How to Deal With Teasing and Subtle Forms of Bullying

Girl being teased by other girls
Kevin Dodge/Getty Images

“I was only teasing.” Those words tend to be spoken a lot by friends, co-workers, and siblings. But are they as innocuous as they sound? Do they really absolve the teaser from taking responsibility for hurting another person’s feelings?


Some people use teasing as a playful way to feel closer to another person or to show friendship. In other words, they only tease the people they are comfortable with and generally tease about things that are shared between them like a little-known quirk or action. Meanwhile, other people are good at using teasing as a way to bring up a difficult subject.

But sometimes playfully teasing someone or making fun of them is not so fun after all, especially if the person on the receiving end does not find it funny. When this happens, this is bullying under the radar, or a subtle form of bullying.

The best test for whether or not teasing is friendly is if the person on the receiving end finds it humorous and is laughing along. If the person being teased is not laughing, the teasing has fallen flat and an apology may be in order.

In fact, research shows that while people commonly tease one another, it is fairly common for those who are being teased to misunderstand the intentions of the person teasing them. They miss the cues that the teasing is being done affectionately and because the teaser likes them.

Instead, the good intentions of teasers are not obvious and the person being teased often feels like the comments are mean and annoying. When this happens, everyone feels uncomfortable.

When Teasing Hurts

It is not uncommon for friends to playfully and affectionately tease each other. If someone in the group does something silly or has a funny quirk, friends naturally like to rib them about it. Overall, most people are good-natured about getting poked fun of because of the trust and friendship that already exists.

Regardless of good intentions, sometimes teasing can strike a nerve and the person on the receiving end is hurt.

Perhaps the teasing centers around an area they are already concerned about and having friends point it out only compounds the situation. Whatever the reason, the person being teased feels confused and unsure of themself. Their self-esteem is impacted as well as their resiliency.

When this happens, it can be tempting to blame the target and say that they need to “learn to take a joke,” or “shouldn’t be so sensitive.” But a better way to address hurt feelings is to take responsibility and apologize. Shifting blame to the person being teased just makes the situation more uncomfortable and could damage an otherwise healthy friendship.

Crossing the Line

At times, when people are “just teasing” or “just joking,” they are really being malicious and are bullying. They hide behind the words “just teasing” to get away with using subtly mean phrases. In these instances, the teasing crosses the line and becomes bullying. This type of teasing, or relational aggression, is particularly prevalent in cliques and among mean girls.

Some forms that mean-spirited teasing or bullying can take include:

  • Engaging in hurtful name-calling or shaming of some sort such as fat-shaming and slut-shaming.
  • Making cruel or nasty statements about another person.
  • Dishing out putdowns disguised as jokes.
  • Using sarcasm to ridicule another person.
  • Humiliating another person by focusing in on a known sensitive subject and not letting up.
  • Hiding behind the words, “I’m just joking!” or “Don’t be so sensitive!”
  • Allowing someone to become part of a group, like a clique, so that the group has someone to laugh at and make fun of. The person is kept around for the amusement of the group.
  • Poking fun at someone over things that are not funny such as weight, skin color, religion, sexual orientation, and so on.

Remember, good-natured teasing usually revolves around a very minor quirk or something goofy someone says or does and both people find it funny. If you are experiencing teasing or subtle forms of bullying at work, at school, at home or online and you want it to stop, here are some ways to address it.

Ask Them to Stop

A good indicator of the intent behind the teasing is how your friends, family, or coworkers respond when you ask them to stop. Look for signs that they empathize with you. Also, do they accept responsibility, apologize, and then drop it or do they ridicule you for being hurt? Or worse yet, do they laugh and bug you even more?

If you have clearly asked them to stop and they keep it up, remove yourself from the situation.

In other words, walk away or leave the room. Trying to explain yourself or debate your point only sets you up for more teasing. Then, after you have cooled down some, decide how you want to handle future interactions with them.

If teasing is a regular occurrence among friends and you are always the target, it may be time to start hanging out with new people. If it is happening at work, look closer at the working relationship to determine if you are dealing with a workplace bully or an office mean girl. If it is a family bully, you may have to establish boundaries to reduce the teasing you experience.

Be Direct

Too many times when people tell someone to stop teasing them, they do not communicate in a strong way and the message gets confused. Be sure you are assertive when you tell the teasers to leave you alone or to drop it. You don’t have to be confrontational but you should be direct.

Also, do not confuse the issue by playing down your hurt feelings and the fact that you do not want to be teased any longer. While you do not have to elaborate on all the ways the teasing hurts your feelings, you do need to make sure they know that it bugs you, it is not funny and you want it to stop.

If they resort to teasing you again on the same issue later, remind them that you do not like it and that they should stop doing it. Hold your ground if you do not like being teased. And do not allow them to blow you off. Just remember to be friendly and self-confident when reminding them.

Keep in mind that if you have healthy friendships and healthy work relationships, you should not have to worry about what they think. If you are genuinely unsure of how your friends or coworkers will respond, then they are likely bullies.

The sooner you recognize that you are being bullied and confront the situation, the better off you will be.

Protect Yourself

Sometimes, people act goofy or say silly things in order to be teased. On some level, they enjoy the attention or the affection that comes with joking around. But on another level, it really annoys them.

If you are someone that does not enjoy getting teased be sure you refrain from doing goofy things or telling odd stories about yourself. You also should avoid making fun of yourself or putting yourself down in conversations. These types of activities are confusing for friends and coworkers. They may interpret your words and actions as an invitation to tease you.

You also may be setting yourself up for teasing if you are eager to fit in with a new group of friends at work or school. In this case, you are so eager to be part of a group that you gladly accept the role of the one everyone rips on. After a while though, the teasing can take a toll on your self-esteem. Do not let your desire to be popular or well-liked keep you from getting the respect you deserve.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.