Sometimes in families it’s hard to decipher when teasing is playful or crosses the line. On the one hand it promotes joyful laughter, on the other hand, it can cause discomfort and could create an “unsafe” environment where dysfunction and disrespect is present.
Every family has a distinct “culture” or relational style regarding hierarchy, boundaries, communication, and humor. The family dynamics help facilitate and reinforce the culture. Because each family member is so unique, an individual’s reaction or integration of the “family culture” varies from person to person.
I have several patients who have expressed that teasing in their families is typical and can get “brutal” at times. One teen female describes how she gets lower grades than her brother and tends to be generally anxious. Her parents often joke that she’s “not known for her brains, but rather her ability to work a room” because she’s sophisticated socially. These statements profoundly hurt her, especially because she puts a lot of effort into her academics and generally struggles in school because of an executive functioning challenge.
Another young adult male speaks to how his mother and sister tease him about his weight and tell him to “get off the couch and stop being such a big lump.” In another family, everyone tends to tease the mom because she gets so “overly sensitive.” It leaves her annoyed and exasperated because she feels ganged up on and alienated.
The content and tone of the teasing is important. It can convey intent, intensity, and possible underlining or overt aggressiveness. Although unintentionally, the teaser can be taken as lacking compassion and being passive aggressive, especially if he or she is not paying attention to the verbal and somatic reaction of the family member that is being teased. Hurtful teasing can be passed down from generation to generation. Sometimes parents who hurtfully tease may not be fully conscious of how they experienced or coped with the teasing while they were growing up.
When evaluating the teasing, the questions I tend to ask are: (a) What is the context for the teasing? (b) What is the content of the teasing? (c) When someone displays a negative reaction to it, (asks the teaser to stop, has a negative emotional reaction such as getting angry or tearful, etc.) do others take it into consideration and cease the teasing? (d) Is there openness to express frustration and/or disappointment about the teasing and is that person truly heard? (e) Are all members of the family teased equally or is it disproportionate toward a certain family member or family members? (f) Who usually does the teasing and who usually receives it? (g) Is it considered teasing or criticizing? (h) Would you tolerate the same behavior toward your children or yourself from someone outside of the family?
For children it can be especially problematic because they become accustomed to that type of communication or way of interacting. It can develop into “starter” bullying behavior. When interacting similarly with friends, their friends may get offended or experience their behavior as annoying or mean-spirited.
Parents should be cautious about teasing about certain subjects, especially if their child is emotionally sensitive, has issues regarding their self-confidence, or has anxiety or depression. Teasing certain children can exacerbate those issues and evoke sadness, hopelessness, anger, and frustration. Children can also experience learned helplessness and helplessly take the teasing on because they feel they have no way of escaping it or may act out on behalf of it because of believing that what is being said is factual.
Tips on Teasing with Humor Rather Than Hurt:
- Take an inventory of verbal and somatic responses to the teasing. If individual family members reaction to the teasing is negative (e.g., is looking away, asking for it to stop, is tearing up, or becoming overtly angry or frustrated), then consider the teasing hurtful, rather than engaging and helpful for the familial relationships.
- Be cognizant of the off-limit topics included in teasing. Those typically include weight, appearance, academics, sports performance, socialization/social skills, mental health or learning challenges, etc. Parameters around this can differentiate from person to person or family to family. For example, if you’re teasing your son about his sports performance for a given game, if your son is a star athlete and has one off game, that’s different than teasing a child who struggles athletically and has a perpetual losing streak.
- Each family member should think about whether they would joke this way or tease a close friend or tolerate it from someone outside of the family. If it’s not humor but rather insulting to a friend, then it’s likely to be insulting to a family member too. For example, they are (hopefully) not going to call their friend a “moron”, “fat ass”, “loser” or “weirdo” or express, “Don’t you think you should be watching what you eat” or “You must be really stupid to get that grade on your test.”
- Be sure to explain to your child that the nature of the relationship is critical in deciding whether they engage in teasing behavior. Newer or less intimate relationships are typically not conducive or appropriate for teasing. They must get to know a person well to know how and when they can tease them.
- Point out that there is a time and place to engage in teasing. That each family member must pay attention to what’s happening for the other person and whether it’s being done privately or publicly. For example, if you had a frustrating day at work, you may not necessarily be open to your spouse teasing you about your absentmindedness.
