how to help an 8yo deal with teasing?
June 17, 2008 6:49 AM   Subscribe

Our 8yo boy is very sensitive. Any teasing really seems to upset him, and of course that's the reaction the teaser is going for. How to help him?

While extroverted, smart, funny, and kind, our boy has always been super sensitive to any kind of criticism or teasing. When he misbehaves, for instance, an angry look from me or his mom is often enough to bring him close to tears.

On the playground, any kind of teasing, or even the kind of verbal jousting all boys do, causes him to withdraw and sulk, and later he explains to us that it makes him "hate himself." We try to explain that teasing is what boys often do, that it's more of a game than a reflection on him personally, even pointing out the good-natured teasing that I do with my friends (his friends' dads) and how we all are just having fun.

But then a kid three years younger than him will make fun of his bellybutton at swim class (!) and he's ashamed and humiliated. What strategies can we suggest to him to take this kind of stuff more in stride, and not as a final judgment on him personally?
posted by luser to Human Relations (30 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
How about the old classic: "Sticks and stones my break my bones, but words will never hurt me!"? Though I would suggest not telling him to say that, just to think of it when someone makes fun of him...
posted by Grither at 6:57 AM on June 17, 2008

Is he creative? Does he like comics? A boy I knew most of my life (who got picked on a lot when we were younger) started drawing a secret comic when he was in 3rd grade, about his own superhero. He drew it for years without telling anyone, and only told me in high school after we had dated for awhile. I think it helped him deal with the stuff he couldn't change in a constructive way.

Other families in this situation put their kids through karate classes.
posted by phunniemee at 7:02 AM on June 17, 2008

The problem with that saying is that words can hurt, much more so than sticks and stones. I was always confused by that saying when my parents told me to think about that when I was being bullied. This was compounded when I poked fun at others and was told by my parents that I shouldn't do it because it will make them feel bad.

Honestly, I'm not sure that there's much you can do, this is just one of those things that we have to go through while growing up, I certainly did and I turned out just fine. In fact, after dealing with it as a kid, I'm even more resilient to criticism than most of my peers who get all bent out of shape. Continue to reinforce what you're telling him, but recognize that it probably won't do much, he'll eventually learn to deal with it. Does he have a couple of good friends? I know when I was his age I had two friends and the three of us were inseparable. Generally we would all get made fun of, but it was easier to shrug it off and return to what we were doing.
posted by InsanePenguin at 7:06 AM on June 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd recommend the book The Highly Sensitive Child. There's a quiz on the site that will give you some idea if it might be helpful for you.
posted by candyland at 7:11 AM on June 17, 2008

I don't know if this is possible, but it would be great if he could somehow focus on the other kids, on _their_ feelings, instead of what they are thinking about him. Why would someone say that about his belly button? What was going through that kid's mind? Would he have said that if he knew it would be hurtful? If not, then why did he say it? If so, then what would make a kid want to hurt another kid?

Just imagine -- if he gets to be good at this, insightful, how powerful he would be.
posted by amtho at 7:27 AM on June 17, 2008 [3 favorites]

Previously, specifically, this guide might help your son. Best of luck.
posted by plinth at 7:27 AM on June 17, 2008

My 2ยข:

Behavior is learned in children. Somehow he's learned that this is the right behavior in the situation.

Perhaps you could reward him for acts of bravery and courage when he deals with this. Instead of comforting him when he is upset (rewarding the behavior of sensitivity), remind him of how you have previously discussed dealing with this.

In the terms of Transactional Analysis, no warm fuzzies or cold pricklies for behavior you don't like, just focus on the behavior you do like.

On a side note, TA is very helpful to children to help them understand why other kids act the way they act. I was raised with these concepts and today still use them to help understand people's motivations and how best to react.
posted by Argyle at 7:35 AM on June 17, 2008 [7 favorites]

As sad as it is to say, only the alpha male of the pack will come out victorious.
Lesson to be learned: Beat up whoever makes fun of you.
posted by PowerCat at 7:43 AM on June 17, 2008

An important lesson to learn is that people's worlds, for the most part and especially wiith kids, really revolve around themselves. When people are angry, critical, two-faced, etc., what they do and say is really more about themselves than whomever their target might be.

