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Hurtful Words

by Jennifer Spring Taylor

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me."

Sound familiar? Many of us used this singsong chant as children to respond to playground teasing. And if we remember correctly, such a passive response rarely, if ever, stopped the verbal provocation.

When it comes to teasing, "Kids often go right for the jugular," says Richard Milich, a UK professor of psychology. "And it's unfortunate that the kids who are teased the most handle it the worst."

Milich and his colleague Monica Harris Kern, associate professor of psychology, are involved in an ongoing research program that focuses on helping kids deal with teasing. This research was inspired in part by Milich's experiences gained by running a social skills program at the UK Psychological Services Center for kids with peer difficulties. The children in the program reported a lot of problems related to teasing, prompting Milich and Kern to start researching what kids regard as the best responses to being teased.

In the initial studies, children between the ages of eight and 12 were shown videos of someone being teased and were asked to judge the effectiveness of different responses to the teasing, for example, ignoring the teasing, becoming hostile, or deflecting it with humor. Milich was able to use the results of the studies as a basis to help children decide on the best way to cope with being teased; then they practice their reactions.

That's right: practice. "It's like any other skill. It's like baseball—you have to work at it," Milich says.

Five years and many studies later, the research program has grown to include a study on college students' personality types and how personality affected their response to teasing and to seeing others being teased.

"We were surprised by how strongly some people recalled their teasing and how strongly they felt about teasing others," says John Georgesen, a doctoral student in social psychology who worked on the project.

Two hundred Introductory Psychology students completed personality questionnaires, answered questions about teasing history, viewed tapes of teasing situations, and wrote narratives about teasing experiences.

The study showed that personality does influence teasing behavior and also affects responses to teasing, Georgesen says. The researchers found that individuals who are emotionally overreactive tend to think hostile responses are more appropriate; of even greater significance, they are also less forgiving of teasers, even years later.

Highly extroverted individuals tend to be more assertive and talkative, and tease others more often. They have less empathy toward those they tease.

"They don't think teasing is that big of a deal," Georgesen says.

People who aren't very confrontational tend to feel more remorse for teasing and tease others less, Georgesen says. "They find hostile responses inappropriate."

Milich says that children who are repeatedly teased feel there is no way to stop it and that they have no recourse. In fact, being teased relentlessly was a common factor in many of the recent school shootings, such as those at Paducah, Kentucky, and Littleton, Colorado, he says.

The results of another recent study may help explain why victimized children feel helpless in response to repeated teasing. This study examined how teachers thought children would respond to teasing. "It was clear that teachers just were not aware of how upset kids get," says Kern.

Children have no escape at school, Milich says. "The results of this study raise the whole issue of school officials being sensitized to how upsetting teasing is," he says.

And these psychic bruises may not heal for years, if ever.

"Just because there are no punches thrown doesn't mean it's not serious," Kern says.