Sticks and Stones: The Effects of Teasing and Name Calling on Children


The paper discusses the effects of teasing and name calling on children. It begins by noting that this issue has recently gained significant attention due to the negative outcomes associated with childhood teasing and name-calling for most children. It proceeds to document how this behaviour is prevalent and has both positive and negative outcomes, which makes teasing hard to analyze. An overview of why parents and caregivers tease is provided and a detailed review of the impacts of childhood verbal aggression offered. These long-term impacts include normalizing verbal abuse, depression, low self-esteem, anxiety, relationship difficulties, developmental disorders, eating disorders, alcohol and substance abuse, low life satisfaction, criminal activity, and codependency. The paper then offers suggestions on how incidents of verbal aggression can be reduced. Child protection laws and parental education are highlighted as the two possible ways of mitigating this problem. The paper concludes by asserting that preventing verbal aggression against children will avert the negative outcomes and therefore ensure that their future well-being is guaranteed.


The subject of teasing and name-calling of children has, in recent years, received a lot of attention with researchers focusing on the impacts of these actions on the child. This attention has risen from the recognition of the negative outcomes that are associated with childhood teasing and name-calling for most children. These forms of abuse are especially damaging since the child is emotionally vulnerable and therefore prone to traumatisation for life. Storch et al (2004) explain that experiences during childhood years play a major role in the development of a person and they contribute to the future psychosocial well being of the individual. While peer teasing and name-calling is damaging to the child, its impact is increased significantly when the parent or caregiver of the child perpetrates it. The reason for this is that these adult figures have responsibility for the child and they are supposed to offer protection and support. This paper will seek to highlight the long-term damage caused to children when they are subjected to name-calling, teasing, belittling, and other forms of verbal aggression by their parents or caregivers.

Teasing and Name Calling

Teasing is a typical experience throughout the development years of a person and it can play an important positive or negative role in the development of a child. It is a common practice in many households and everyone takes part in it at some point in life. Teasing is a normative behaviour in all relationships and its multifaceted nature makes it very hard to analyze. Keltner et al (1998) underscore the complexity of teasing through their observation that “teasing is paradoxical… criticizes yet compliments, attacks yet makes people closer, humiliates yet expresses affection” (p.1231). This observation is corroborated by Langevin (2000) who reveals that teasing is duplicitous: having both positive and negative outcomes. It can have positive outcomes when it is done in sport or mischief and in a playful and fun manner.

However, incessant teasing aimed at humiliating a person can have negative effects on their growth and development. Teasing and name-calling by parents and caregivers is especially detrimental since they have an intimate knowledge of the target of the verbal assault. Storch et al (2004) observe that being teased about personality has broader consequences later in life than being teased about things like how you look or performance in school. Parents and caregivers are more likely to tease children on their personality in a bid to help socialize them. These teases have lasting effects on the child who is still in his formative years.

Why Parents and Caregivers Tease

As has been noted, teasing is regarded as normal behaviour in society. Most parents and caregivers assume that teasing is healthy for the child since teasing functions as a way of indirectly teaching social norms and values to the child. For example, by teasing a child about sucking on their thumb, an understanding by the child that this behaviour is not acceptable can be promoted. Kowalski (2003) observes that teasing assists in the promotion of social conformity by highlighting behaviour that is perceived as inappropriate within a group. Even so, pervasive teasing and verbal aggression against children has multiple negative implications on their future well-being.

Impacts of Childhood Verbal Aggression

While most parents and caregivers who engage in teasing and name-calling do not have any malicious intent, their actions have far-reaching consequences on the life of the child. Research indicates that in addition to the immediate impacts of verbal aggression on the child, there are long-term effects that continue to be felt long after the actual teasing and name-calling has stopped. This long term impacts of childhood teasing and name-calling are addressed below.

Normalizing Verbal abuse

Children are highly impressionable and they ape the behaviour of the adults around them. Because of this, name-calling and teasing has an effect of normalizing bad behaviour by a child in their relationships with family members and other people in the society. Teasing by parents and caregivers sends the message that this is acceptable behaviour. The behaviour can therefore be expected to continue between siblings and even outside the home environment. Victims of childhood verbal abuse are also more likely to continue the same behaviour with their children. Gallagher (1999) observes that parents are likely to use the same parenting techniques used on them by their parents on their children. Their capability as parents will therefore be diminished because of their childhood experience.

The normalizing effect of childhood verbal aggression also decreases the chances of the individual forming meaningful relationships as an adult. Weinhold and Barry (2008) explain that because of the repressive system that the child grew up in, he/she becomes a judgmental person who disapproves of others. The victim of parental teasing and name-calling is likely to develop the same biases that his/her parents had. This will alienate the childhood teasing victim from other people who will regard them as mean and hurtful.