It doesn't excuse unkind words or actions, but it might make it a little easier to shrug off if your son understands that these kids are trying to impress others, make up for or distract others from their own shortcomings, retaliate because they've been hurt or scared, or otherwise deal with something going on in their own lives and he just happens to be a convenient target. It's really not about him at all.
posted by notashroom at 8:01 AM on June 17, 2008

Seconding amtho - my strategy for dealing with those kids (and those adults) was always to try to understand where they were coming from. It makes it remarkably difficult to get upset when you're feeling sympathy for the person picking on you. Of course, my mom's a shrink, so I had excellent resources for learning those skills.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:22 AM on June 17, 2008

You know, this is probably really bad advice, but my life got a lot better once I picked up the skill of the witty comeback. Maybe if you teach your son how to tease right back, he'll get the hang of it and not take everything so much to heart. I was teased mercilessly as a kid, and I just didn't know how to respond, and I took it all very personally. But once I learned how to turn it all into a joke, things got much better.

"Oh yeah? You think my belly button is funny-looking? What about you, with a head shaped like a watermelon and a nose the size of a tea kettle?"

It might not work for him; it might get him into trouble; but it might also help him to develop a sense of humor. If he can see that no one is perfect, and that teasing can be fun, maybe he can turn it into a game instead of feeling bullied.
posted by brina at 8:35 AM on June 17, 2008

A few sessions with a CBT-focused therapist might be a good idea. It sounds like your boy has learned to internalize teasing into self-hatred. That's a dangerous habit of thinking, but one that he can unlearn with help.
posted by ottereroticist at 8:38 AM on June 17, 2008

Unfortunately there's really nothing you can do.. Not everyone can come up with a witty comeback when you need to. I can about 15 minutes AFTER something happens, and that really doesn't help. I've always been teased and you eventually just have to ignore it. It's something you have to learn.. (I've struggled with depression, anxiety, anger control issues, and suicidal thinking that's been worse because of the teasing)

It's hard to not take teasing personally. The only thing you can tell your son is that the people who are teasing him are insecure about themselves. They aren't comfortable with the way they are, so they pick on him to make themselves feel better. If he doesn't allow them to see how they affect him, they will eventually ease up.

I know how hard it is. Sometimes these things can't be remedied, though.
posted by majikstreet at 8:41 AM on June 17, 2008

telling an 8 year old to consider what is going on in another kid's mind is a little ridiculous, 8 year olds don't understand things like that, all they understand is that they have a funny belly button.

The truth is that kids can be mean, really really mean. I sent this tread to a friend, someone that had a terrible time growing up, this is what she said:

"they should just tell their kid that life sucks and it will only get worse so he better at least ignore the kids in public and cry about it at home. maybe they'll stop making fun of him if they don't think he cares. people stopped making fun of me so much when i played along and pretended like i didnt care and that i thought it was funny. it still hurt just as much but they didn't know that and so it lost its fun for them."

I don't know if I completely agree with this advice (definitely not the 'life sucks' part) but it makes more sense then telling your child to be more sensitive to other's feelings.
posted by treetop at 8:50 AM on June 17, 2008

I think the best way of dealing with remarks like that is to laugh and accept them. "Ha ha ha, yeah, it does look funny." Once you've done that - you've taken the wind out of their sails. There's nothing left to attack. Practice with him, and have him give it a try. This technique can be remarkably disarming. More advanced would be to agree and add to any comment made. This is an improv comedy technique.

The witty comeback I do not recommend - it prolongs the dialogue. As far as trying to understand your tormentors and / or going to therapy, that sounds a little complicated for an eight year old to process. You could try explaining that mean people do what they do because they don't know any better. Really, they're to be pitied, and ultimately the behavior is a misguided attempt to get friends and attention. In the end, it backfires.
posted by xammerboy at 9:02 AM on June 17, 2008 [3 favorites]

It sounds like he doesn't possess an adequate cushion of self-love. I think the best thing you can do is encourage him to have pride in himself. Make sure he's involved with some club, hobby or sport that he likes and can be good at. Either in talking, writing, or some kind of art activity, have a conversation about all the good qualities he has, and really praise him for them. Perhaps the nest time this comes up, ask him if the subject he's being teased about is something he wants to change about himself. Then, you can make a list of things he wants to do differently, and thing he wants to do the same, and you can show him how many more things about him are wonderful just the way they are.

