Sticks and Stones: When Name-Calling Becomes Bullying

March 8, 2019

By Marisa Gooch

Like many kids growing up, I had crooked teeth. And when I say crooked, I mean that the inside of my mouth looked like how a puzzle would if you crammed all its pieces together without checking to make sure the edges lined up.

As a result, I underwent five years of orthodontic work—five torturous years of having metal pieces glued to my teeth and sharp tools shoved in my mouth. To make the matter worse, I was cursed with an underbite, so headgear became my bedfellow. It was a nightmare.

You should have seen my classmates’ faces and heard their laughs when they found out that I wore headgear. From that point on, I was known as brace face, headgear girl, and weirdo. Even my friends, who probably meant no harm, called me those things. While I laugh about those names now, I can assure you that I wasn’t laughing about them back then.

Name-calling is an activity that often rests in the grey zone. It can be used as a form of playful teasing, and it can also be used as a form of bullying, whether or not the person calling names intends to be malicious and cruel.

If name-calling isn’t black or white, how can you draw a clear line for your children to help them avoid crossing it? When does playful name-calling go too far to the point that it is bullying, and what should you do as the parent of a child who is bullied in this way?

Let’s explore the nature of name-calling and what to do if your child is the recipient of it.

Calling Names to Tease

Name-calling is a form of teasing, or in other words, friendly provocation. According to A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, teasing is a “peculiar combination of friendliness and antagonism. . . . It is not meant seriously and must not be taken seriously.”

Many people use name-calling every day. Friends call each other silly names to bring humor to a situation. Similarly, parents call their children names to playfully get a rise out of them. Take my dad, for example. If I ever told my dad that I was hungry, he would shake my hand and say “Nice to meet you, Hungry.” While this drove me crazy as a little girl, it never came off as something offensive. Instead, it was a sign that my dad loved me.

This form of name-calling is considered prosocial teasing because it offers social benefits. Other examples of prosocial teasing are using name-calling to show acceptance and to control behavior. In other words, you name-call to 1) call out someone’s flaws in a playful way so he or she doesn’t feel the need to hide them and 2) offer positive criticism in a non-threatening way to control or alter someone’s behavior.

Name-calling as a form of playful teasing is not intended to be offensive. If done correctly, it can demonstrate love and acceptance and can shape someone’s mannerisms in a positive and safe way.

Calling Names to Bully

When a person’s name-calling habits provoke pain or suffering (whether intentional or not), the person is no longer playfully teasing; rather, he or she is bullying. This type of name-calling is often a continual activity and is considered antisocial behavior because it causes the victim to feel trapped, judged, threatened, or even suicidal.

Not only does this form of verbal abuse offend, but it also can lower someone’s self-esteem and create psychological issues within the person being bullied. According to a study performed by Harvard Medical School, those who experienced verbal abuse as children had underdeveloped connections between the right and left sides of their brain. In addition, they had higher levels of anxiety, depression, anger, and other negative emotions compared to the participants in the study who hadn’t experienced verbal abuse.

It is important to realize that kids aren’t the only ones who use name-calling as a form of bullying; parents do it too, sometimes unintentionally.

This can ruin communication, cause your children to feel isolated, and produce prolonged suffering for years to come. Always take note of how your children react to what you say. Sometimes, what seems like a playful tease to you may come off as an abusive remark to them.

How to Help Your Child Combat Name-Calling

It’s inevitable: your child will probably be called a name or two once or twice in life. When this happens, take the opportunity to teach your child the difference between playful name-calling and verbally abusive name-calling.

If your young daughter comes home from school sad because her friend Jake called her a name, don’t brush it off. Instead, ask for details. Did your daughter feel that Jake’s tone came off as malicious? Can she think of something that may have provoked Jake to use that word? Why were her feelings hurt? Asking questions will help you understand the situation better so that you know how to handle it.

If it seems that Jake was trying to be nice or was playfully teasing, help your daughter understand. You can explain that it was meant as a term of endearment: he used the name to emphasize a shared joke or connection. But, if it appears that Jake was intentionally being mean, encourage your daughter to ask him to stop, and if he doesn’t, to let you know. Young children don’t have a complete grasp of social cues, so doing these things will help your child understand when something is appropriate and when something isn’t.

On a larger scale, if your child is called names such as fat, stupid, or ugly, help your child realize that people bully as a way to forget their own struggles. Use positive language around your child to help him or her feel valued. If the bullying continues, contact his or her school and consider seeking therapeutic help to prevent long-term negative effects.

Although the line between teasing and bullying is foggy for some families, it doesn’t have to be that way for yours. Teach your children that playful name-calling demonstrates love and acceptance and that malicious name-calling is intended to threaten, hurt, or isolate an individual. As you help your child learn the social consequences of the different forms of name-calling, you can help him or her avoid crossing the line from what is acceptable to what is not.   


Marisa is a writer and editor who lives in sunny Southern California. Her favorite hobbies include listening to podcasts, hiking in the hills behind her house, and attempting to surf alongside her husband who has years of experience.

Photo by Verne Ho on Unsplash

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