Teasing is not peculiar to adolescence, but during adolescence it is perhaps more problematic than at any other age.
Particularly in late elementary and middle school (the early adolescent years) is when some of the most serious damage from mean teasing can be done. ‘Mean teasing' is in contrast to two other kinds - taunting teasing and fun teasing.
Taunting teasing is designed to goad another person into a desired action -- sometimes applying pressure, sometimes as a challenge. Taunting teasing is intended to tempt or taunt the person teased into doing what the teaser wants. "What's the matter, don't you dare?"
Fun teasing expresses liking of someone by making light of some trait or peculiarity the person teased even kids them selves about. Fun teasing is friendly and intended to make the person teased feel accepted for how they are. "You'd even forget your own name!"
Mean teasing is very different. It attacks some point of sensitivity that the person teased is not happy to have criticized, something they are self-conscious or insecure about. Mean teasing is hostile and intended to injure the feelings of the person teased.
Mean teasing can be hurtful on a number of counts. You can be labeled by an insulting or hurtful term ("What a loser you are!") You can be put down with ridicule or sarcasm ("Why don't you give some of that extra weight away?") You can be unfavorably contrasted to the teaser or teasers ("You don't know that? You're so out of it!") You can be socially set apart ("We don't want a girlie guy around!")
In addition, the social context for mean teasing can make an enormous difference. To be teased by one person privately can feel like a personal attack or rejection. To be teased in front of others adds the risk of social embarassment because now the teasing is made public. And to be teased by multiple others can hurt worst of all because now one feels ganged up on.
Ganging up and group teasing says: "You are different from us, you are inferior to us, you deserve to be put down by us, you will be set apart from us, you should feel badly about yourself compared to us."
Mean teasing comes at a particularly bad time in early adolescence (ages 9 - 13) because young people are developmentally vulnerable on several psychological counts.
First, as they separate from childhood and begin their journey to independence, early adolescents can create a negative mindset by rejecting valued aspects of who and how they were to create new freedom grow. Growing up requires giving up some old definition to make way for another. In words and actions the early adolescent declares: "I don't want to be treated and seen as just a child anymore!"
Accompanying this casting off is a self-esteem drop as some child activities with parents, some personal interests and hobbies, and some old friendships (all pillars of self-esteem) are thrown away. Now more down on themselves, they are easily hurt when mean teasing occurs. They will need several years to redefine themselves to more positive effect (which is why 8th graders often display higher self-esteem than 6th graders.)
Second, many young people start puberty (developing sexual maturity) during these early adolescent years, undergoing physical changes they do not control and often do not like. As they now begin their journey to young manhood or young womanhood, they are measuring themselves against youthful male and female ideals glamorized by the popular culture, ideals that feel totally out of reach.
Mean teasing only makes the person teased more acutely self-conscious and insecure about their emerging manly or womanly appearance. Boys can be made to feel deficient for not appearing strong enough. Girls can be made to feel deficient by appearing not thin enough. In both cases, teasing labels them as sexually unattractive according to the limited norms of the age.
Third, part of acting more socially independent of parents at this age is creating a socially independent family of peers, all vying with each other for social place in a world where everyone is feeling developmentally insecure. Mean teasing is one of the tools young people often use for social survival,both to defend and advance themselves - putting someone down to retaliate or put oneself ahead.
For the person teased, mean teasing serves like a social mirror ("What other people think of me") in which to see one self. When those social reviews are believed, he or she can develop a painfully self-critical attitude. "They don't like me, and neither do I!"
When teasing employs a humorous delivery, the put down can be hard to know how to take. Is the remark in good fun or out of meanness? Because teasing can be funny to the teaser, but not necessarily funny to the person being teased, the person teased is always the authority over whether the teasing feels friendly or hostile. If the remark isn't funny to the person teased, then the teasing isn't funny and needs to stop. Unhappily, in the case of mean teasing, calling for it to stop can cause secondary teasing: "What's the matter with you, can't you take a joke?"
As parents, what might you want to advise your early adolescent if mean teasing comes their way?
"Don't take mean teasing personally. It's not about anything wrong with you; it's about them wanting to act mean."
"Don't credit the insults you are told. Put downs from mean teasing can't hurt without your agreement, so don't believe in whatever you are called."
"Understand what mean teasing reveals. Mean teasers tease about what they fear being teased about themselves."
"Don't give mean teasers satisfaction. Ask yourself how they predict you will react, and then don't give them the response they expect or want."
"Don't keep friends who keep mean teasing. Good friends don't treat each other badly, so if yours won't stop the meanness, find other companions."
Finally, address the issue of teasing in the family. Parents are too powerful to make their teasing okay. Even though the adolescent may act like he or she doesn't care what parents think or say, in fact their teasing words bite very deep: "I hate it when my parents make fun of me!" As for siblings, although parents usually prohibit coming to physical blows, they often ignore how teasing words can inflict deeper damage, can draw emotional blood: "She really knows how to hurt me!"
So, keep joking at another's expense, ridicule, sarcasm, or put downs out of your family life at this vulnerable age. It really helps in early adolescence if young people can live in a tease-free home.
For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, "SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE" (Wiley, 2013.) Information at www.carlpickhardt.com
Next week's entry: Vanity parenting of adolescent achievement.