I really believe that if children carry the knowledge that they're smart, brave, kind, hardworking, good at gymnastics, whatever is true and extraordinary about them, in their hearts, they can withstand the normal levels of teasing.

It helps them to see that some teases are untrue (Bully: "Tyler's a stupid retard!!!" Tyler, to himself: "Hmm. Wrong. I'm darned bright. Whatever!")

Some don't matter to them (Bully: "Tyler has a dumb belly button!!" Tyler, to himself: "That's trivial. My belly button is insignificant about me compared to what a good friend I am.")

And some are friendly jokes (Tyler's friend: "Tyler's socks are mismatched! Oh, Tyler, your sense of style really is atrocious!!" Tyler, to himself: "I made a silly mistake. If I had done this on purpose, that would make me pretty peculiar!"

Of course, the simple knowledge that someone's out to get your goat can be maddening, and I don't really have a solution to that, when it's the case. It's helpful to have self-confidence and agency, though, because you can breezily reflect on how boring that person is being and what you'd rather be doing than listening to them embarrass themselves. Then, go do it.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:31 AM on June 17, 2008 [6 favorites]

What powercat said.

You could also be setting yourself up for a "you against him". He sees things differently than you. Don't force him to think he's wrong about his opinion too.
posted by Wanderlust88 at 9:39 AM on June 17, 2008

A dissent to an earlier response:

I was teased myself when I was eight, and I was also on the sensitive side. People advising me with the old "sticks and stones" adage actually made it worse - because words CAN hurt. But by reminding me about "words can never hurt me", that just made me feel doubly bad -- because it just made me think "words aren't supposed to hurt me, but they are, so that just makes me a big sensitive baby on top of everything else. I REALLY suck, then, I guess."

I'm trying to think what would have helped -- if any of my friends, any family member, or anyone else ever had stood up on my behalf and sassed the bully back, that would have made a tremendous impression, as it would have told me "now, wait a minute, what the bully's saying about me might not be true. yay!" Of course, there's little way to orchestrate this kind of thing.

But failing that -- the "getting a child to consider where the other person is coming from" approach actually may have helped -- with one change. Pity and empathy may be beyond an 8-year-old, yes. But a good dose of "consider the source" may be a big help; for example, "...So Sid said that you have a weird looking belly button. You know, I always thought Sid had funny-looking feet, so I wonder how much Sid REALLY knows about what's funny-looking and what's not?"

The thing that made bullies' words hurt me was that they were giving me strongly-felt opinions about me, and someone else telling me "no, you're good" just made me feel like someone was trying to lie to make me feel better. If someone had instead taught me to question the truth of the bullies, I think I would have been able to shake them off much quicker -- "okay, yeah, they SAY that, but they don't know what they're talking about, so who cares what they say?"
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:58 AM on June 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I really believe that if children carry the knowledge that they're smart, brave, kind, hardworking, good at gymnastics, whatever is true and extraordinary about them, in their hearts, they can withstand the normal levels of teasing.

if any of my friends, any family member, or anyone else ever had stood up on my behalf and sassed the bully back, that would have made a tremendous impression, as it would have told me "now, wait a minute, what the bully's saying about me might not be true. yay!"

I was very sensitive as a kid, and I think it came from my below rock bottom self esteem. It wasn't until many years later, when I learned how to make friends that I began to feel good enough about myself to not completely loose it pretty much every day.

My advice is to help your child find something he's good at and loves to do, with kids that he really gets along with. I think it would also help if, instead of telling him to suck it up, that you reinforce his own self image by either telling him his belly button doesn't look funny or helping him realize that for himself. A little bit of support and commiseration might go a long way.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:08 AM on June 17, 2008

I don't consider myself disabled in any sense but I have birth defects and I've always looked different from others (plus I've worn hearing aids since I was five). I was teased horribly until sophomore year of high school. At a young age I made up for it by being really motivated to succeed in school.

