What is the Difference Between Teasing and Bullying?

Bullying was a topic at this year’s Camp About Face session, a week-long summer camp sponsored by the Cleft and Craniofacial Program at Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health. Campers in the Leadership Group (age 15-18) planned an activity session for the younger campers. The campers divided up into groups, discussed what bullying means to them, and acted out examples of bullying in skits. The Leadership campers shared how to prevent and report bullying to a teacher or an adult. Camp About Face has a no-bullying policy. We asked our own Doctor Angela Tomlin, Child Psychologist for the Cleft and Craniofacial Program, to explain the difference between bullying and teasing.

What is the difference between teasing and bullying? Experts say it is complicated. In many cases, teasing can be neutral or even friendly, but other times it is received as negative. Learning to recognize, tolerate, and appropriately respond to gentle types of teasing is part of social development and may have benefits. For example, children learn how to use humor to deflect potentially negative comments and even to build social relationships.

Bullying, on the other hand is never helpful. According to the American Psychological Association, bullying refers to physically or verbally aggressive behaviors that occur repeatedly and are specifically intended to hurt another. The person who is bullied usually has not provoked the bullying and is not able to defend himself. As many as 17% of children are bullied at some point in their lives and about 10% of children are bullied at a level that does not reach the attention of adults. Children who are targets of bullies often have some characteristics that makes them stand out, whether it be a physical, personal or behavioral characteristic or social status. Therefore, children who look obviously different, such as those with a cleft or craniofacial disorder , may be at risk for bullying. This concern is reflected in the fact that research on teasing is part of the Cleft Palate Foundation research agenda.

Most children are not bullies; but unfortunately, most children do not take steps to stop bullying when they see it. It is important that adults be aware of the potential for bullying and for children learn what to do if it happens to them. Monitoring and preparing children should start once a child in routinely in social situations, including school.

Adults can help by enforcing anti-bullying policies and monitoring for concerns in vulnerable children. Signs of bullying may be similar to signs of other stressors. Adults should watch for changes in behavior, such as irritability, decreased appetite or sleep disruption. Other possible indicators include avoiding school or extra-curricular activities, unexplained missing money or belongings, and change in school performance.

Children need to learn what bullying is, what to do if it happens to them, and how to respond if they see it happening to someone else. Children should be taught to request adult intervention when possible and adult monitoring is needed, especially with social media. Role playing appropriate responses can be useful when a child is a victim. For a child with a facial or other physical difference, having a simple explanation of the difference can be useful. To learn more about how to stop and prevent bullying so that children feel safe and welcome in schools and other community places, visit the resources below.

References and Additional Reading:

American Psychological Association



Violence Prevention

Cleft Palate Foundation

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