While everybody experiences stress in the course of their lives, victims of childhood verbal aggression are more predisposed to suffer from higher rates of stress and possible depression. McCabe et al (2003) highlights that there is a relationship between memories of childhood teasing and later psychopathology with teasing experiences being related to increased levels of depression in adulthood. The relationship arises since being teased by an adult causes a child to develop a feeling of helplessness. Childhood teasing makes the child feel vulnerable since they are placed in a difficult situation. By putting the child on the spot, the parent or caregiver makes him/her experience discomfort. The child is, in many instances, unable to respond or react favourably to the tease that increases the feeling of vulnerability. This feeling is perpetuated into adulthood where the individual will develop a belief that he/she has little control over what goes on in their life. McCabe et al (2003) observe that this is the thinking pattern that predisposes a person to depression since they feel helpless regarding the situations they are going through.

Depression might also be triggered by social exclusion that the child faces. McCabe et al (2003) notes that children who are teased receive “lower peer ratings of social acceptance and higher peer ratings of social rejection” (p.191). Lack of social support increases the likelihood of stress developing into depression.

Low self-esteem

Verbal and emotional abuse is harmful for the psychological development of the child. A child who grows up with verbal abuse is constantly rejected by his parents who express disapproval of the child’s behaviour and this has a negative impact on the child’s self-esteem. Salmivalli (1999) defines a healthy self-esteem as one that is manifested in “overall acceptance of oneself as a person and in feeling of worthiness and self-confidence” (p. 1270). Teasing includes some attributes of the individual and these attributes contribute to the overall feeling that the child has concerning their entire self. Weinhold and Barry (2008) observe that rejection and disapproval leads children to develop a negative self-image, low self-esteem, and self-hatred since the child feels flawed and unwanted. As a result, the victimized children generally disapprove of themselves just as their parents and caregivers disapproved of them.

Teasing results in lower perception of self-worth by the individual. In most cases, severe teasing is aimed at deriding a person and humiliating them. Most victims of childhood teasing and name-calling attribute these behaviour to their own personal traits or behaviour. Instead of seeing the adult as being responsible for the abuse, the child blames himself or herself for the abuse that he/she is subjected to. This results in poor mental functioning since a feeling of inadequacy is developed from an early age. The child will therefore grow up feeling unworthy because of these verbal abuses.

Name-calling results in a cognitive change in the victim. The victim begins to believe that the abuses they receive are a true reflection of who they are. For example, if the victim is being called a “big baby” or “idiot”, he starts thinking that this must be true, for otherwise the adult would not have said it. Gallagher (1999) states that this results in a gradual but pervasive erosion of self-esteem in the individual as the verbal abuse continues.


Childhood teasing predisposes a person to anxiety problems in adulthood. Victims of teasing and name-calling experience more anxiety and insecurity compared to their peers who are not subjected to this forms of abuse. Patients at an anxiety disorder clinic were asked to fill a self-report questionnaire on their teasing history and 85% of them responded that they had experienced severe teasing as children (Roth et al. 2002). Perceptions of severe teasing in childhood particularly increase the risk of anxiety in social situations. This is especially the case if the individual experienced pervasive teasing that was meant to demean and degrade him/her in social contexts. Parents sometimes tease their children when they behave in a way that is humiliating or embarrassing. This results in social phobia by the person where they live in fear of being negatively evaluated by the community. Some form of teasing is aimed at an individual’s social behaviour and it results in the person being teased when they act in a certain way. This negative evaluation leads to development of social anxiety.

Roth et al (2002) theorize that children who are subjected to verbal abuse learn to view the world as a dangerous place from an early age. They therefore feel the need to always be on alert and this creates an anxiety problem. This anxiety arises since the social situation is viewed as a dangerous situation that might cause failure and subsequent embarrassment for the childhood teasing victim.

Teasing causes the child to develop a negative image of their social self. This negative observer-perspective image is informed by the parent or caregiver’s reaction to the child’s behaviour. The child will have doubts concerning their social competencies and will develop a false image of their social self. Hackmann et al. (2000) warns that this flawed social-self image will be activated in future anxiety-provoking situations that will lead to a spike in the anxiety level of the individual. McCabe et al (2003) explains this phenomenon by noting that severe teasing causes the person to associate certain social situations with a particular negative memory. This increases the anxiety of the person in the particular situation. The person will therefore find it hard to deal normally in such situations due to the memories of teasing.