I still get stared at and asked questions occasionally (exclusively by children). My response to it has always been "God made me this way," which almost invariably shuts them up. If it doesn't, just keep repeating it. It also instilled acceptance of myself. I guess this won't be applicable if you're an atheist household, but if you can live with this one statement, no matter what you actually believe, it will work. It's not snarky, it's not putting others down, and it's not too complicated for an eight-year-old to understand.
posted by desjardins at 10:11 AM on June 17, 2008

Strong self-esteem will absolutely help. Please temper it with empathy.

My own parents were always telling me "Who cares what these people think? You won't even know any of them after high school." Maybe true, maybe not -- but I could have learned a lot if I'd taken the time to try to befriend some of them.
posted by amtho at 1:11 PM on June 17, 2008

Both my kids were teased and bullied and primary school, and both now are resilient people, far more than me. What I did was to over and over and over again, assure them of their innate worth, by telling them of things I admired about them, their tenacity (look how you kept trying at Sonic even though it frustrated you), their attractiveness (gosh, you're cute), their intelligence (wow, I wish I'd thought of that), their sense of humour and so on, AND, to talk about why the bully was doing it (you know, I don't think home is as happy for Susie as it is for you, maybe that's why she's mean) AND to talk about strategies for dealing with it (pretend it's not happening, if he doesn't get a reaction he might give up; talk to the teachers; change your eating area at lunchtime; here's some comebacks for you).

I don't know which of these worked, but somewhere in high school both of them expressed to me that people still tried to bully them but it no longer bothered them. I wish I could say the same about me.

It's very hard from a parent's point of view. Often the teachers will not interfere, even if there's physical bullying going on, and your sweet baby loses their sense of wellbeing about the world, and that hurts. I guess I think the important thing is to bolster their sense of self away from the bullies, without spoiling or lying to them, or inflating their self-worth so that they look down on others.
posted by b33j at 1:38 PM on June 17, 2008

Oh and lastly, regarding the belly button issue specifically, I would ask, "so do you think your belly button is weird? If yes, why? If no, why do you think your friend said that, do you think people who have thisor that type of physicality are weird? Why do you think some people say mean things? Do you think they know they're hurting people's feelings? " and so on, so that he gets in the habit (yes, from age 8, why not) of critically analysing what goes on in a conversation like that. He will feel listened to, and not just dictated to, and he can work out whether he thinks it's worthwhile getting upset about, which he still might, but I bet he will have different reasons than at the start.
posted by b33j at 1:43 PM on June 17, 2008

I was bullied brutally until I went into grade 8. It was made much much worse by my mother who acted like it was entirely my fault and that I was the bad one for "letting them get to me". I am 26 and I still carry some of the effects of being told every day, at school and at home, that I was essentially a piece of s**t.

The best thing you can do is boost his self esteem and give him a safe and loving environment to talk it out whenever he needs to. Some things that seem tiny to an adult are a huge problems that can wear away at a kid. He needs to be able to discuss these things without anyone trying to diminish their importance.

I don't regret my hard childhood (yes, privileged middle-class childhoods can be excruciatingly hard). I've found that the bullies from back then never changed; I go home to visit and they're mostly still in their old cliques in the old neighbourhood. I see and hear about those who were marginalized and so many of them have gone on to do amazing things (successful musicians, respected academics, one super-successful film-maker).

I wish somebody had told me back then that having a rough time in elementary school was just going to make me a better adult.
posted by rhinny at 2:20 PM on June 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Self-esteem and self-confidence are closely related. Whoever suggested karate as a good self-confidence builder was on to a good idea there. In terms of self-esteem, you can make a concious effort to bring on board the (admittedly, very tedious) positive reinforcement mantra of good job, well done, and their friends.

"Can you pick up those toys? Oh, well done!"
"Can you wash your hands before dinner? Great job!"
"You're a great breakfast eater / toast maker / shoe picker-upper / tooth brusher."

Anything, really, but more importantly everything.
posted by DarlingBri at 3:58 PM on June 17, 2008

"Can you pick up those toys? Oh, well done!"
"Can you wash your hands before dinner? Great job!"
"You're a great breakfast eater / toast maker / shoe picker-upper / tooth brusher."

