When does teasing become bullying? Australians are very good at teasing one another – probably because we tend to have a self-deprecating sense of humour. But there is a fine line between gentle teasing and harmful bullying. I listened to my teenage children interacting with family friends recently. I was surprised to hear how much of the banter involved personal put downs: What sort of look are you going for with that outfit? Put on a touch of flab over the holidays did we? Do you learn anything at your school? I asked my children later how they felt about the teasing and they just shrugged it off as being typical of that group of friends. They didn’t like it, but they didn’t take it too personally. They said everyone was a target.
We don’t want our kids to be precious, but we do need to be aware of when they might be taking teasing to heart. Of course siblings tease each other all the time. They find a raw nerve and go for it. Parents aim to teach resilience, but we also need to counteract some of the messages they receive with something more positive: You’re a healthy young man. You have your own sense of style and I respect you for that. I’m proud of the way you can make conversation with others by asking lots of questions.
And it’s not just the children we need to consider. Constantly teasing a partner, friend or extended family member can really damage those relationships. You may not know it, but your attempt at humour might be resulting in a serious dip in confidence in the other person. And it’s passive aggressive to try to disguise an outright criticism with: I’m only teasing.
Perhaps a good rule of thumb is that teasing is okay if it’s not personal. Laughing about a friend’s perm in the 80s; teasing someone for making a rare mistake in the kitchen; giggling over a slip of the tongue – they shouldn’t cause offense or hurt. But teasing someone about their red or extremely curly hair or their weight problem or their lack of education is just bullying in disguise.