Teasing vs. Bullying, and Why It's More Serious Today

Teasing vs. Bullying, and Why It's More Serious Today

By Robin Stein, LCSW, Director of Response

When I speak to parents and members of our community about bullying, I most often am asked the following question:  “What’s the big deal?  Bullying happened when we were kids and we all survived!”

Flashback some 35-40 years ago and yes, bullying happened – on the playground, walking home, on the school bus, in the locker room.  Some of us were teased (“four-eyes,” “uni-brow,” “brown-nose”).  And yes, teasing is quite different from bullying.  How so, you may ask?

  • Teasing most often occurs within the context of a strong relationship between two people who appreciate the teasing as affectionate.
  • The teaser is using a “joking” (rather than aggressive) tone of voice and smiling.
  • The person being teased does not look distressed.

However, teasing can also be used to alienate, criticize and embarrass another person, which may weaken the relationship. The affectionate interaction of teasing can turn hostile when the person being teased is distressed by the teasing. Teasing about physical appearance is almost always hostile and hurtful. This is not surprising since appearance has so much influence on social acceptance and is out of the individual’s control.

Teasing can cross the line into “bullying” when the following factors are present: 

  • The content of the teasing is hostile, tone aggressive.
  • There is a power imbalance: the person teasing has more power among peers compared to the person being teased.
  • The teasing is ongoing and repetitive.
  • The “teaser” has the intent to upset or hurt the person being teased.
  • The person being teased is upset or hurt by the interaction. 

The context of today’s bullying has much greater impact than in years past due to so many factors.  There’s the pervasive issue of technology which ensures that there is no downtime or respite from the harassment, as youth are wired up 24/7.  

We used to be able to walk home from school or a party gone awry and sink into the sacred comfort of our home and family, taking a break from the “in your face negative social contact” that we might have been a victim of.  Today, what is hurled impulsively into cyberspace lives on, like a virus, forever.  One can truly never escape the ramifications.

Today, we have increased access to use of deadly force in terms of weaponry, recipes for poisonous concoctions at the click of a button, instructions on how to commit cyber-sabotage and daily opportunities to create physical and virtual isolation and alienation.

And what about adolescent development?  Has that changed much? Back in the day, while we were developing at a similar (albeit uniquely individual) pace, we were still impulsive, not always rational and thoughtful beings.  But the impulsivity coupled with access to knowledge and the opportunity to do irreversible harm, was simply not as readily available.

We know so much more about the developing adolescent brain from the extensive research that’s been conducted during the past 10-15 years.  The part of the brain that controls impulses is simply not fully cooked during these years!  The implication of that knowledge has truly had a significant impact on our understanding of adolescents and young adults, not simply around issues of impulse control but also the effect of substances on that developing brain as well as the impact of trauma.

Today, young people are expressing themselves more genuinely than ever before in our history!  They will no longer allow themselves to be closeted, but rather are embracing their individuality and ensuring that their internal and external understanding of themselves is congruent.  While this is extraordinary and the courage it takes to be oneself calls for celebration, there are those in the world who are not compassionate or understanding and rather than embracing diversity, their intent is to eradicate it.  Children and youth who may present differently are at risk, sometimes by internal forces, often by external threats.   

At Response, where we work with youth ages 12-24, we hear the stories, witness the pain and have a first row seat at seeing the long term ramifications of bullying.  Depression, suicidal ideation, self-injury, anxiety and eating disorders may all be part of that picture.  Our therapists work to unearth some of the underlying self-esteem issues that may be contributing to an individual’s conception of their self-worth.  On occasion, they may invite the peer group into session in an attempt to engage in genuine dialogue with all involved parties.  

More often than not, our youth are resilient and increasingly aware.  More frequently, we are beginning to see young people take on the mantel of “upstander” versus being a “bystander” in bullying situations.  As our outreach staff trains more educators to recognize the signs of bullying and intervene quickly, less long term emotional damage will be done.

While October may be officially labeled National Bullying Prevention Awareness Month, let’s all work together to make sure we are taking a hard look at preventing bullying on a daily basis.