Is it Teasing or Bullying? Yes, There is a Difference.

We need to see teasing and bullying on a continuum, rather than using the terms interchangeably…. especially with young children.

“How many of you have ever been teased?” 

When I ask this question to elementary-age students, almost every hand goes up. When I inquire about what teasing is, they consistently reply, “Teasing is when someone makes fun of you, hurts your feelings, or calls you names.”  The follow-up question is, “How many of you have ever been bullied?” 

Few, if any, children raise their hands. Not to minimize bullying, however, I learned many years ago, that we need to see teasing and bullying on a continuum, rather than using the terms interchangeably….especially with young children.

Teasing can take many forms, from playful and jovial, to demeaning and hurtful, and all the way to hateful and abusive.  It is helpful to explain to children that fun and friendly teasing involves having fun with someone. 

Friendly teasing causes everyone to laugh and smile. Many children are surprised to learn that joking around can be friendly teasing, because they generally perceive teasing as negative and hurtful.  Many of you might tease your kids in a fun, friendly, and affectionate way.

Cruel and hurtful teasing involves making fun of someone. It includes ridicule, name-calling, putdowns, verbal insults, and gesturing, as well as annoying actions.  Cruel teasing also includes exclusion. Some of these subtle and often hard-to-see behaviors are alienation, gossip, rumor-mongering, the silent treatment, eye-rolling, glares, and stares. 

Although these behaviors peak in the middle school years, they are also occurring very frequently in pre-school and elementary school settings.  Children may be purposely excluded from a game or activity or told they cannot sit at a certain place at the lunch table. These behaviors are often referred to as "mean girls" behavior, however, boys can be involved as well.

Unfortunately, there is no general rule of thumb for determining when teasing is likely to become harmful, because not all kids will take the same words, gestures, or other behavior the same way. What is hurtful for one child may not hurtful for another.  If we view teasing on a continuum, there is affectionate and friendly teasing on one end and abusive teasing, taunting, and bullying on the other.   


Some experts view the difference between teasing and bullying as only a matter of degree. When cruel teasing and taunting occur repeatedly over time, these behaviors can be considered bullying.  Bullying is characterized by an imbalance of power. The bully is usually bigger, older, smarter, or stronger socially and verbally. Or the power imbalance can be created by having a group victimize one person. The goal is to exert power over the victim.

Bullying is often thought of as visible and observable physical aggression such as hitting, pushing, slapping, kicking, poking, pulling hair, biting, shoving, threatening with a weapon, stealing, or destroying possessions.  Some bullies may use physical force to get their way. 

However, most bullying is actually verbal. Verbal bullying includes repeated name-calling, hostile teasing and taunting, slurs regarding race, sexual orientation, and religion, and abusive remarks that are sexual in nature.  Consistent exclusion and ongoing "mean girls" behavior are also considered bullying. 

Technology has increased opportunities for abusive texts, e-mails, websites, and postings on social media.  Bullying is deliberate, and the hostile and abusive words and actions are intended to harm…whether it be face-to-face or electronically. 

Bullying often begins as mild teasing as the bully carefully searches for a vulnerable target.  Once the bully gets a rise out of his or her target, the teasing usually escalates and becomes more intense and persistent. When children are able to respond to teasing with tools and words that empower them to react quickly, effectively, and confidently, they are less likely to become victims of bullies! 

Stay tuned for the “Easing the Teasing” strategies!

About the blogger: Judy S. Freedman, a licensed clinical social worker and bullying prevention specialist, is the author of Easing the Teasing – Helping Your Child Cope with Name-Calling, Ridicule, and Verbal Bullying.'   She lectures and conducts workshops for parents, educators, and mental health professionals throughout the country.  She recently spoke at the National PTA Convention in San Jose, California. Learn more about Judy and her work at www.easingtheteasing.com.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Judy S. Freedman, M.S.W., L.C.S.W. July 30, 2012 at 03:04 PM
J- Really wonderful food for thought!
Jessanique July 31, 2012 at 03:51 AM
Bullying is wrong cause all kids are different right?? I mean come on now how would u feel if u were pick on I was bullyed but nor in a mean way am glad of who I am r u??? Stop bully now!!!!!!!!
Jessanique July 31, 2012 at 03:53 AM
Kids should be nice not mean just cause their not really smart doesn't mean nothing at all??? stop bullying now!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Joanna Schneider July 31, 2012 at 08:12 PM
Since there were a few comments regarding Judy's credentials, I did want to share the following. Just last year she was honored with the 2011 Social Worker of the Year Award by the Illinois Association of School Social Workers: http://patch.com/N-cFrd Thanks for continuing to share your expertise with the community, Judy!
B August 03, 2012 at 08:06 PM
Although I do think that commencement speech was brilliant (and I'm a teen here) and that parents need to stop coddling their children, bullying remains an issue. While I do agree that murders, poverty, hunger, and the economy are very important issues that should be addressed, bullying is something that parents can prevent at home just by talking to their kids. While that might be difficult for some parents in this area, having a candid conversation about the effects of bullying while your kid is still young can be the beginning of change for a younger generation. Maybe show them this clip or see the movie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W1g9RV9OKhg


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