Teasing, Humiliation, and Support

My sixteen-year-old foster son had been through a hard afternoon and hadn't been able to pay undivided attention to the dinner he was cooking. The result wasn't up to his (very high) standards, and he couldn't stop telling us how terrible it was. Since the rest of us genuinely thought it tasted fine, we kept trying to reassure him. But the more we reassured, the more he criticized himself and the more depressed he looked. Finally, realizing that this approach simply was not working, I changed tactics--and teased.

After living through the humiliation and pain of childhood teasing, I vowed that, as a parent, I would never tease my children. I'm glad that I've tried hard in that direction, and am more than a little surprised to find myself starting to get intrigued by the possibilities.

Most of it I can still do without. When the teaser is trying to relieve some of his or her own discomfort by unloading it on someone else (the child who calls names, the adult who is embarrassed around a child and can only relate by making jokes at his expense) the result is rarely of use to anybody. Sometimes teasers just know that they can get a person embarrassed if they do or say certain things, and the impulse seems irresistible. If the caring is obvious and the subject is light, this can end up as a delightful opportunity for everybody to laugh. But often the embarrassment is deeper, and even if the target person laughs painfully along, the impulse wasn't thoughtfulness, and the result is humiliation.

But there's a new kind of teasing (for me) that's quite different, based on helping somebody we love when they're putting themselves down. It involves offering them a laughable caricature of the negative things that they are already feeling, in a way that loosens the hold of those negative messages.

So I stopped trying to reassure my son and announced to him that I really thought the dinner was pretty yukky myself. The younger two were very surprised, so I explained to them that their brother looked so lonely being the only one who hated the meal that I thought I'd join him.

Then I started to complain about everything. "Even the water tastes bad. Surely if you'd paid more attention it would have come out better." A little smile appeared for a moment in the corner of his mouth. He continued to eat, explaining that he had to keep his strength up no matter how it tasted. I expressed amazement at his strength of will to be able to put that kind of stuff into his mouth and suggested that we bring in the garbage next. The smile spread to his whole face.

As we started the dishes he talked to me about what he would have liked to have done with the scalloped potatoes and I agreed that that would make them even better next time. His good spirits back, we had a companionable and animated time doing the rest of the dishes.

What made this teasing work? I'd let him know that I'd appreciated his dinner, that I was liking him at that minute. All I was doing was taking over the voice that had filled up his head--taking it over without either taking it seriously or disrespecting him--so that he had the space to consider a different perspective. I was thrilled to pull it off, felt very useful, and look forward to more.