Relationship Difficulties

The ability of the individual to form and sustain meaningful relationships is also hampered by childhood verbal abuse. The ability of an individual to form a secure identity directly influences their ability to form healthy relationships in future. Teasing results in feelings of insecurity and low self-esteem by the child. Research by Storch et al (2004) documents those individuals who were subjected to frequent childhood teasing experienced higher levels of loneliness later in life. One of the reasons for this is that intense teasing causes a person to live in fear of negative evaluation. All healthy relationships require a person to open up to others and expose their strengths and fears.

Teasing causes the victim to be less friendly and exhibit poor social skills. Kowalski (2003) observes that victims of frequent teasing are guarded and apprehensive about new relationships. This hesitation when entering social relationships is the result of the suspicion with which the victim of teasing has about other people’s intentions. Even when the victim of childhood teasing enters into a relationship, it is doomed to be strained since they remain guarded and are unable to express themselves properly.

The individual is likely to avoid social interactions where they might form new relationships. Kowalski (2003) explains this by revealing that most episodes of teasing and name-calling take place in a social context. Childhood teasing increases the discomfort faced by the individual during social interactions and they might seek to reduce the teasing by becoming loners.

The victim of intense childhood taunting is also likely to engage in an abuse adult relationship. They may actively seek for condemnation and punishment from other people since they feel that they deserve it. Since verbal abuse was a constant part of their childhood, they will also assume that it is expected in a normal relationship. Keltner et al (1998) warns that victims of childhood abuse will be more willing to put up with abusive relationships than those who had normal childhoods.

Developmental Disorders

The childhood phase is very important in the psychological development of the individual. It is during this period that the child is developing beliefs about himself/herself and the world. Personal identity is developed in the context of social relations and the influential theorist, Harry Stack Sullivan, underscores the significance of interpersonal relationships in the formation of the self-identity (Sullivan 1953). Teasing and name-calling result in serious psychological consequences for the child facing the verbal abuse since the child’s sense of self, which is developing, is informed by his/her relationship with peers as well as parents and caregivers. Gallagher (1999) states that a positive relationship with adults and peers has a positive impact on the cognitive, social, and language growth of the child. Teasing and name-calling have a high likelihood of impeding the psychosocial-emotional development of the child.

Verbal aggression has a negative impact on the psychosocial growth of the child. This negative effect can be elaborated by looking at stage 4 of Erickson’s psychosocial development. In this stage, children face the conflict of industry versus inferiority. They focus on mastering important cognitive and social skills and are intent on evaluating their competencies as they engage in social comparison (Sigelman & Rider 2008). In this stage, it is important for the children to be encouraged by adults to acquire a sense of industry. The acquisition of a sense of industry rather than one of inferiority will occur if their comparisons are favourable. Verbal abuse encourages inferiority since it makes the child feel inadequate and inferior. The abuse also highlights what the child cannot do instead of what they can do therefore decreasing their sense of competence. Instead of focusing on the abilities of the child, teasing and name-calling brings to focus deficiency that a child has.

Tony Humphreys is another child development scholar who articulates the importance of positive response to a child’s development. He contends that children regard the manner in which their parents treat them as a mirror of what they are (Humphreys 2005). If the parent reacts to them with teases and verbal abuse, the child’s self-esteem will be damaged and they will develop inner conflict. For the child to develop in the best possible way, it is necessary for the parents to express love and affection to their young children. If this is done, the child will respond positively and feel secure therefore developing self-confidence.

Eating Disorders

Teasing might also result in eating disorders and body image issues by the victim in later years. This happens when the teasing suffered was primarily focused on the physical appearance of the victim. Research indicates that teasing about body size or shape will cause the child to develop a negative image concerning their physical attributes. This negative self-image will be imbedded in the child’s mind as the teasing continues. Kowalski (2003) advances that the victim will attempt to alter their appearances in order to ward off teasing. This altering might involve unhealthy eating which causes eating disorders. A study by Eisenberg and Neumark (2003) demonstrated that weight-based teasing by family members is a risk factor for negative body image as well as disordered eating. This is true since individuals who are teased about their body suffer from lower body satisfaction compared with those not teased. Teasing about body weight leads to an unhealthy expectation of body shape and weight by the victim even through adulthood. Eisenberg and Neumark (2003) highlight that many individuals who are teased about their weight engage in unhealthy weight control practices. These unhealthy practices are complemented by poor eating habits in an effort to obtain the ideal body shape and weight.

