Is it playful teasing or harmful aggression?

It can be challenging for children and adults alike to distinguish harmful bullying behavior from playful, well-intentioned banter.1,2 However, there are important differences to note.1,2,3 While children and adults are right to be concerned about behaviors that intentionally hurt others, research suggests that not all forms of teasing may cause harm.1,2,3

In fact, some research suggests that some forms of teasing may actually be positive for children.1 According to Carol Bishop Mills, Ph.D., and Professor Dacher Keltner, Ph.D., “positive” teasing may help children solve their interpersonal problems less aggressively, strengthen their relationships, and develop their social skills.1 Moreover, research suggests that this kind of teasing is actually common for children.1,4 Children have also been shown to have no problem distinguishing intentionally harmful teasing from well-meaning teasing.4

But what do the different forms of teasing look like and how can we tell them apart from bullying? Teasing frequently gets equated with attempts at being funny, sarcastic, or playful, but only some teasing can be classified as these things.1,2,3

The kind of teasing that can be positive has some distinct characteristics.1,2 Scholastic suggests that beneficial teasing is teasing done with the intention of establishing “closer relationships and mak[ing] connections.”1 It involves things said as jokes that are not intended to hurt the other person.1 For example, according to the Education Development Center, playful, well-intentioned teasing might look like calling someone “wonder girl” for being so strong or playfully hiding someone’s ball to make the other person laugh.5 Rick Peterson, Ph.D., suggests that with positive teasing, children might be smiling, laughing, and clearly enjoying themselves as opposed to feeling angry, upset, or slighted.6 Playworks adds that teasing can only be considered positive if all children involved, including the child being teased, understand it as such.2

However, teasing that is intentionally harmful is different in important ways.1,2,5,6 Teasing that hurts others on purpose can be called “taunting.”5 Taunting can become bullying when it is done repeatedly.5 Mills also offers a slightly different distinction based on children’s power dynamics.1 He says: “When both people are equal in size, intelligence, and age and are having fun, it’s teasing. But when the two aren’t equal—one’s more popular, bigger, or powerful—and the exchange is out of balance, it’s bullying.”1 Playworks suggests a set of useful questions to help children and adults identify whether an act is positive teasing, harmful teasing, or part of a bigger bullying phenomenon.2 They suggest that children think about the following questions in response to a situation that makes them upset: “How did that make you feel? Do you think it was bullying? Is that [child] a friend of yours? Has that happened before? Does this happen a lot?2

However, it can be challenging to understand when even well-intentioned teasing crosses a line and hurts someone’s feelings.2 Playworks suggests certain signals that can help children and adults identify when teasing may be doing more harm than good.2 For example, they suggest that if a child crosses his or her arms, looks upset in the face, or is not laughing (or is laughing in an “unnatural” way), the teasing may be hurtful.2

In sum, not all teasing looks the same or produces the same outcomes, and not all teasing is evidence of bullying. Indeed, as Dacher Keltner and colleagues note in a study from 1998, “teasing lies on a perilous boundary between aggression and play.”3 It is critical that we distinguish potentially beneficial teasing from its more harmful counterparts. With careful observations and their own good judgment, children and the adults in their lives can learn to do just that.

Let’s hear from you!

  • How do you distinguish between playful teasing and harmful aggression?
  • What strategies do you use to stop harmful teasing between children?
  • How do you maintain a teasing-free atmosphere in your classroom?


Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights. (2013). What is bullying? Retrieved from

Scholastic. Bullying and teasing: No laughing matter. Retrieved from

  1. Cleaver, S. (2009, October). Just teasing: Gentle teasing has social benefits for kids. Retrieved from

  2. Playworks. (2013, October 10). Teasing often occurs in our schools and communities, but is teasing bullying? Retrieved from

  3. Keltner, D., Young, R. C., Heerey, E. A., Oemig, C., & Monarch, N. D. (1998). Teasing in hierarchical and intimate relations. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 75(5), 1231-1247.

  4. Barnett, M. A., Burns, S. R., Sanborn, F. W., Bartel, J. S., & Wilds, S. J. (2004). Antisocial and prosocial teasing among children: Perceptions and individual differences. Social Development, 13(2), 292-310.

  5. Education Development Center, Inc. (2013). 6. Talk about bullying. Retrieved from

  6. Peterson, R. (2006, January 30). Teasing and bullying. Retrieved from

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