Teasing: Helping Your Child Cope
Written by Vanessa Malcarne, Ph.D
Associate Professor, Department of Psychology
San Diego, CA
Of all the many challenges faced by a child with a chronic illness, teasing is perhaps one of the most difficult. Although it is not physically painful, teasing can be very emotionally painful for a child. And having a physical illness, especially one like scleroderma that often has easily observable physical signs, can invite teasing from other children.
How can you help your child handle teasing?
* Realize that teasing is likely to be a problem for your child.
Hoping that teasing won’t happen to your child is really just a form of parental denial. All children are teased; it’s just a question of what they will be teased about. If your child has scleroderma, it’s likely other children will choose that as the target of their teasing. Some parents tell me that they asked their child, “Do you get teased because of your scleroderma?” and the child said no, so they know this is not a problem. Don’t fool yourself. Children hate to admit to being teased, and will deny it, even when the teasing is very frequent. In my fifteen years as a child psychologist, I have had many children tell that they are not being teased, when their parents and teachers tell me that they are being teased constantly and cruelly.
* Prepare your child for the reactions of others.
Your child needs to know that other children will notice the signs of his her illness. You can help your child by preparing him/her for this. Help your child understand that some children will just be curious, although there will be others that will poke fun or be cruel. Parents can explain to their children that other children will tease when they see something different, or something that they don’t understand, and it makes them uncomfortable. It’s also important to explain to children that other children sometimes tease because they are unhappy themselves, or lack confidence, and it makes them feel better to criticize or make fun of others. Explaining this helps your child gain perspective on what teasing is all about. You might also talk with your child about any times they have teased other children, to help them understand the motivations and emotions underlying teasing.
* Practice responding to teasing.
Whether responding to curiosity or cruel teasing, it is helpful if children know how to explain the name of their illness and what the symptoms are. You can roleplay with your child what he/she might say if somebody asks about signs or symptoms, or starts to tease. For example, a child with scleroderma might practice responding to questions or comments about facial disfigurement (e.g., “What’s wrong with your face?” or “You sure are ugly”) by saying, “I have scleroderma. It made a scar there.” Another way for your child to respond is to practice a simple statement like, “It’s mean to tease” or “That’s a bad thing to say.” This should be said as calmly as possible. I recently saw a 5-year-old child use this behavior very effectively: When teased about the outfit she was wearing, she said, very clearly and calmly, “What you said was mean and hurt my feelings.” The other children (4- and 5-year olds) who were teasing her were quite startled by her response, and didn’t say another word about her outfit; all children simply resumed playing their game.
Other possible responses your child can try include:
* Agree with them.
Here your child is agreeing with the facts. For example, if the teaser says, “You have a big scar on your face,” your child responds, “You’re right, I do.” Or when the teaser chants, “Four eyes, four eyes,” the child responds, “Yes, I wear glasses.” These kinds of responses often leave the teaser confused and unsure of how to continue. It also helps your child realize that there’s no big deal about something like having a scar – yes, they have a scar, and that’s all there is to it.
* Respond with a compliment.
This really throws off teasers. Imagine the confusion of the teaser when your child responds to a comment such as “You look funny” with “I really like your sneakers.”
* Ignore it.
Ignoring can also be an important strategy for dealing with teasing. Teasers are definitely reinforced by the reactions of their victims. Getting upset, crying, or responding with anger can all escalate the teasing. If your child tries a simple straightforward reaction like those noted above, and it doesn’t work, they should simply pretend not to hear, or walk away. If the teasing is not reinforced, it will often eventually extinguish itself.
* Use Self-talk and Visualizations.
Children can learn phrases to repeat to themselves to minimize the hurt associated with teasing: This is along the lines of an internal statement of “Stick and stones can break my bones, but names can never hurt me.” Possibilities include, “That’s mean, but I can handle it,” “That child must be really unhappy to be so mean,” “That child isn’t very nice but that doesn’t mean I have to let them get to me,” or “What I think is more important than what that child thinks.” Visualization can involve children learning to picture words “bouncing off” them, perhaps off an imaginary force field.
What else can you do to help your child?
* Get involved.
There may be times when it is appropriate for you to become directly involved in protecting your child. If your child is regularly interacting with a child who engages in cruel teasing, you should give feedback to that child. You can try telling the child, “We don’t allow teasing in our home” or “We don’t allow children to tease each other when they’re playing, or else we’ll have to stop.” You can also try to explain to the child about your child’s illness, and ask them not to make any more negative comments. Give them a chance to improve their behavior, but if they don’t, you should probably choose other playmates for your child.
* Get others involved.
You may want to tell the parents of a child who engages in excessive teasing about theirs child’s behavior, and solicit their involvement. Explain about your child’s illness, and why it is important that their child refrain from teasing about it. Many parents will be mortified at their child’s behavior and will immediately step in; others won’t – you will have to judge whether or not to continue your interaction with that family based on their responses.
If the teasing is occurring at school or at daycare, solicit the assistance of teachers or supervisors. Again, explain the child’s condition so people are clearly informed. Don’t accept excuses like, “All children tease so there’s nothing we can do about it.” Teachers and childcare providers are supposed to be in charge of the children in their classrooms or day care institutions. There is no excuse for allowing inappropriate and undesirable behavior to go unaddressed. If they don’t help, and the situation continues, move your child to another setting, even if it means switching schools.
* Use resources.
There are books about teasing available at any large bookstore with a good childcare section. Further, there are resources on the internet, such as:
http://www.parenting-ed.org has excellent articles on “How Parents Can Help Their Child Cope with a Chronic Illness” and “Helping Children Handle Teasing.”
Please keep in mind, this webpage is for your information only.
Please check with your child's physician for any treatments.
For more information on Juvenile Scleroderma, contact:
Juvenile Scleroderma Network, Inc.
1204 W. 13th Street, San Pedro, CA 90731
Tel: (310)519-9511 (Pacific Time)
24 Hour Support Line: 1-866-338-5892 (toll-free)
Speak to another JSD parent for emotional and logistical support
provided by home-based JSD volunteers. For medical advice, please
contact your child's physician.
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