It’s common for teasing and bullying to be mistaken for one another, but they aren’t the same thing. The difference is found less in the official definition of the terms and more in the direct effects of each one individually.

Though both behaviors have negative effects, the effects from bullying are typically much greater and longer-lasting than those experienced from teasing. Consequences such as depression, self-isolation, anti-social or violent behavior, substance abuse, and sometimes suicide are often the results of being bullied, particularly in youth.

Conflating these two terms is a mistake – one that can lead to detrimental results. Bullying is often dismissed as “only” teasing, which is a highly problematic response. The common language used toward victims to minimize bullying incidents can include:

“It’s only a joke.”

“You should be flattered that they’re teasing you because it means they like you.”

“It’s nothing. They’ll stop if you ignore them.”

“They keep teasing you because you’re giving them the reaction they want.”

“They’re just kidding around. Don’t be such a crybaby.”

“Don’t be dramatic. They’re just teasing you.”

Studies have shown (to no surprise) that friends, parents, and peers who communicate to bullying victims this way dramatically increase the chance of serious side effects. The last thing bullying victims need is to be invalidated by having their incidents downplayed. This is the main reason why teasing has become such a toxic word – it’s used as a tool to push bullying under the rug.


More than anything else, the intention is what truly separates bullying from teasing. Many experts agree that intention can be determined in these scenarios by how the offender stops. If the offending action stops immediately when the victim requests, then, in the majority of cases, this is categorized as neutral or friendly behavior – teasing. In these cases, it’s usually apparent that the offender intended no true ill will on the other person.

However, when the offending action does not stop when the victim demands and it’s apparent that the offender wishes harm – physical, emotional, etc. – on the victim, this is clearly bullying.

This observational technique is not fool-proof, however. There are situations where intention can be unclear. Further insights are in order.

How do you know it’s really teasing?

In order to respond appropriately as a victim and an observer, it’s important to understand how to best decipher between teasing and bullying. Remember that bullying is 100% unacceptable and always harmful, no matter the circumstance. Teasing, on the other hand, can be acceptable in some scenarios. Here are two situational examples where teasing is likely not harmful and simply a neutral social occurrence.

-If the behavior in question is taking place between established friends, this behavior is unlikely to fueled by ill-intent. That doesn’t mean it can’t be hurtful or taken too far. Friends sometimes cross the line. But in these situations, when the offender is asked to stop, they do – because they’re friends and they do care about each other.

-If the behavior of the offender in question is being distributed amongst many people – in other words, multiple people are receiving an equal share of the attention – then it’s likely teasing. What to keep an eye on is if the instigator begins singling out a particular person continually and about the same issue (whatever it may be), and in so doing, increases the amount of intensity and disregard. These are signs of harassment which then leads to bullying.

With this information, you can better gauge the nature and severity of any particular incident, particularly those that may require intervention – even in-the-moment intervention. Teasing, though well-meaning at its earliest stage, certainly can escalate to bullying.

How do you know it’s really bullying?

With the proper knowledge under your belt, you’ll be much more able to correctly observe the actions that lead to – or are – bullying. There are multiple subcategories of bullying (cyber, face to face, etc) and all can be identified by the three trademarks of bullying.

The formation of a power imbalance

Bullies have a lot in common, and this is one of the most tell-tale signs that help spot one. The bully’s objective is to instill insecurity in their victim – to make them feel unsafe. Their actions are an attempt to create for themselves an imbalance of power with them on top. Success for the bully is achieved when this psychological (or physical) upper hand conquers the mind of their victim. Once this happens, the person being bullied more readily submits.

Repeat Offenses

We mentioned this above, but it bares repeating. An almost surefire way to delineate bullying from teasing is to discover if the behavior is being repeated consistently. When the perpetrator is repeatedly singling out the same person on multiple occasions and is using the same malicious words, this is bullying and must be stopped.

The victim is undoubtedly affected

This seems obvious, but it often goes unnoticed. Be observant, especially if you suspect that your child is being bullied. Just because they say they’re fine doesn’t mean that is, in fact, the case. And remember, it matters less if you (as the adult) feel it’s hurtful. What makes this a defining characteristic of bullying is whether or not your child is negatively impacted, not the observer.

Once bullying behavior is detected, take immediate steps to get it stopped. Communicate with your child, no matter if they are the victim or the bully, about the effects of this behavior and way incredibly harmful it is. Seek professional help if necessary.

What can young people do to bring bullying to an end?

It is suspected, through aggregating many studies that have been performed in recent years, that at least 20% of all children have been victims of bullying. It seems that no matter how many laws that are passed, rules that are enforced, and punishments that forewarn, bullying remains ever-prevalent. Being armed with knowledge and having a plan is extremely important in today’s world, particularly for young people. Understanding the common motivations, tactics, and desires of bullies will help potential victims when they encounter them.

Here are a handful of helpful responses to bullying that young people can remember:

-Let an adult know what’s going on. However, you can’t expect every adult to act responsibly when you confide in them about these issues. This is why it’s a good idea to have an understood relationship with a specific adult (group of adults) who knows you will specifically confide in them if you encounter bullying behavior.

-Don’t encourage bullies from afar. These means do not embolden a bully as an observer; don’t laugh, cheer, or gawk at their antics. The bigger the reaction the bully is able to pull from the victim and those in the vicinity, the more encouraged they become. By refraining from these responses, they weaken quickly. The less attention they receive, the more likely they are to cease the behavior in question.

-Encourage the victims of bullying. It’s common for lonely, isolated young people to become the most likely targets for bullies. These people typically have few peers they can count on to step in on their behalf. Encourage your child to be that person. The positive impact this can have on the victim is often immense. It also decreases the chances of regular bullying toward that person, as the bully usually prefers solitary targets. Both public and/or private support given to bullying victims is invaluable.

-Ask the bully to stop. As can be expected, this isn’t going to have a 100% success rate. But the reason we mention this here is that if the behavior is in fact teasing and not bullying, the perpetrator will stop, revealing that there were no true feelings of malice.

What can adults do to bring bullying to an end?

Experience and research have shown that an intervening adult has the highest chance of success if they have a strong pre-existing relationship with the victim. So parents and siblings, for example, tend to be the most effective at intervening in these situations.

Here are some things for adults to remember when it comes to taking action if your child is being bullied or is a bully:

-If the bullying is happening at school, involve the administrators. Make counselors, teachers, and principles aware of what’s going on so they can help take action.

-Communicate with the parents of the bully. This sounds incredibly scary to some, but it’s necessary. It is true that many parents of bullies are unwilling to accept the fact that their child would exhibit such behavior and will be dismissive when confronted with this information. There’s nothing you can do about how they choose to respond. But they need to know. When you talk to them, don’t fly off the handle or use coarse language. Be calm and simply let them know what’s going on.

For victims of bullying, no one is more important than the parents. It is vitally important to obtain education about the nature of bullying and how to deal with it and then impart that wisdom to your bullied child. Help them to identify the signs and the most effective ways to respond. Parents should also strive to be a safe place where their children are comfortable coming to them about their problems. The sooner parents do these things, the higher the probability becomes of a positive outcome.