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Why kindergartners tease
Like it or not, teasing is a fact of life – or at least of life before adulthood. Sooner or later, all kids learn that words can be powerful – and as you've probably found, this is likely to happen sooner rather than later.
Right now, your kindergartner's exploring social situations and peer relationships. Unfortunately, his social skills aren't always up to snuff. Your youngster may tell another child, "You're not my best friend anymore," or "You wear ugly shoes," for instance, because he hasn't yet developed the complex communication skills he needs to be tactful, says Debbie Glasser Schenck, the director of Family Support Services at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He might even taunt a pal with, "You're stupid!" when what he really means is that his feelings were hurt when his friend spent recess with someone else. Kindergartners may blurt out generic taunts, like "stupidhead" or "dummy," but they also tend to zero in on particular attributes, such as wearing glasses or sporting a few extra pounds. And they often use teasing to define social groups ("Nyah-nyah, you can't play with us!").
Your 5-year-old may also tease because it's the way he's been taught – however inadvertently – to relate to others. If his family, peers, siblings, or favorite television shows model sarcasm, put-downs, and lack of respect as normal, acceptable behavior, it's no surprise that he mimics it. And most kindergartners find themselves on both ends of teasing – the teaser and the teased – at one time or another.
What to do when your kindergartner 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 that it hurts to be teased. Let your kindergartner know that you understand – "It makes you feel mad when Jonathan calls you a baby, doesn't it?" – and suggest that he tell Jonathan that he hurt his feelings. Also encourage him to play with kids who are nice to him and who make him feel good.
Coach him. Tell your 5-year-old that while he can't control what other kids say, he can decide how he wants to react. Ask him if he has ideas about how to deal with the teasing, and explain that he has a number of options. You might try some role playing – with you playing your kindergartner and him acting as his tormentor. If he says, "You can't sit with me at lunch. You're too dumb!" for instance, you might reply, "I am not dumb, and I have other friends I'm going to sit with today." Or you could teach him to deprive a bully of the response he's seeking. If teasing doesn't get a rise out of your youngster, then it won't allow his tormentor to feel powerful or to have fun at your child's expense. Your preschooler can either focus on whatever activity he was involved in when the teasing started, or simply walk away.
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 kindergartner. If he's really upset about being teased at school – especially if it's relentless – he (and you) need to talk to his teacher about the situation. "A teacher can support your child in the classroom by promoting positive social skills and helping him develop a broad range of friendships," says Schenck. If he's having a particularly challenging time because of the teasing, seek professional support.
Don't practice what you're preaching against. Perhaps the teasing that so upsets your kindergartner 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 being afraid of the dark or overcoming a nervous stutter – which will only shame him. And never be harsh: No name-calling or snickering allowed. Perhaps the most important rule is not to razz your child in public. Calling him "my little piggy" or "pudding face" in front of his pals is guaranteed to make him 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 kindergartner teases
Don't overreact. Although it upsets you to hear taunts escape your child's lips, keep your cool and resist the urge to cut him down to size. Remember, he's probably looking for a reaction. "You may inadvertently reinforce teasing by overreacting to the words you hear," says Schenck. Respond by calmly letting him know that using hurtful words bruises others' feelings, and by reminding him how it feels to be excluded or teased by others.
Emphasize empathy. Whatever the reason for his taunts, talking to your 5-year-old about the effects of his behavior helps him put himself in another person's shoes. So remind your kindergartner that he'd feel bad if someone said he was too loud or too short, for instance. Let him know that it's fine to notice when someone looks different, but it's not okay to mention it within their earshot. 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 kindergartner's teasing his sister, it may not mean that he's angry or upset with her, merely that he wants more of your attention. To discourage his taunts, make sure your firstborn has plenty of one-on-one time with you. If he's picking on his baby sister, for instance, try to turn that around by enlisting his help in caring for her instead. 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.)