Alcohol and Substance Abuse

Teasing and name-calling are hurtful experiences and children will look for ways to cope with these abuses. The coping mechanisms employed by a child during the teasing and name-calling episodes may lead to the development of additional symptoms or avoidance strategies in adulthood. Studies indicate that there is a relationship between childhood verbal abuse and chemical dependency. Teasing and name-calling result in emotional abuse to the child because these forms of verbal abuse are characterized by criticism, ridicule, belittling, and faultfinding. The child is made to feel that he/she is not lovable or worthy. From these, a child will end up feeling less than perfect and they might react by looking for escapes. Victims of childhood verbal abuse from parents or caregivers may seek comfort or escape through alcohol. This risk of chemical dependency is heightened by the fact that parents who engage in verbal abuse are have limited engagement with their children and offer little emotional encouragement.

Teasing and name-calling is often accompanied by low parental support and a sense of disconnection between the parent or guardian and the child. This lack of concern may cause the child to take up bad habits. McVittie and Best (2009) note that young adults who experienced low parental support were likely to drink and smoke.

Low Life satisfaction

Teasing increases the risk of dissatisfaction with life by the victim in future. Life satisfaction is influenced by a number of factors including; self-perception and the quality of relationships that an individual has. As it has been noted in this paper, childhood teasing predisposes a person to having attachment difficulties. He/she finds it hard to form and/or maintain meaningful social relationships with others. In addition to this, teasing will lead to the formation of a negative self-perception and development of low self-esteem. All these issues will negatively influence the life satisfaction of the person. Roth (2002) asserts that a history of teasing and name-calling by parents and caregivers will increase the chances of a person having low life satisfaction in adulthood.

In addition to this, teasing a child increases the likelihood of him/her being victimized in future. Storch et al. (2004) explains that visible outward reactions such as distress, sadness, and shyness mark out an individual as a target for teasing. Chronic teasing in the childhood years will therefore lead to the development of an anxious and shy personality that will predispose the individual to further teasing during adulthood.

Criminal Activity

Some forms of verbal aggression can result in future deviant behaviour by the victim. This is especially the case when the child is ostracized for misbehaviour by being labelled a rogue. Plummer (2000) confirms that by labelling the child a crook because of misbehaviour, the child may start viewing himself as actually being one. He is at risk of developing a deviant self-identity since the parent or caregiver has labelled him as such. Plummer (2000) suggests that labelling compels an individual to become the very thing he/she is perceived to be. This faulty self-identity is reinforced since when the child engages in bad conduct, the name-calling occurs. The victims of child teasing are likely to rebel and since they view themselves as “bad”, they end up playing out this role.


Teasing conveys the message that someone is only of value if he/she meets someone else’s needs. This predisposes the child to develop co-dependency in future. Bradshaw (2005) states that childhood verbal aggression can lead to codependency where the child will place his/her needs below those of others. Since the child grows up believing he/she is only valuable if he/she pleases other people, the child develops a lack of self-belief and seeks approval from others. In addition to this, teasing and name-calling make the child feel that he/she is inferior to others and not worthy of attention. Due to the victimization in childhood, the individual has great risk of becoming dependent on outside sources to validate him/her. Codependency prevents a person from creating a healthy self-identity. The authentic self is ruptured and this leads to a development of a false self.

How can we break this cycle?

This study on the impact of verbal aggression on children had demonstrated that this behaviour has many negative repercussions on the child. It is therefore necessary for action to be taken to mitigate the occurrence of this counterproductive behaviour. Introduction of laws to protect children from verbal aggression and educating parents on the best way to bring up their children are two possible ways of mitigating this problem.

Child Protection Laws

Ireland prides itself with having a robust framework of laws that seek to provide services to children and to produce child protection policies for the specific needs that children may have. These laws are aimed at assisting children to develop into adults under a safe environment and therefore become productive members of the society. Since childhood teasing and name-calling has been recognized as a detrimental practice in the life of the individual, efforts should be made to comprehensively address the issue at the local and state level through policy development.

In recognition of the danger that childhood verbal aggression has on the individual, the Irish government should come up with laws that protect children from this form of abuse. Child welfare workers should be taught on how to prevent and respond to verbal aggression against children and if necessary bring the case to the attention of the statutory authorities. Child protection legislation in Ireland should be implemented to determine appropriate responses to verbal aggression. At the least, such legislation would serve as deterrent to parents and care givers who would be liable to civil or criminal charges if they are found guilty of engaging in such practice. The difficulty lies in finding a balance such that parents are allowed to exercise some level of control over their children while being prevented from engaging in verbal aggression or any other form of abuse.

Informing Parents

The nature and quality of the parent-child relationship can either reduce or exacerbate the chances that a child will abuse alcohol, suffer from depression, become depressed, or become delinquent (McVittie & Best 2009). It is important that parents adopt the kind of parenting that promotes development and protects the children from future adverse impacts. The most effective parenting styles are already known and the difficulty remains in helping parents to adopt them. McVittie and Best (2009) best articulate this dilemma by stating that the challenges ahead involve finding ways to educate adults with regard to how they can adopt the best parenting style for their children.

