By Dr Tracy King
Teasing generally refers to light-hearted behaviour that involves making jokes and playful remarks or actions to provoke a response from someone. Usually, it does not have the intent to hurt someone’s feelings but there is a very fine line between teasing and bullying.
Teasing, when employed by adults towards children, also includes the factor of the natural power imbalance. The act is often brushed off as ‘tough love’ believing it increases resiliency. However, beneath the veil of humour, there lies a profound issue that can have far-reaching consequences.
Teasing, when employed by adults towards children, also includes the factor of the natural power imbalance.
‘Tough love’ is often justified by the intention of teaching the child important lessons to encourage development. The idea is, that if the child is exposed to negatives, as a result of their actions, they will stop behaving in ways the adult does not want them to. Here are some examples of how ‘tough love’ may manifest:
1. With a belief they are encouraging independence and a sense of responsibility, an adult might tease a child about their messy room, saying, “I hope you can find your way through that war zone in your bedroom!”.
2. With a belief they are encouraging perseverance and resilience: If a child feels discouraged after struggling with a task, an adult might say, “Even superheroes stumble sometimes! Just dust yourself off and try again”.
3. With a belief they are encouraging responsibility if a chore is forgotten by a child, an adult might say, “Looks like the sock fairy is on strike! Time to find those missing socks, detective!”.
4. With a belief they are encouraging healthy habits, an adult might say, “Wow, you’re growing into a little junk food monster! Let’s find some healthier options together”.
The intent of adults and the impact on children do not always correlate. Depending on the tone of the adult, the closeness of the relationship, the temperament of the child and the age of the child, statements such as those above can feel like criticism and leave the child thinking they are not good enough. A child may be messy or forgetful for many reasons. The key to effective parenting that will optimise a child’s development is to try to understand what the behaviour communicates rather than rush in to find ways to immediately change the behaviour (assuming there is no imminent risk – for which teasing would be unlikely to be a go-to position).
Developmentally, children learn more from implicit messages (those taken on unconsciously) than explicit statements (those we are told to be conscious of). In my psychology practice, it is implicit childhood messages that underpin personality and mental health-based concerns in adulthood. So from the above examples, the implicit messages and impacts upon the child may be:
- “I hope you can find your way through that war zone in your bedroom!”. The intention is to motivate the child to take responsibility and develop organisational skills, but the impact can be that the child feels that the parent is disappointed in them at the core of who they are, and it is not just about the bedroom. They may also feel alone and as if they cannot ask for help – particularly the case if there are developmental challenges such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder that may make it hard to initiate tasks.
- “Even superheroes stumble sometimes! Just dust yourself off and try again”. There is what is known as an introject or a message taken on that the child must be strong and perhaps even must not feel, which is a set-up for pushing themselves too hard in adulthood and perhaps being a workaholic or disconnecting from risky signs of ill health.
- “Looks like the sock fairy is on strike! Time to find those missing socks, detective!”. The focus is on the task here rather than what was going on for the child in terms of why they may have been distracted. The message is about the importance of doing and not being. Again, this can lead to achievement as being a core sense of identity for a child and them not feeling good enough unless they do what is asked of them.
- “Wow, you’re growing into a little junk food monster! Let’s find some healthier options together”. There is an implicit message here that junk food makes you a monster. The comment is about extremes of ‘good and bad’, not a healthy balance. This can lead to hidden eating habits and a poor relationship with food and a fixation.
The whole concept of teasing to create some discomfort and aid learning is a misconception. If we are in a state of anxiety, the brain’s executive functions such as attention, memory and problem-solving become impaired, as we are operating from the ‘fight or flight’ survival area of the brain rather than the higher functioning frontal lobes. This area is not even fully developed within children. Fear and anxiety trigger the body’s stress response, releasing stress hormones like cortisol, which can interfere with information processing and memory formation. This can result in difficulties in encoding (putting in), storing and retrieving (getting out) new information, so learning is compromised. This is what feeds into the apparent ‘battle of wills’ that can happen in parenting, as both parent and child enter the dysregulated survival space.
If teasing is used, the adult should be attentive to the child’s reactions, ensuring that their comments or actions are not distressing. It should not belittle, humiliate or invalidate. Open communication and a foundation of trust are vital. This can be built through empathy and positive reinforcement, helping children develop a strong sense of self-worth and healthy relationship expectations. Occasional teasing comments, such as those above, are less likely to be harmful. It is the consistency of response that will do damage to the child’s development over time.