“Teasing” in the Family

Is it unhealthy to poke fun at ourselves and tease other family members? We've always enjoyed laughing together at our house, and sometimes that includes what some people refer to as "teasing." Friends of ours have expressed concern that we may be fostering an "unsafe" environment that doesn't promote respectful relationships. Do you think there's a problem with this kind of humor?

Everything depends on your distinctive family “culture.” By “culture” we mean that complicated web of unspoken assumptions and intangible bonds that defines the atmosphere in your household. Every family has a unique relational “style” that makes them who they are as a group of original personalities.

Because you are interconnected in ways that no other group of people ever has been before or ever will be again, you take certain things for granted among yourselves. You know things about one another that no one else can know. You have a common language. If it’s understood that teasing is simply part of that shared “cultural” idiom, then you probably can’t eliminate it altogether – not without doing serious damage to your ability to connect.

On the other hand, if teasing isn’t integral to your family’s style of communication, you’ll know it. In that case, everyone will sense that it’s an unwelcome imposition upon the feelings of certain family members. And the person on the receiving end of the ribbing will probably be the first to make it clear.

It’s all a matter of tone. If you’re not sure whether the tone of the teasing in your home is healthy or not, we’d recommend that you take some time to examine the motives and intentions behind it. Are the jokes and stories designed to hurt someone? Or are they meant to give him a chance to shine? When one of you jumps in with, “Remember the time when Bobby—–,” are you expressing affection and appreciation for Bobby? Or are you trying to embarrass him? Is the banter a way of cherishing or attacking? Can it be interpreted as a sign of endearment or is there a bite to it?

This is all extremely subjective, of course. It will vary dramatically from one family to another. As we’ve already suggested, the real litmus test is the reaction of the individual who’s getting “roasted.” If he doesn’t think it’s funny, then there’s no point in trying to convince him that it is. In fact, it could be highly counterproductive and even traumatizing to subject him to this kind of treatment when you know that he doesn’t like it.

In the final analysis, this entire question can be reduced to two basic principles. The first is this: never sacrifice respect for humor. There are jokes that demean and jokes that preserve the self-esteem of every family member intact. Make sure that everyone in your household understands the difference. Teach your kids that humor is all about timing. Explain that there’s a time and a place for everything. Coach them in the fundamentals. Show them how to recognize what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate. Help them see that while some people appreciate practical jokes and actually find them conducive to closer and more intimate interpersonal bonds, others see them as insulting and hurtful.

Principle number two: whatever happens, make sure that every person in your family feels that home is a safe place to be. If humor is barbed and comes across as threatening, communication will cease. This can lead to all kinds of negative fallout. In cases like this, mom and dad need to dig deeper and find out what else is going on. There’s an old saying that “many a truth is spoken in jest.” But when teasing becomes a way of rubbing salt into open wounds, it’s time for people to put all joking aside. Genuine grievances should be aired in open and honest dialogue.

If you have additional questions or would like to discuss this subject at greater length, call our Counseling department. Our licensed family therapists are available for a free consultation. They’ll be more than happy to assist you in any way they can.


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