Do adults tease your child, even with good intention? Learn why you need to respond to others’ teasing and how to do so firmly yet tactfully.
You’re at a family party, and grandpa teases your child and pretends to take away her toy. He means well, as most adults do when they try to make kids laugh, but now the teasing has grown out of hand and your child is feeling some anxiety.
On one hand, you don’t want to be that parent everyone has to be careful about with what they say to her kids. So, you laugh it off, while still dropping enough hints that it’s time to stop the teasing.
But you realize she’s getting upset and doesn’t appreciate the joke everyone seems to be laughing at. Or worse, she doesn’t even realize they’re laughing because of her.
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Why you need to respond when adults tease your child
Dealing with people who tease your kids is a balancing act. You don’t want to go overboard and monitor everyone’s behavior and what they say to them. Do that often enough and you might prevent others from even wanting to spend time with them.
And some teasing isn’t all that terrible, especially when your child seems to be able to brush it off easily. We all tease one another in good jest, so policing even the slightest hint of a tease may be too much.
But sometimes, adults cross the line and she feels upset. Despite your friends and family’s protests, you may need to trust your gut and stand by her side. Why?
1. Your child is still a child
Kids’ version of jokes and humor don’t fall on the same level as those of us in adulthood. Their jokes usually run from corny to downright strange and not funny, so when adults pit jokes—no matter how well meaning—it may not sit well at all.
After all, your child isn’t an adult or even an older child who can retort with a good comeback. She’s not used to this kind of joking, especially when it seems like she’s being made fun of. She may have a feeling a line has been crossed but doesn’t know how to defend herself.
I’ve been in teasing situations where a friend—again, well-meaning—was joking with my son. Except the joke was way over his head and didn’t even know my friend was having a laugh. In those cases, it’s still important to say, “He’s teasing you, it’s a joke” to call it off.
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2. Adults don’t always take kids seriously
Let’s say your child does get that it’s a joke about her, and even tries to defend herself with a good-natured “Stop.” Some adults may still not take her seriously, assuming she’s in on the joke or is able to laugh it off. Other times, they simply don’t take her “no” into account.
If you know she has had enough and adults aren’t listening, it’s time to stand up for her on her behalf. Coming to her defense not only lets the teaser know to knock it off, it also shows her that her words should be heard and are valid.
Having you by her side validates her feelings and reassures her that her frustration is normal.
3. Adults shouldn’t laugh at a child’s expense
Some adults don’t mind being the subject of jokes—personally, I’m rarely one of them. So, I can’t imagine why adults should laugh any more at a child’s expense when we hardly do it to one another.
It’s fine to laugh with kids about a joke, especially one they can also laugh about, but it becomes a problem when they’re the subject of one.
You can always tell one from the other by imagining how your child would feel if she found out you’re laughing at something she did or said. If she can laugh right along, then it’s a joke she can join in on. If she ends up in tears, then you know adults are laughing at her expense.
It doesn’t matter whether she knows she’s being teased or laughed at, or if she’s oblivious. Not only is being the subject of a joke a terrible place to be in, it’s worse when kids don’t even realize that they are.
What to do when adults tease your child
Dealing with adults teasing a child can get tricky.
Some people may not think their jokes should be taken so seriously, while others believe their teasing is done with affection. Some kids can stand to be the subject of jokes, while many would burst into tears if they even so much as knew others were laughing at them.
To make it even worse, some adults can take offense if you tell them to stop the teasing and sarcasm. Others will even hold grudges against you at the snap of a finger. They might turn it around on you and say you’re making a big deal out of nothing, and relationships can feel extra tense.
There’s no clear definition on what is or isn’t appropriate, what with personality types and relationships you have with others. But when teasing becomes too much, try a few of these tips and tricks:
1. See if the teasing needs your attention
You may not need to stop all teasing, so base your involvement on your child’s reaction. Did he seem bothered, or is he laughing right along? If he seems to be enjoying the joke, you may not need to put a stop to the teasing, but if he looks hurt, then it’s time to step in.
Before stepping in too quickly, watch his reaction to see what your next move should be. You may not even need to step in if he seems to enjoy the playful banter or can joke right along.
2. Say something lighthearted
Let’s say you realize the teasing is getting out of hand. Your response depends on the joke, the person saying it, and if this is a recurrent behavior. You can then diffuse the teasing by saying something lighthearted but still to the point.
For instance, if you notice your child getting upset, you can throw the joke back on the adult. You can also tell them to stop in a lighthearted, playful way, but still with a hint of “Don’t go there.”
Let them know it’s enough, and often, just the fact that you’ve come to your child’s defense, even in a playful way, will already send that message.
3. Address the adult
If the teasing persists despite your lighthearted attempts to make it stop, take that person aside and let him know.
Start by empathizing and relating with the person. You might say that you know he loves your child, or that the teasing isn’t a big deal to most people. While you find the jokes funny or even accurate, your child doesn’t feel the same way.
In fact, you notice that he gets upset when he feels like he’s in the spotlight, from jokes to general attention. Explain that he may not understand the joke, or doesn’t realize it’s meant to take lightly. Even though you know it’s a joke, he may not, and feels upset about it instead.
Then, follow up with constructive suggestions on what your child does like about this person, such as when he gives him snacks or roughhouses or plays soccer with him. This reassures the adult that his relationship with your child is important and valued when expressed in other ways.
Keep this conversation in private so the adult doesn’t feel reprimanded in front of an audience. He’ll feel less defensive and will be better receptive to your ideas when he doesn’t feel attacked in front of everyone.
Your little one is still a child, one who may not “get” the kinds of jokes adults like to make. He doesn’t appreciate being the subject of one and may not have the same sass or quick thinking to retort with a good comeback.
And adults shouldn’t have a laugh at a child’s expense, especially if they don’t take his feelings seriously.
Instead, first decide whether the teasing needs your attention—you don’t want to stop all types of jokes because they might upset him. If you need to step in, do so in a lighthearted way such as with a funny comeback to the joker or a playful “knock it off.”
And if the teasing doesn’t stop, address the adult in private by acknowledging his intentions that may not sit well with your child. Highlight other ways your child enjoys his company to reassure him you value his relationship.
No one likes to see her child teased, least of all by adults who may be laughing at his expense. Be his advocate, the one who’ll step in. You’ve got years of experience with social settings, much more than him. Step in to be his voice when he needs it the most.
Get more tips:
- Why You Should Definitely Intervene when Adults Overwhelm Your Kids
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- 3 Ways We Unintentionally Disrespect Our Kids
- 14 Children’s Books about Empathy to Read with Your Child
- Why We Need to Stop Telling Boys to “Man Up”
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