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When Does Teasing Become Bullying?

While nobody would argue that any type of teasing is acceptable, the ideas of teasing and bullying are often confused and there is a significant difference. Teasing can range from playful banter between two people who have a close and affectionate relationship to jokes that are made at a person’s expense. The first type is often meant to add to the relationship and can be a way of showing affection. The latter is often done with a less kind intent. It can be done to impress others, make others laugh, hurt someone’s feelings, or be for no reason at all. It can be hurtful, but usually only hurts a person’s feelings temporarily.

When it comes to children, teasing is very common. It’s even one of the first forms of communication they learn. Young toddlers will knock over another child’s block tower to make people laugh or just because they like to. Kids will chase each other on a play ground, make faces at each other, coin playful but sometimes hurtful nick names, and even make up lies about each other. Again, this can be hurtful, but is generally short lived and is over come without harming the relationship. If this teasing is repeated it can begin to cause problems between children where parents get involved and this is where the lines between teasing and bullying start to become blurred. It is important to not label teasing as bullying prematurely. Bullying is a very important and troubling epidemic, but its very important to make sure the behavior is labeled correctly in order to make sure it is handled correctly.

So the next question is, what is bullying? Teasing becomes bullying when it begins to repeatedly cross the line from good natured or affectionate to aggressive, hostile, and purposefully hurtful. There is often times a power imbalance meaning that the bully is exerting their dominance over the victim. It is not teasing between two friends in a social group that are of equal social standing, but between someone who tends to have more social standing than the other. The teasing is frequent and tends to be increasing in intensity. Bullying is meant to be hurtful and the person being bullied is hurt by the act, leading to psychological distress.

Bullying can come in many forms from verbal to cyber to physical and all are equally hurtful. In severe cases, it occurs in a multitude of settings and in multiple forms. It is repetitive, hurtful, meant to shame and embarrass, and usually done to exert dominance. Bullying causes significant distress. Bullying is not done between friends. It is important to recognize the difference between teasing and bullying in order to know when to intervene and to be able to recognize the psychological needs of both bully and victim.


  • Equal power dynamic, often between friends
  • Done affectionately or for humorous reaction
  • Usually done in a joking tone
  • Does not involve physical violence
  • Not repeated, short, temporary
  • Person being teased is most often not distressed
  • If feelings are hurt it is temporary and easily repaired



  • Unequal power dynamic
  • Done to hurt, cause harm, shame, embarrass
  • Aggressive or hurtful tone
  • Can include physical violence
  • Repeated and can cross into multiple environments
  • Victim is distressed and experiences psychological distress
  • Adult intervention is often required to stop bullying

So when is intervention needed? When teasing becomes bullying, often times adult intervention is needed for it to stop. While an adult may not need to directly intervene, the victim of bullying will often need adult support to build their confidence up enough to stand up for themselves or cope with the emotions caused by bullying. In younger children, adults may need to intervene to assist in teaching the bully appropriate behavior and helping the victim cope. Victims of bullying may not come forward and ask for help due to the shame they feel from the bullying. Adults can recognize the signs of bullying and help by initiating conversations regarding bullying and build a plan of attack on how to fix the situation in a mutual effort with the child.

Signs of Bullying:

  • Sudden avoidance of school or other social situations
  • Changes in behavior
  • Isolating
  • Sleep difficulties or Nightmares
  • Unexplained injuries or loss of belongings
  • Loss of friends
  • Changes in mood (sad, angry, nervous)
  • Negative self talk
  • Low self-esteem
  • Bullying others


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