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Why grade-schoolers tease
Like it or not, teasing is a fact of life – or at least of life before adulthood. Sooner or later, all kids learn that words can be powerful – and as you've probably found, this is likely to happen sooner rather than later.
Despite her seeming maturity, your grade-schooler's social skills are still emerging. Her peers are more important than ever, and at the same time she's trying to discover who she is. "During the early elementary years, kids often tease others in an effort to gain the approval of their peers or to point out perceived flaws and differences to bolster their own self-esteem," says Debbie Glasser Schenck, the director of Family Support Services at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Grade-schoolers tend to zero in on particular attributes, such as wearing glasses or weighing a few extra pounds.
Your grade-schooler may also tease because it's the way she's been taught – however inadvertently – to relate to others. If her family, peers, siblings, or favorite television shows model sarcasm, put-downs, and lack of respect as normal, acceptable behavior, it's no surprise that she mimics it. And most kids find themselves on both ends of teasing – the teaser and the teased – at one time or another.
What to do when your grade-schooler gets teased
You can't do much to prevent other kids from teasing your child, but you can teach her how to cope with biting comments:
Feel her pain. Acknowledge that it hurts to be teased. Let your child know that you understand – "It makes you mad when Ellie calls you a klutz, doesn't it?" – and suggest that she tell Ellie that she hurt her feelings. Also encourage her to spend time with kids who like her and who make her feel good.
Coach her. Tell your grade-schooler that while she can't control what other kids say, she can decide how she wants to react. Ask her if she has ideas about how to deal with the teasing, and help her explore her options. You might try some role playing – with you playing your youngster and her acting as her tormentor. If she says, "Hannah, you're such a goody-goody," for instance, you might reply, "I don't like to be called names. I'm going to play with someone else today."
Or you could teach her to deprive a bully of the response she's seeking. If teasing doesn't get a rise out of your youngster, then it won't allow her tormentor to feel powerful or to have fun at your child's expense. Your grade-schooler can either focus on whatever activity she was involved in when the teasing started, or simply walk away.
You might also teach her to meet the barbs head-on. She could say, "No, I'm not a very fast runner. But I can jump really far," or "Yes, I am good at math. That was the only problem I missed on the test." She could also deflect a taunt by complimenting her teaser – "I like your shoes better, too!" Her adversary may be so caught off guard by this approach that she drops her line of attack.
Teach her to ask for help. It takes a lot of maturity to let teasing roll off your back, so don't always expect a stiff upper lip from your grade-schooler. If she's really upset about being teased at school – especially if it's relentless – she (and you) need to talk to her teacher about the situation. "A teacher can support your child in the classroom by promoting positive social skills and helping her develop a broad range of friendships," says Schenck. If she's having a particularly challenging time because of the teasing, seek professional support.
Don't practice what you're preaching against. Perhaps the teasing that so upsets your grade-schooler doesn't come from classmates, but from you – and you may not even realize it. Affectionate joshing is a wonderful way to nurture a sense of humor, but let your child be the guide. If she doesn't react well, perhaps the subject matter has hit a nerve. Don't joke with her about an issue she's struggling with, such as her weight or a nervous habit like nail biting – which will only shame her. And never be harsh: No name-calling (even if it's meant affectionately) or snickering allowed. Perhaps the most important rule is not to razz your child in public. Calling her "my little piggy" or "pudding face" in front of her pals is guaranteed to make her cringe. By observing limits when you tease, you'll show your child how to clown around in a way that doesn't hurt people.
What to do when your grade-schooler teases
Don't overreact. Although it upsets you to hear taunts escape your child's lips, keep your cool and resist the urge to cut her down to size. Remember, she's probably looking for a reaction. "You may inadvertently reinforce teasing by overreacting to the words you hear," says Schenck. Respond by calmly letting her know that using hurtful words bruises others' feelings, and by reminding her how it feels to be excluded or teased by others.
Emphasize empathy. Whatever the reason for her taunts, talking to your grade-schooler about the effects of her behavior helps her put herself in another person's shoes. So remind her that she'd feel bad if someone said she was too loud or too short, for instance. Let her know that it's fine to notice when someone looks different, but it's not okay to mention it within their earshot. Stress that how a person looks doesn't indicate anything about who they are. And be sure to refrain from making negative comments yourself about another person's appearance.
Reduce the rivalry at the root of the teasing. If your grade-schooler's teasing her brother, it may not mean that she's angry or upset with him, merely that she wants more of your attention. To discourage her taunts, make sure your firstborn has plenty of one-on-one time with you. If she's picking on her little brother, for instance, try to turn that around by enlisting her help in caring for him instead (don't rely on her too much, though, which can lead to resentment). Remind her that she's a big kid who knows games she can teach him. Talk about what she liked as a small child – playing peekaboo or hearing a silly song – and encourage her to entertain her sibling the same way. Being able to make him laugh will make her feel useful and important, and not feeling that way is probably what was behind her teasing in the first place. (For more tips, check out our article on sibling rivalry.)