gently and for fun, it might still be perceived as hurtful by the child. 

Signs that Teasing has Crossed the Line

In our society, some degree of teasing is usually considered acceptable and victims are expected to be able to deal with it. However, depending on the individual, teasing can very quickly cross the line and become aggressive and disturbing. Here are some of the signs that tell you that teasing has gone too far:

  • Your child feels hurt and upset.

  • Your child laughs unnaturally or not at all when friends “tease”.

  • Your child displays body language which communicates tension, avoidance, defensiveness and fear. 

  • The teasing doesn’t stop even when your child asks for a break. It isn’t a one-off incident.

  • The teasing is discriminatory. Examples of discrimination are comments about disabilities, race, religion, culture, financial circumstances and anything else that might be out of your child’s control.

Alerts that Your Child is Being Bullied

Even more distressing than teasing, are situations when your child is being bullied. Learn to recognise the signs of bullying even before your child tells you about it:

  • Your child comes home hungry because someone has taken his or her lunch.

  • Your child often “loses” money that was supposed to be for lunch or a project in school.

  • You often need to replace “lost” or “missing” stationery, school text books or other essentials.

  • They come home with missing clothing or rips and damage in their clothing.

  • You notice a drop in academic performance and an apathy towards school.

  • Your child has difficulty sleeping at night and has a loss in appetite. 

  • Is frequently anxious, fearful and irritable or you notice other severe mood swings.

  • Seems insecure, depressed, uncommunicative and withdraws from activities and interests they used to love. 

  • Frequently tells you they feel sick and don’t want to go to school.

Taking Action

If your child feels hurt and is demonstrating a change in behaviour whether it’s because they are being teased or bullied, you need to take action.

First, assess how severe the situation is. Then work with your child’s school teachers and use a combination of coaching and school intervention to address the situation. In cases of harmful bullying, you should not hesitate to get the authorities involved.