Getting the Teasing to Stop

“These *#@%!! kids are going to send me over the edge!  I’ve had it with them . . . they won’t leave each other alone!”

Rumor has it that the insanity chromosome was first detected in a thirtysomething-year old mother who couldn’t get her eight-year old son and her six-year old daughter to stop fighting.  Day after day the children sparred in word and deed, teasing and tripping, poking and punching, scratching and screaming.  In the end, it was their shrill, ear-piercing whining that did her in.

Teasing and fighting between siblings is as universal as the common cold, but can seem more difficult to get rid of than Morning Glory.  Most parents are not satisfied by simply knowing that such behavior is normal; they want it to stop.  Yesterday.

In many cases, the teasing of one sibling by another is relatively minor, is not a serious irritant, and is part of growing up.  In such cases, a combination of ignoring the misbehavior while praising cooperative and kind behaviors may suffice.  However, when teasing has become a way of life for a child (e.g., is persistent or involves physical harm), additional forms of intervention become necessary.

Children tease each other for any number of reasons, including due to boredom, anger, sadness, resentment, jealousy, frustration, insecurity, and attention, to name just a few.  Teasing may temporarily replace stress with positive stimulation in one child, while serving as an outlet for venting frustration in another.  A sad child might use teasing to temporarily distract himself from his sadness, while an insecure child may gain a sense of power he otherwise lacks.

Once you pinpoint the reason(s) your child teases, you can begin helping him meet his needs in more pro-social ways.  Sit down with him under calm conditions (like at bedtime, when most kids are looking for excuses to stay awake anyway) to begin addressing the problem.  Since he may become defensive when you raise the topic, be prepared to weather his blaming, excuses, and angry words.  Refrain from scolding or berating; instead, let him see that you are genuinely interested in working together with him to solve the problem.

You may find that your conversation lasts deep into the night, or spans a number of occasions.  It may take a while for you to get past his defenses and get him to open up about his feelings.

You might try presenting the problem in terms of negotiables and non-negotiables.  For instance, one non-negotiable might be that the teasing must stop; another might be that hitting is never an option.  Conversely, a negotiable might be the reward that incentivizes the child to refrain from teasing.

In the interest of giving your child as much control as possible (and thus increasing his motivation to “prove” himself right), allow him to propose the rewards (e.g., earning points towards having a sleepover, spending time with you, etc.) for appropriate behavior and the consequences (e.g., doing a kind deed for the child he teases, writing “I will be kind to _______” 10 times each time he teases, etc.) for continued teasing.  Ask him what you and your spouse can do to help him.  Express support for his ideas and efforts, and assure him that you will continue using the proposed solutions so long as they are helping him achieve the desired ends.

While teasing is often innocent and harmless, it can also become a blatant, relentless irritant that contributes to disharmony within the home.  Equally serious are the potential negative effects on the well-being of the child who’s getting teased.  Since chronic, mean-spirited teasing often signals deeper problems, finding ways to reduce it lessens the agitation in the lives of both the instigator and his targeted siblings.  It also keeps mom’s vocal chords healthy and the grey hairs at bay for a little while longer.

 

Steven M. Gentry, PhD., is a Child & Family Psychologist and the Executive Director of
Psychological Assessment & Treatment Specialists in American Fork, Utah