Teasing vs. Bullying

by Kassandra Lamb

In response to my Ask a Shrink request for psychology topics last week, one of my fellow authors, Lynn Kelley (she writes children’s books) asked this question: What’s the difference between mean kidding and bullying, and what does it say about the person doing it?

This is a question I can address not only as a psychologist but as someone who has lived it.

“Mean kidding” is an oxymoron. If it’s truly kidding, then it isn’t intended to be mean, although it might accidentally cross that line. When this happens the kidder will usually backpedal and apologize if they realize they have hurt the other person’s feelings.

Kidding around or teasing can actually be a means of showing affection. Teasing someone about a flaw can be conveying unconditional acceptance. One is essentially saying, “I recognize that you have this idiosyncracy but it doesn’t matter to me; I can make light of it.”

I come from a family of teasers and being the youngest, I got the brunt of it (mostly for being talkative). But it left me feeling warm and loved, not attacked or excluded.

In school, on the other hand, I was emotionally attacked on a regular basis by kids who weren’t teasing. They were putting me down to build themselves up.

So what is the difference between this kind of mean kidding and bullying? There is none. Mean kidding is one form of a type of bullying called relational bullying.

Relational bullying is more common in girls but boys certainly use it as well. It includes making fun of someone, ostracizing them, spreading rumors about them, etc. And now, with the Internet, there are even greater opportunities for relatonal bullying.

photo by Vivianlee2005 CC-BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons

photo by Vivianlee2005 CC-BY-SA 3.0 Wikimedia Commons

Human beings are instinctively pack animals. Some of us strive to be the alpha of the pack, others end up the scapegoat who gets picked on. Most of us are trying to hold our ground somewhere in the middle.

By the time we reach adulthood most of us have been able to rein in these instincts. Perhaps we have even harnessed them in constructive ways, such as through athletics. But this pack mentality is still quite blatant in children.

What does mean kidding say about the person doing it? It depends on that person’s position within the pack. The alpha member of the pack isn’t always a bully, but the odds are good that they are. Bullies are often the ones who rise to the top, usually because the other kids are afraid to cross them. Bullies are insecure, and they deal with their insecurities by seeking out weakness in others.

But those in the middle of the pack will go along with the putdowns, adding their own insults so they can look cool in the eyes of the other pack members, and especially to please the alpha. These kids, on their own, are often nice kids. They just want to belong and are instinctively trying to survive in the pack.

The victims, or scapegoats, are also riddled with insecurity. But they tend to express it more by being shy and self-effacing, or being too eager to please (that was me). The alpha senses their vulnerability, like a shark smelling blood in the water.

photo by Harlequeen from Cambridge UK CC-BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons

photo by Harlequeen from Cambridge UK CC-BY 2.0 Wikimedia Commons

And once a scapegoat has been branded as such via the verbal attacks from the alpha, they are unlikely to be able to break out of that role. Even in a new environment, they may not be able to shift their position in the pack.

Most people who know me as an adult are shocked to find out that I was a social outcast through most of my school years. Even when I changed schools in sixth grade and tried my darndest to fit in with the popular kids (or at least not be noticed), I ended up suffering the verbal slings and arrows of the alpha and her following. My only friends were the other outcasts.

It wasn’t until high school (in another community, thanks to boundary changes in the school districts) that I finally broke out of the pattern and had a circle of friends. We weren’t the most popular kids in school, but we weren’t outcasts either.

What can we do about relational bullying? It’s really quite simple; we as adults need to step in when we see it happening. Don’t wait until the first punch is thrown. Stop the mean teasing. Point out to the group that they aren’t being very nice. Ask them how they would feel if they were on the receiving end of that treatment.

You won’t change the alpha most likely, but you’ll stop that particular assault. And you’ll make the victim feel better because someone cared enough to step in. (By the way, make sure the victim walks away with you so the alpha can’t immediately start up again.)

Where you’ll have the most impact is with the middle of the group. You have supplanted the alpha as the authority figure, at least temporarily, and you’ve made them think about what they’re doing. Next time, some of them will refuse to participate in the teasing, and that may begin to shift the tide away from that alpha as a leader.

I’ve seen this approach in action. One of my son’s classmates in elementary school was pretty dorky. He acted weird and wore thick glasses. During the school year, he was teased unmercifully and ostracized completely.

But during the summers, that same group of kids went to a local daycare center’s summer camp. There, the adults did not ignore the bullying. They stepped in, stopped the mean teasing and encouraged the other kids to include this boy. By the middle of the summer, they no longer had to step in. He was a member of the pack.

How about you? Have you ever been the victim of mean teasing? Do you have other suggestions for intervening?

Posted by Kassandra Lamb. Kassandra is a retired psychotherapist turned mystery writer. She is the author of the Kate Huntington mystery series, set in her native Maryland, and a new series, the Marcia Banks and Buddy mysteries, set in Central Florida.

We blog here at misterio press once (sometimes twice) a week, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes we talk about serious topics, and sometimes we just have some fun.

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  • Reply
    K.B. Owen
    January 19, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    Terrific post, Kass! I was quite a tenderfoot in my early years and would never hurt a fly. The mean girls (always girls) would zero in on me. Back in the 70’s, adults just looked the other way unless it resulted in bruises or blood. Even my own parents. “Just ignore them.” Yeah, right.

    It’s a shame being geeky wasn’t cool back then, the way it is now. No computers or cell phones to give “the pack” respect for smart kids.