- When teasing, never compare one child to another. Kids tend to view being compared to their siblings or other kids in a negative way.
- Never tease about thoughts, feelings, fears, or behaviors that manifest itself from anxiety. What may be very silly and irrational to some family members can be very real to others. Laughing or teasing about this tends to exacerbate fears, is a conduit for internalizing negative self-beliefs, and makes the person feel isolated. For example, if a person has obsessive-compulsive thoughts and behaviors or has a fear of the dark, they often can’t help it and are left to feel self-defeated, demoralized, and shamed. There can be long-term negative consequences to their self-confidence and ability to be self-compassionate.
- In your household, foster a cooperative and supportive sibling spirit, rather than a competitive, resentful one. This entails being conscious of comparing one child to the other, showing preferences, siding with one or the other, etc. Also modeling for kids playful, rather than hurtful teasing. The book Siblings Without Rivalry: How to Help Your Children Live Together So You Can Live Too masterfully points out strategic ways to effectively manage sibling relationships.
- Have a no-tolerance policy regarding hurtful teasing in your household and be sure to stick to it. Convey that all family members need to express what behavior they are being frustrated by, not put down or negatively label anyone.
- When there is hurtful teasing, put the focus on the teasing (the behavior), not the content of the teasing (such as weight). Acknowledge the feeling behind the teasing but don’t give credence to the remark. Make it a house rule that when family members want to express anger, frustration, agitation, etc., they need to do it in a productive way to foster communication, understanding, and effective action. For example, let’s say your son says to your daughter, “You’re such a fat pig.” First, acknowledge his feelings: “You sound really angry.” Second, remind him of this rule: “What you said was out of sync with our family rule of not teasing or insulting.” Third, remind him that he needs to express his thoughts and feelings in a helpful way: “I want to hear what you have to say. Can you share how you feel about your sister’s behavior so that she can understand you better?” He responds, “When you ate an additional popsicle, it didn’t leave any for me, and I am feeling frustrated at you because I wanted one, too. Please make sure that we all have one before you take another one.”
- Let kids know that you are only willing to listen to them if they express the feeling rather than the insult. If they persist, ignore them until they are ready to share meaningfully and drop the pejoratives. You can say, “I can’t hear what you’re saying because you’re not following the rules of not insulting or teasing in this house. When you’re able to express how you feel about your sister’s behavior, I’m happy to listen to you.” (Don’t say, “You insulted her,” because it could be misconstrued that you are taking sides, which would just escalate his anger.)
- Step in right away if you observe hurtful or harmful teasing. You are stepping in because the zero-tolerance policy isn’t being followed. Make it clear that you are the parent and are responsible for ensuring that the rules of the household are being followed. This action takes away from the possible perception that you’re taking sides in the situation and shows that you are being proactive in maintaining mutual respect and integrity in your household.
- If you are not directly in the crossfire, wait to see if the teaser and the individual teased can work it out themselves. Observe whether they can independently reboot and get back on track to adhere to the household rules and effectively manage their communication and relationship. This may be a bit more difficult for younger kids or kids who have challenges with impulsivity or aggression or with adults who have challenges with self-awareness, emotional intelligence, impulsivity, or aggression. You may need to step in more frequently or sooner than you typically would. If the tension noticeably escalates and they are having a hard time hearing one another, step in.
- During downtime, such as a family meeting, discuss each family member’s challenges, how they feel about it, and how they work on it. Have each member ask the family or select members to support them in specific ways. It neutralizes the issues and stigmatization associated with what the content of the teasing is about and allows everyone to gain insight and empathy. It also facilitates openness to discussing the challenge, rather than mocking, belittling, or minimizing it by shaming or teasing. For example, I use the acronym CFWA: identify the Challenge, their Feelings about it, Work on it, and Aid. Those are the initials of the names of each of my children, so that they remember it. You could creatively find or create your own acronym as a family. I also emphasize confidentiality, so all family members respect each other’s privacy around the challenges and don’t discuss it outside the family unless that person is open to it. We do a review monthly at the family meeting, checking in on how they are feeling and dealing with their challenges and whether they need to amend or request further support for it.
The bottom line is that both parties need to be in on the joke for it to be humorous and playful. Teasing can bond family relationships if it is done mindfully and lovingly. I love the old homage, families that play together, stay together.