Research indicates that childhood experiences have a huge impact on the emotional development of the child with teasing having a negative impact on their psychological functioning (Storch et al.2004; McCabe et al 2003; Hackmann et al. 2000). Besag (1999) states that name calling is one of the most distressing behaviours that children have to deal with and its damaging effects are often underestimated by the adults. This wrong estimate of the effects of teasing and name-calling makes the parents and caregivers engage in this damaging habit without knowing that they are causing lasting emotional damage on the child. Parenting lessons will help the adult to recognize the potential harm that may result from teasing. Many individuals find the idea of parental education absurd because of the underlying assumption by majority of the people that good parenting skills are inherent in all parents. It is therefore assumed that all parents will intuitively know the best way to raise their babies. This is not the case and research indicates that good parenting skills do not come naturally for everyone (Humphreys 2005).

An important consideration in parenting classes is that they recognize that each parent has autonomy over their children. The classes do not impose any values that are contrary to the parent’s own. Instead, a parent is introduced to effective styles of raising their children. Parental classes will highlight the damage that verbal abuse has on the emotional and psychological wellbeing of the child. The prevalence of childhood teasing by parents and caregivers is attributed to the ignorance of the effect of this behaviour by the parents. Research indicates that many adults underestimate the stress and anguish that children have to deal with because of teasing (Besag 1999). By being made aware of the far-reaching consequences that teasing and name-calling has on the future of their children, it is highly unlikely that the parent will engage in this damaging behaviour. Another positive outcome is that the parent and caregiver will be keen to ensure that teasing is not allowed even among the children.

The effectiveness of parental classes is high especially if the adult is willing to complete the program. Research shows that parenting classes can have a positive impact on the way in which parents and caregivers interact with children. McVittie & Best (2009) report that parents who completed parenting classes on how to become more authoritative reported changes in their behaviour towards this end. Good parenting will result in children who are more academically competent and psychosocially healthy. These children will group up to be productive members of the community who enjoy satisfaction in their lives.

While it would be ideal if all parents were involved in good parenting classes, implementing this would be impossible. Any attempts to force parents into such classes would be futile. If these were to happen, parents would either boycott such efforts or attend the classes out of obligation. This would diminish any value that the parents would gain from the classes.


The past decade has witnessed an unprecedented growth in awareness in the subject of childhood teasing and its impacts on the future wellbeing of the individual. While many researchers have addressed the issue of teasing, name-calling, and other forms of verbal aggression, many parents remain oblivious of the impacts of these forms of abuse on their children. This paper has explicitly highlighted the negative impact that these practices have on the person. While reactions to childhood teasing and name-calling vary from child to child, research indicates that these experiences are damaging to the future wellbeing of the individual. Studies overwhelmingly support the idea that teasing causes adverse mental health affects years after the actual teasing has stopped.

There are treatments and supportive services available to help victims of childhood verbal abuse cope with and overcome their conditions. While such services can help overcome the negative self-image developed due to abuse, it would be better to prevent the abuse from taking place in the first place. Proactive measures will avoid the need to address dysfunctional cognitions developed because of teasing and name-calling in one’s childhood years.

The paper has also highlighted the common misconception that all parents are naturally equipped with the skills and knowledge to properly raise their children. While some parenting skills are inherent in the individual parent, others are learnt and to make matters worse, many parents may have learnt bad practices from their own parents. From the discussions presented in this paper, it is evident that not all parents make use of the best model techniques when bringing up their children. Such parents can therefore benefit greatly from engaging in parenting classes.

Teasing has both immediate and long-term consequences on the child and this study has focused on the long-term damage caused to children when they are teased or called names by their parents or caregivers. The paper also endeavoured to propose ways through which this detrimental practice can be mitigated or eliminated from our society. It began by noting that teasing and name-calling are common practice in many households. The paper has made use of literature to demonstrate how teasing and name-calling can result in long lasting emotional repercussions on the child. A link has been established between childhood experiences of name-calling and codependent behaviours, low self-esteem, depression, and anxiety in adulthood. Considering the link between childhood teasing and psychosocial disorders in adulthood, this paper has proposed the enactment of laws that protect children from these forms of abuse from their parents and caregivers. The paper has also proposed voluntary educational experience by the parents to help them acquire the best parenting skills. By undertaking these proactive measures, verbal aggression against children can be overcome and the future well-being of children guaranteed.


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