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Tame a Teaser

Although 5-year-old Sarah Knox and her brother, Michael, 8, of North Hampton, NH, tease each other a lot, Michael's taunting has reached new heights. "He told Sarah that her Barbies come alive at night," says their mom, Carolyn. "The poor kid couldn't sleep."

Siblings just can't seem to help tormenting each other. At ages 5 and 6, they'll typically use silly names, sight gags, and insults to goad each other on. By age 8, they may indulge in more sophisticated verbal barbs, even experimenting with sarcasm. If your second-grader quips, "Oh, you're sooo lucky, getting to take your teddy bear to the movies!" to her little brother, you can pretty much bet that she means "You're such a dork."

Hearing your kids poke fun at each other may drive you nuts, but the more playful kind of banter isn't so bad for kids. In fact, it gives them a chance to test out social rules and exercise their sense of humor, explains Nancy Mullin-Rindler, director of the Project on Teasing and Bullying at Wellesley College. But since teasing can be hurtful, here are some ways to keep it fun:

• Forget the litany of what's morally wrong with teasing. Instead, focus on social consequences. For instance, remind a teaser that her little brother may be more willing to share his Game Boy if she's nice.

• Don't force an apology. Instead, teach better behavior. If the teasing turns mean, separate the kids until the tormentor can think of a way to make his sibling feel good again. (Help him come up with something if he is  -- or acts• stumped.)

• Cut them off before they get going. Start giving them a stock response when it gets out of hand: Sing the Barney "I Love You" song or launch into a "When I was your age" story. They'll back down just to get you to stop.

• Know when to step in. If you feel the teasing's gone over the edge and isn't in jest anymore, it could be time to institute some type of consequence. Explain why you're canceling a playdate or an outing, then follow through.