Why Teasing Can be Good for Your Anxious Children

teasingTeasing has become closely aligned bullying and, as such, often viewed as a negative practice that should be avoided at all costs. While teasing may have a delicate balance of the affectionate and cruel, it can have a number of positive effects on your anxious child. And even if you’ve previously discouraged teasing, you may have teased your anxious child umpteen times before he or she was even a year old.

What is Teasing?

UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner says teasing is a verbal statement or non-verbal action that contains three elements. It is:

  • Designed to provoke another person
  • Accompanied by a gesture or other markers that indicate its playfulness
  • Meant to draw attention to something associated with the person being teased

Verbal statement of non-verbal actions that lack the middle element can indeed move into the realm of rude, mean or bullying behavior. But teasing meant in a playful way between family members, friends or within a social circle can serve a number of useful purposes. 

When Teasing Begins

Remember the game of peekaboo? The adult is essentially teasing the child, pretending to disappear and playing with the baby’s feelings. Once the child gets used to the game, however, it actually becomes fun. It also serves as a developmental building block, teaching the baby people may come and go. People may play with relationships or even feelings.

The Positive Effects of Teasing

Teasing as your anxious child gets older can serve useful purposes in much the same way.

Teaching Humility

In some societies where it’s the norm for adults to tease children, children tend to grow up with a solid sense of humility – a far cry from the rise in narcissism that has hit North America over the past 20 or so years. Research professor and Psychology Today contributor Peter Gray even goes as far as to ask if the rise in narcissism may be partly associated with the reduction in teasing, particularly the decrease of adults teasing children.

Showing Acceptance

Teasing often homes in on a character flaw of the person being teased, putting it out in the open for the world to see – and letting the person know they’re totally accepted, flaws and all. Teasing can be a playful way to express knowledge of a person’s weaknesses while reinforcing the friendship or familial bond.

Correcting Behavior, Enforcing Social Control

Anxious children make mistakes; everyone makes mistakes. Rather than correct those mistakes with harsh words or punishment, teasing can serve as a more playful way to prompt the mistake-makers to change their behaviors. Here the teasing remains on the gentle side as long as it’s pointing to something the target can change, like the way he throws a ball, and not something he can’t change, like the fact that he’s shorter than the rest of his classmates.

When teasing balances out its potential cruelty with playfulness and friendliness, it can serve as a teaching tool, a sign of affection and a form of constructive criticism. But it takes a very delicate balance, and the knowledge of when to stop, to help ensure it retains its positive effects.


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