Bullying often takes place right underneath our noses, without parents or teachers ever knowing about the torment a child is experiencing. Statistics show that as many as 70-80 percent of kids will never open up to anyone about their experiences, choosing instead to suffer through it alone. So if you want a child who feels free to discuss these issues with you, knowing why kids may be reluctant to talk about bullying is the first step in getting them to open up.
“Girls will almost always withdraw instead of telling a parent.”
– Claire, age 14 (Wiseman, 2009, p. 36)
Reasons why kids don’t disclose bullying
There are a number of reasons for why kids don’t readily talk about bullying:
1. They may not talk about bullying because they don’t know what to say
Many covert forms of bullying can be difficult to put into words, and children may not know how to explain it to others. Even grown adults in verbally abusive relationships frequently have a difficult time explaining their predicament to others in ways that make sense. (Evans, 1993) As one woman writes, “I even feel when I am trying to tell someone that I am being verbally abused that I don’t know where to start, it seems so trivial when you talk about it. There are no visible scars. So how can someone know what is being done to me?” (Ibid, pp. 116-117) If it’s a struggle for adults, imagine the difficulties for a child or adolescent. While physical bullying may be relatively straightforward to talk about (“I got pushed into my locker”), bullying that takes the form of emotional abuse is often difficult for the child to quantify into words. Each incident in itself may seem trivial or insignificant, but taken as a whole; it forms a pattern of abuse that makes a child’s world a living hell.
2. Kids may not disclose because bullying can seem routine
In a sad testament about the climate in American schools, many kids are not inclined to report bullying simply because they perceive it as a completely normal and routine aspect of their school day. Garbarino & deLara (2002, p. 21) write that “because the everyday environment of adolescents is filled with gossip, name-calling, and several forms of harassment, it is often difficult for them to pinpoint which behaviors have created the bad feelings they are experiencing. …Kids, like adults, do not come home and report what they see as mundane or usual. This is true even for kids with the most receptive parents.”
3. They may not tell you for fear that you’ll over-react
Mom would freak out. I know she’d want to make a huge ruckus at school. Dad might take away my Facebook account if he found out I’m being cyberbullied. They’d just stir things up and make it twice as bad for me. I’d never be able to show my face at school again. I’d be labeled a snitch. It would just upset my father.
These are just some of the things that run through a teenager’s mind when they contemplate whether or not to trust an adult with this information. “How parents have reacted to information in the past and how accepting and warm they are, in general, are likely to influence disclosure.” (Kerr and Stattin, 2000) It’s a risk-benefit assessment, and kids have to trust that you’ll help without losing your composure or making things worse for them.
4. Many kids believe that nothing can be done about bullying
In surveys and discussions, teens repeatedly express the belief that nothing can be done about bullying, and that adults couldn’t do anything to improve their situation no matter how hard they tried. Others have come to the conclusion that adults really don’t care about them and have no desire to help. They form this conclusion based on their own particular observations, even though teachers and parents may not agree with this assessment and certainly aren’t intending to send this message. Either way, it’s a disparaging situation when teens believe that adults can’t (or won’t) help, or that even those in authority are powerless to stop it.
5. Some families train children to suppress their emotions
Many parents raise their children to suppress or hide their emotions, both directly and indirectly. Kids grow up being told that “big girls don’t cry” or “words shouldn’t hurt you” or “grow some skin.” Any child who grows up hearing such things is not going to be forthcoming about abuse they are suffering at school.
6. Kids may be discouraged or shut down when they try to tell
Children often make attempts to tell someone, but are discouraged halfway through the process because it either doesn’t seem like they’re being understood or because it doesn’t feel like the adult is listening or that the discussion will get them anywhere. One man writes that “I tried to tell my mum, but she didn’t seem to understand. Telling made no difference and I decided not to try again because it would have hurt her to know how bad it was for me.” (Kidscape, 1999, p. 6)
7. Kids don’t disclose because they care about what you think of them
“Hey, mom and dad. I just wanted to tell you that I’m a loser and nobody likes me.” How comfortable does this conversation sound? Bullying isn’t just painful, it’s embarrassing. Kids are ashamed that they’re being targeted by their peers. As one 16-year-old girl states, “Targets don’t want to tell their parents because they don’t want their parents to think they’re a loser or a nobody.” (Wiseman, 2009, p. 35) Just as everyone wants to be beautiful, we all want to be popular and liked by others. Unfortunately, this is also a revealing example of how kids will often think the bullying is about them and interpret it to mean they are of a flawed character.