Bullying: Reasons why kids don’t tell their parents

By Anne Collier

A lot of adults wonder why kids don’t often tell a parent or “trusted adult” they’re experience bullying, and what Aaron Cheese, 15, told his mom, finally, after years of dealing with it in silence, probably strikes a chord with a lot of young people: “He said it was that he didn’t want to bring that home. Like, he wanted to walk in the door and just be a normal, regular kid,” his mother, Jean Cheese, told NPR host Michel Martin. “And he also really kind of felt ashamed of how he was treated and was worried about how I would see it or how my husband would see and what our reaction to it would be.” Author and educator Rosalind Wiseman deconstructed that reasoning on a teen’s part a little further: “I think Aaron actually sums it up, that you want to put it behind you when you walk in the door. You want some peace. You want a way of looking at yourself in a different way, because you feel, when kids are bullying you, that that becomes your identity. And you want … a different way of being when you walk in the door.” That makes so much sense to me, too, as a parent. Just plain “home” is a refuge but also a space where the fray at school can drop away and where you see yourself in the eyes of people who just love you. Telling those people about it brings the pain and drama home, so the refuge goes away.

Researchers tell us, too, that, developmentally, adolescents typically feel they’re supposed to be working things out themselves, not running to an adult, but especially if they feel there’s any possibility the adult could overreact or act without them and make things worse in the tricky social milieu at school. Seattle-based Committee for Children offers more reasons. And the Youth Voice Project found, after surveying 12,000 students throughout the US, that the advice we adults typically give kids – e.g., “tell the person how you feel,” “walk away,” “tell the person to stop,” “pretend it doesn’t bother you” – did make things worse for the respondents “much more often than they made things better.” What helped? The survey found that, when an adult is brought in, the Top 3 most helpful things were “listened to me,” “gave me advice” on how to handle the situation, and “checked in with me afterwards to see if the behavior stopped” (here‘s my coverage). Very often that helper adult is someone at school.

The Top 3 ways friends or peers could help “Spent time with me,” “Talked to me,” and “Helped me get away.” And note this about peers: The Youth Voice Project authors found that “positive peer actions were strikingly more likely to be rated more helpful than were positive self actions or positive adult actions.” So if we want our children to involve us and if we want to help, our course of action seems quite clear: listen a lot, calmly, and collaborate with our children on developing a plan for dealing with the problem. If we go in “with guns blazing,” as Wiseman put it in a 2010 interview (see this), we really can make things worse for our kids – and we’ll only give them more reason to avoid adult intervention. [If parents want some sound, research-based guidance to share with their children’s schools, see “Bullying Prevention 101 for Schools: Dos and Don’ts” and “Implementing Bullying Prevention Programs in Schools: A How-To Guide” (both here), which a group of us prepared for Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the launch of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation.]

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