Oh, please don't. Even to a kid this kind of automatic overpraise rings hollow. Plus, there's evidence that praising accomplishment rather than effort actually reduces a kid's self-confidence.
posted by ottereroticist at 5:42 PM on June 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I agree with ottereroticist. That kind of praising for doing the things that definitely don't warrant it is only going to be detrimental to the kid. Kids are way smarter and perceptive than people give them credit for, and like ottereroticist said, it's going to seem hollow and insincere and it will only upset the kid more. OR, conversely, the kid will get used to getting praised/rewarded for doing every tiny thing, and then when they get out into the real world they are going to have one hell of a time coping when they find out that they won't get an attaboy for doing the very minimum of what they are supposed to be doing. Seriously. There have been articles upon articles, studies upon studies, about how the current generation of kids/teens have been so over praised and coddled that they don't have any ability to cope with responsabilities and reality.
posted by gwenlister at 5:57 AM on June 18, 2008

I was teased mercilessly when I was a kid. What's interesting for me is that your kid actually confided in you. I would never have considered telling my parents about the bully abuse because I learned at a young age that my mother would always freak out and get fussy. The fact that she freaked out whenever the tiniest thing happened to me probably helped me become the whiny, spoilt, sensitive kid that I was. Whatever you do, please never do this to your kid. I was also given some pretty stupid advice by my father: "Just ignore them". Yeah, right. Mission impossible when you're a kid and you have little mental will power to stop the insult from stinging.
Karate lessons. Or any activity that will raise their self esteem and confidence. Then he'll be so focused on doing something he enjoys that he will stop ruminating/dwelling on the stupid kids at school.
posted by Menomena at 11:03 AM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Get him into a martial arts class of some sort. It'll help him learn to deal with pain, both physical and mental. Plus, knowing that if he does get into a physical fight, he'll have some measure of control over it will help loads.
posted by fnerg at 2:09 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Your post hit so close to home that I had to respond.

Growing up, I was the gifted, extroverted, highly sensitive child in my class. When I was exactly your son's age, I began having problems with other children in the class. They would tease like children do, and I took it personally. When they saw that it mattered to me, they labeled it as weakness. Unfortunately, children prey on weakness.

I came home crying every day of the second grade because I didn't understand why nobody liked me. My parents loved me, but they couldn't help me. They didn't know how to interact with irrational people, which may be why I had trouble. I was the first child, so I was mostly around adults, I was treated like an adult, and I behaved like an adult. Most children didn't make sense to my parents, so how could they make sense to me?

Furthermore, I grew up in a family where I, a female, was not allowed to display anger. Instead of allowing me to be angry and sulk and learn self-comforting strategies, I was reprimanded and told that I was "just tired," and that I needed to take a nap. I began to package my anger and rage as being "frustrated" or "sad," because it was okay to cry but not okay to yell or be angry.

When I started being treated as the scapegoat, my parents told me to handle it with maturity: "Just ignore them," "just act like it doesn't bother you," "don't lower yourself to their level, "kill 'em with kindness." I was especially good at the kindness part, but nobody in 2nd grade seems to notice that you're trying to be mature--they think you're a sissy. It didn't help that I would cry when they criticized me. I just wanted everybody to be my friend.

I think all the adults thought the scapegoating would pass. It didn't. Eventually I came to internalize all the jabs and rejection and resigned myself to the fact that I would never fit in, so why bother. I felt worthless and hopeless-- I knew I was a good person, but why didn't anyone else see it? One defense mechanism was to develop a different view of myself--a narcissistic self. I decided that I was better than all of them, wayy smarter, and that I didn't need them. I Had to be better than them at Something, or else I wasn't good enough for Anything. And that meant my life would be worthless and have no purpose.

I was an overachiever all through school. I started going to a fundamentalist church at 15. I was looking for a purpose and a place to belong outside my school peer group and I found it in my youth group. I became a radical evangelical and wore t-shirts to school with the words, "Who's a sinner? (Your name here)" printed on them. I intentionally rebelled against the status quo. And it got me out of my rust-belt town full of complacent people and into a good college and a chance to start my life over.

