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Why 2-year-olds tease
Like it or not, teasing is a fact of life – or at least of life before adulthood. The good news, though, is that 2-year-olds rarely do it maliciously. "It's actually a sign of an important cognitive advance," says Claire B. Kopp, a professor of applied developmental psychology at California's Claremont Graduate University. Two-year-olds begin testing the boundaries of their environment to figure out what their parents will put up with. So your child might look you in the eye while he deliberately does something he knows he shouldn't, such as eating an extra piece of candy or kicking a ball in the house. Similarly, he learns how to push buttons by teasing.
Your child might call someone a "dummy" or a "stupidhead" rather than zero in with more specific taunts. A mature 2-year-old may also use teasing to define social groups ("Nya-nya, you can't play with us!"). And, as most children find out, it's equally hurtful to be on either end of teasing – the teaser or the teased.
What to do when your child gets teased
You can't do much to prevent other kids from teasing your child, but you can teach him how to cope with biting comments:
Feel his pain. Acknowledge to your 2-year-old that it hurts to be teased. "I kept telling my son to find different kids to play with, but that didn't help," says Joyce Abrams, a mother of two. "Finally I realized that he wanted me to sympathize with how he was feeling. Then we were able to talk about ways he could handle it."
Teach him to ask for help. It takes a lot of maturity to let teasing roll off your back, so don't expect a stiff upper lip from your 2-year-old. If he's really upset about the teasing – especially if it's relentless – he (and you) need to talk to his care provider or the bully's parents about the situation.
Don't practice what you're preaching against. Perhaps the teasing that so upsets your child doesn't come from playmates, but from you – and you may not even realize it. Affectionate joshing is a wonderful way to nurture a sense of humor, but let your child be the guide. If he doesn't react well, perhaps the subject matter has hit a nerve. So don't joke with him about an issue he's struggling with – such as learning to use the potty – which will only shame him. And never be harsh: No name-calling (even if it's meant affectionately) or snickering allowed. Perhaps the most important rule is not to razz your 2-year-old in public. Calling him "my little piggy" or "Pudding Face" in front of his pals can make even a 2-year-old cringe. By observing limits when you tease, you'll show your child how to clown around in a way that doesn't hurt people.
What to do when your child teases
Don't overreact. Although it upsets you to hear taunts escape your 2-year-old's tender lips, remember that at this age teasing is rarely mean-spirited. Kids are notorious for noticing everything, and are usually quite vocal about it. This is especially true of children nearing age 3, who often zero in on differences in the way someone looks or acts. Teasing can also be a way for your child to take control of a situation. He may tease a playmate so she runs off crying instead of taking her turn on the slide, for instance. Then he gets to go first. Finally, a child this age may simply be mimicing an older sibling, or testing you to see what kind of reaction he gets.
Emphasize empathy. Whatever the reason for his taunts, talking to your child about the effects of his behavior helps him put himself in another person's shoes, though not overnight. So remind him that he'd feel bad if someone said he was too loud or too short, for instance. Stress that how a person looks doesn't indicate anything about who they are. And be sure to refrain from making negative comments yourself about another person's appearance.
Reduce the rivalry at the root of the teasing. If your child's teasing his sister, it doesn't neccessarily mean that he's angry or upset with her – he could just want more of your attention. To discourage his taunts, make sure your 2-year-old has plenty of one-on-one time with you. And rather than pushing him aside, try to make him feel important by enlisting his help in caring for his sibling. Remind him that he's a big kid who knows games he can teach her. Talk about what he liked as a baby – playing peekaboo or hearing a silly song – and encourage him to entertain his sibling the same way. Being able to make her laugh will make him feel useful and important, and not feeling that way is probably what was behind his teasing in the first place. (For more tips, check out our article on sibling rivalry.)