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When does family banter become family bullying?

When does family banter become family bullying?

Jokes and teasing are common in most close family relationships, but when they hit a nerve they can cause low self-esteem. We’ve put together a common-sense checklist to help you keep the family comedians under control and stop young people feeling picked on.

Casual comments can cause profound problems

Joking and teasing probably aren’t top of your list of family issues. But as your child becomes a teenager they will naturally become more sensitive to comments about the way they look. And family members may not realise the impact of their words.

“Hasn’t so-and-so filled out?”

“Soon you’ll be bigger than your mum!”

“Oh, that puppy fat is so cute.”

“Don’t you think you should start watching what you eat?”

Sound familiar? Even playful teasing from loved ones about appearance can have a deep impact, damaging young people's confidence long term. 

Even playful words can be hurtful

“Young people who experience criticism or teasing about their appearance from family members are more likely to try to control their weight and eat in an unhealthy way, be dissatisfied with their body, compare themselves with friends, obsess over their looks, have lower self-esteem and more depression than those who aren’t teased,” says Dr Phillippa Diedrichs of the Centre for Appearance Research.

On the flipside, supportive and warm family dynamics have a positive effect on young people's body image and body satisfaction. So what’s the best way to handle the situation?

Taking action on family banter

Coming up with coping strategies for your child to use when faced with family teasing is the first step. It may be as simple as ignoring unhelpful comments, or something more overt like confronting the person making the remarks to let them know how it feels when they tease. 

Carol, mum to 12-year-old Isobel, went for the simple approach when family members began teasing Isobel for being skinny and saying she should eat more. “I assured them that she does eat but that she is the size she is, and teasing her is not going to help,” says Carol. “Then I talked to Isobel, saying that she shouldn’t take those comments to heart. I reassured her that as long as she is happy and healthy that’s all that matters.”

By acknowledging the hurtfulness of appearance-related teasing, actively discouraging it and helping your child develop techniques to deal with it, you will be nurturing and protecting their positive body confidence.

Use our action checklist to get your family to cut out the banter and give your son or daughter the support they need.

To protect privacy we’ve changed the names of people whose stories we tell on these pages, but their stories are genuine.

  • 1

    Look out for hurtful comments

    Be alert at family gatherings and conscious of any comments or conversations about weight, body shape, dieting or appearance that are negative or might make your child feel embarrassed or self-conscious

  • 2

    Step in to change the subject

    Try to steer the conversation elsewhere without making a fuss – you can approach individuals later if necessary. Check in with your child to let them know that those types of comments are not OK, that they are perfect just the way they are, and that you are there if they want to talk

  • 3

    Have a quiet word

    If someone in the family is continuing to tease your child (or someone else in front of your child) about their appearance or body, consider speaking with them in private. Don’t use language that is overly emotional or confrontational. Sometimes you will need to be subtle; other occasions may call for a more direct approach

  • 4

    Explain the situation

    Emphasise to family members the importance of avoiding talking about looks and placing too much emphasis on appearance. You may want to ask them not to comment on your child’s body or appearance at all

next steps

  • Support your child by sharing The Letter Challenge: dealing with bullies. Help them stand up to family teasing and boost their self-esteem
  • Use the action checklist to start a conversation with your child about how family influence, and how jokes and banter make them feel
  • Which comments from family members most upset your child? Is there anything your son or daughter is really sensitive about? Use what you learn to shape your conversation with other family members
  • Encourage your son or daughter to talk to their friends – shared experiences usually make jokey comments feel less personal and hurtful
  • Does your child have the courage to talk to the rest of the family about how their words make him or her feel?
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