I would Like to say all this helped me build character, and it did. But 10 years of ridicule, rejection, and avoidance take a toll. I didn't get invited to birthday parties. I wasn't asked out on dates or invited to prom. I have no fond memories of tp-ing some cute boy's house or going to the mall with my friends. No one ever told me who was having the party on Friday night. I missed out on a lot of things I wish I could have had, and I will never get to make those things up.

I have had a lot of time (and therapy) to reflect on the experiences of my childhood and have assessed the situation from every possible angle.

I now see how I might have contributed to the situation--it turns out I have ADHD that went undiagnosed until just a few months ago, which may have caused me to behave in ways that alienated me from my peers. You know that kid who always blurts out the answer in class before everybody else can have a chance to talk? Yes, I was That kid. And That teenager. And That master's student, for that matter. When I, in my clarity, meet someone like that, who is impulsive and impatient and irritating--I get irritated too. And I also see myself in that person and am able to experience and treat that person the way I would want to be treated.

(Because many times people like me don't know what it is about them that turns people off, I will often share my story with them and ask them if they've ever felt that way. Many times they will say yes, but because nobody tells them why they are irritated with the person, they don't know how to fix it.)

And now that I'm older and out of the house, I also think about how my parents may have contributed to my situation. Although well-meaning, they really didn't try very hard to make sure that I was okay. They:
(1) didn't give me any good ideas about defending myself
(2) never gave me permission to clock somebody Just Once right in the mouth (which I Personally think would have done the trick),
(3) never took me to see a counselor,
(4) didn't confront the parents of the children who hurt me,
(5) didn't take me out of the school, and
(6) didn't move to a different school district when they saw that things weren't getting any better.

In some ways, I think they enjoyed my lack of a social life, because it meant they could have more time with (and control over) me. As a result, I didn't get exposed to new people who might accept me--or that might have ridiculed me the same way and helped us see that it wasn't just Them, it was Me (and my Family too) so I could get help for my social problems or get diagnosed with ADHD years ago.

I didn't learn about social norms for people outside my family (which I have come to find is pretty unstable) or how to behave in different contexts, like the difference between home and your office job. I saw a lot of dysfunctional behavior that I thought was typical and never saw any other way of life.

There were some serious flaws in my upbringing that made me an easy target. My parents were pretty rigid. When I misbehaved or felt angry, my parents took it personally, and would become very very angry with me, as though I was being intentionally hurtful and destructive to Them and not just exhibiting normal emotions and behaviors necessary for my social development.

I learned that it was not safe for to be even slightly disobedient or angry with people. I never learned how to defend myself or what my rights were in a conflict. In my parents house, there were no rights. I was their child, and they could do as they wished (within reason--they never beat me or endangered my life). I learned how to be nice, funny, and pleasing to everybody I met. My younger brother, on the other hand, would tell my mother he hated her on a regular basis without recourse because, "it's just a phase."

So if you take anything from this longwinded confessional, it should be that:
A--You are a Great Parent for trying to find solutions to your child's situation Now before it gets any worse, and
B--your child's emotional and social welfare depend on you as the adult to be very deliberate about finding help for your son.

I recommend that you:
(1) talk to his teachers and school counselor about the problems he's having and enlist their help,
(2) start taking him to see a counselor, and
(3) find a way to remove him from the situation (new school, homeschool, etc.), at least temporarily so that you can observe his interactions with peers in others settings. What you will see, if left "untreated," is that your son will internalize his self-hatred and generalize his difficulty making friends and handling criticism to All social interactions, which costs a lot more to treat as an adult than if you would have done something about it before total damage could be done.

Finally, please, please, Please: be willing to remove him from the situation if it does not get better. If that requires moving or something else as drastic, consider the costs. What price do you put on giving your child a happy life? When your son looks back on his childhood, will he remember the nice house he grew up in, or the pain he felt from being socially isolated? My formative years are marked mostly by regret. If my parents had been willing to take a chance so that I could have a normal, happy childhood, I know things would have been a lot different. Not just for myself, but for them.

On behalf of myself and all the other sensitive adults who used to be sensitive children, I wish only the best for you, your son, and your family.

Take care,

posted by mynameismandab at 8:45 PM on June 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

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