When we are teaching social skills, it’s incredibly important to ensure that we are empowering our children with “kid skills,” not “adult skills.”  Teaching our children to interact with each other in not only socially appropriate, but also age-appropriate ways, is critical to ensuring their success.  When it comes to teasing, let’s face it… kids tease each other! In reality, adults tease each other too, but it looks a little different. Perhaps we make a sarcastic comment or crack a joke, both of which constitute prosocial teasing when done the right way. So, the question becomes, when it comes to teasing, how do we teach our children to distinguish between prosocial and antisocial teasing? What hints can we look for in the social landscape to help kids tell the difference and respond accordingly?

Playful teasing comes from friends.  It does not come from strangers, acquaintances, or from peers with whom we don’t have a well-founded relationship.  A certain degree of rapport and friendliness is required in order to teasing to be well-received.  So, if your best friend engages in teasing, it’s likely playful in nature.  If teasing comes from peers you never speak to, it’s likely hurtful in nature.

The teaser stops when asked to stop.  We all have certain thresholds when it comes to tolerating teasing.  When you have a bad day or encounter a particularly sensitive subject, your capacity to handle teasing may decrease.  If teasing is intended to be playful in nature, the teaser will stop when asked to stop because their motivation is certainly not to cause distress but rather to develop a positive relationship.  If the teasing persists despite requests for discontinuation, it has likely crossed the line into hurtful territory.

The teasing is not about things the individual cannot control. For example, playful teasing never crosses the boundaries of race, disability, religion, and the like.  Teasing about these topics has the potential to cause harm, and prosocial teasing just doesn’t go there.  Topics that might be more playful in nature include your latest crush or your performance in last night’s football game, but playful teasing avoids topics that are core to who we are as people.

Everyone gets an equal share of the teasing.  Playful teasing should not be hyper-focused on a single person.  In simpler terms, no one should feel ganged up on.  If everyone is getting an equal share of the teasing, it may be prosocial in nature.

The teasing doesn’t happen over and over and over.  Playful teasing is temporary in nature.  It happens in a moment of joking, and that moment quickly passes.  If teasing becomes a dominant pattern in a relationship, that may be a red flag that a line has been crossed into the realm of hurtful intention.

Simply put, not all teasing is bad teasing.  Teasing is a socially acceptable skill when it is playful in nature, but it becomes inappropriate when it is hurtful in nature.  In order to empower children to make good choices about to respond to teasing from peers, we must first help them learn to distinguish between playful and hurtful situations. Teaching your child to evaluate the criteria above represents an important pre-requisite skill when it comes to handling teasing the right way.

Hitchcock, C., Chavira, D., Stein, M. (2009) Recent findings in social phobia among children and adolescents. Journal of Psychiatry and Related Science, 46(1), 34-44. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2925835/

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Social anxiety disorder. National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved March 1, 2022, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/social-anxiety-disorder

About the Author

Justyna Balzar, M.Ed. BCBA LBA (CT) Co-Founder & CEO

Justyna Balzar has over 15 years experience with learners of varying profiles between the ages of 3 to 18 across multiple settings. She received her Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA) certification in 2014 from Florida Institute of Technology, her Master in Curriculum and Education in Applied Behavior Analysis from Arizona State University, followed by her BCBA certification in 2016.