    When I started high school I joined the swim team and got pretty good at it. It gave me confidence. I had my own pack that I was part of, and I just laughed in their faces the first time the mean girls tried their middle school tactics. I guess they went hunting for fresh meat after that. I hope they went hungry.

    • Reply
      Lynn Kelley
      January 19, 2016 at 11:48 pm

      Sounds very similar to what one of my kids experienced. Culture shock!

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    January 19, 2016 at 5:38 pm

    Yeah, I got a lot of the “just ignore them” advice, too. Not all that helpful.

    It wasn’t until high school that the “smart kids” realized they could band together. Then we became one of the okay crowds somewhere in the middle of the overall pack. And their friendships (we got quite close after a while) gave me the confidence you’re talking about. What the adults didn’t realize was that we needed that confidence (that we were likable and could be part of a group) before we could “just ignore them.”

  • Reply
    January 19, 2016 at 10:34 pm

    This one hits home for me. I hated school. Mom would have to push me out the door. I’d be crying and in later years she told me she’d be crying for having to do it. I looked for any excuse not to go. I was the only redhead in the whole school (small Catholic where we had 14 in our class, 6 grades). I was called woody woodpecker and other names for my hair. My teeth stuck out so I was bugs bunny. Thank God for braces but then I was metal mouth, tinsel teeth… I wasn’t athletic so I was always picked toward the end. And Dodge Ball, that is truly the most hurtful, hateful game in more than one way. There was a few other things that I have never told anyone. If only we had horses at school, I could ride like the wind. Horses gave me confidence in my ability to do something. I had to change school in 7/8 grade, still Catholic but larger class. I did find one very good friend. We were the outcasts who hasn’t been there since 1st grade. Still it was better. But high school is where I finally felt part of something and had lots of friends. I don’t recall anything mean happening to me at high school but South Carroll was much larger.

    • Reply
      K.B. Owen
      January 19, 2016 at 10:59 pm

      Cindy, how awful for you! I’m really surprised that a Catholic school would allow that to go on. When I was in Catholic school (1st to mid-5th grade), the kids were actually okay and not much bullying went on. It was when my parents transferred me into public school in the middle of 5th grade that I was in for the shock of my young life. How cruel they were.

      • Reply
        Kassandra Lamb
        January 20, 2016 at 1:22 am

        Catholic schools are not immune to any of this, Kathy. I suspect that you didn’t have these problems earlier on because you were in an okay position in the pack at that first school. But coming into a new school in the middle of a school year is a definite set up to be attacked by the alpha. You were invading her territory, and you had to be put in your place!

        You know what is so sad is that, as advanced as we may become as a species, it will be eons before evolution will eradicate that pack mentality from our genetic code.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      January 20, 2016 at 1:16 am

      Oh my, Cindy, how I can relate. I both hated and loved school. I loved to learn, which was the only thing that saved me. The reality is that it doesn’t matter what the “trait” is that the kids pick on. The alpha will try to latch onto something that makes you different, just to see what your reaction is. And of course, most kids react with horror that they are suddenly being picked on for something they cannot help, like being a redhead or having braces.

      I had forgotten about that being picked last thing. Why did adults back then think it was a good idea to let kids pick their own teams? I was ALWAYS the last one picked!

      I think by high school, kids are getting a bit more civilized, and yes, the size of the school tends to dilute things. But still there is some vicious cyber-bullying going on these days at the high school level.

      An aside…I lived less than a mile from South Carroll High School when I was first married. 🙂

  • Reply
    Lynn Kelley
    January 19, 2016 at 11:47 pm

    Thanks, Kass, for such a thorough explanation. I’m sorry you had to deal with such cruelty at school, and Cindy, too. Breaks my heart to think of children treating each other like that. I think all kids get a taste of bullying at one time or another, but when it gets vicious and doesn’t stop, I agree that adults need to step in. Thanks for clarifying what “mean kidding” is. That shot of the mean note is so typical of what’s happening on the internet these days. You couldn’t pay me a billion dollars to be a kid nowadays.

    I recommend the book Reviving Ophelia for all parents who have a daughter. I wish it had come out when my girls were younger.

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      January 20, 2016 at 1:08 am

      I’m glad this answered your question, Lynn. Sadly this goes on at every school, because it’s the way kids are programmed instinctively. That pack mentality helped our species survive in more primitive times but now it works against us. And of course the Internet has now made it much, much worse.

  • Reply
    Karen McFarland
    January 20, 2016 at 7:27 pm

    Ah, the teasing. Yes, the family I married into were/are teasers. I think the Irish lean this way. Fortunately they aren’t mean. But bullying? That’s a whole other matter. Thank you Kassandra for showing the difference. 🙂

  • Reply
    Kassandra Lamb
    January 20, 2016 at 8:55 pm

    Glad you found it informative, Karen. I too married into an Irish-American family and yes, they are great teasers also. 🙂

  • Reply
    January 21, 2016 at 10:00 am

    Thank you so much for explaining this. Bullying is a very big problem and needs to be addressed. For part of my job, I am in charge of our Facebook page, StandUpNL, which addresses bullying and tips and stories about it, mainly serving the tri-state area of North Dakota, South Dakota and Minnesota, but anyone can “like” it. 🙂 I hope you don’t mind if I share this on there. I think it explains it very well.
    (Sister Michelina) 🙂

    • Reply
      Kassandra Lamb
      January 21, 2016 at 12:38 pm

      Absolutely! By all means, share it. I’m honored that you think it’s that good. And I will check out your FB page, Sister 😉

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