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Bullying: Reasons why kids don’t tell their parents

This article was originally published June 11, 2012, then my service’s server crashed, losing months of data. So reposting 10/2/12.

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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  1. Elaine Ellis #

    I can so clearly identify with much of what this article is trying to say. Good on you for tackling the tricky issue, and having the bravery to ask why so many bullied children fail to tell their parents, a teacher, or another adult. This subject is so very rarely broached, and nobody seems to want openly to discuss why it happens. Thanks for bringing it into the open.
    I was bullied at School. The bullying went on for years (literally! swallowing up vast gulps of my life). It started in Primary School, continued at Secondary School and hit crisis at Sixth Form. I am now an adult (42 years of age) and I can recall the bullying as clearly now, as if it were yesterday. I can see the bullies; their faces; hear their words, and know all their names by heart!
    The bullying I endured was complex, and for complex reasons – and I think telling you something about it may serve to highlight why many children do not seek help, and just suffer in silence.
    I have a parent with mental health problems (Bi Polar Disorder), and as a result, home life was complicated, and my parents stressed. Clearly, respite was needed. The Local Education Authority therefore arranged for me to start full time at Primary School a year early (aged 3). I was a very academic, advanced child for my age – reading, writing and doing basic arithmetic long before starting school – and had already had a full time place at a Nursery School for quite some time. Evidently, the assessors, and teachers at the School I was to attend, thought I should be able to cope. They were right (at first) – I thrived! I easily kept up academically with children a year older than me.
    Sadly, the School then made the decision that it would be best for me to be with children of the same age. They did not think it appropriate for me to advance to Secondary School a year ahead of my peers. So, I was “held back” a year! I recall this time only as very boring. Re-doing a whole School year for something that is not one’s own fault is very frustrating. I was not allowed to read in front of the teacher, as I had completed all the School’s Keystage Reading Materials, and staff wanted other children to “catch me up” (as they put it). I was also left alone for lots of time, getting no time or attention from the teacher. Sometimes, the teacher would use me as a free “assistant” – getting me to hold cards up for the class to read from, or writing sums on the board for them to do.
    Thus I was branded “Teacher’s Pet” – and it stuck! Forever afterwards, I would be taunted for my academic ability. To make it worse, word got about of my parent’s mental illness, and I would get called names. Children would accuse me of cheating, and say things like “You can’t be that clever, your parent is a nutter” or “I bet you have a tutor”. I DID NOT EVER have a tutor; AND I deeply resent the assumption that somebody having mental health problems also makes them unintelligent. IT DOES NOT. A celebrity example is Stephen Fry – he has Bi Polar, and he is a GENIUS.
    I missed nearly two years of School due to having surgery for a health condition I’d had from birth. This made things far worse, as the School just expected me to catch up, and keep up once I returned. There was little extra support. When I returned to School, fortunately I had not fallen behind, and this lead to even more false accusations of “cheating” or of being “home tutored”. One year, I was dragged into School to attend the annual “Prize Day”, even though I was officially still signed off, and in a wheelchair at the time. This was very humiliating, as I had to sit through a ceremony that meant nothing to me – I’d missed all that year’s schooling. Worse, I NEVER got awarded a prize at the School, despite coming top in things like spelling and reading, and competing on behalf of the School in things like public speaking. My parents asked the School about this unfair treatment, and were told, “We cannot be seen to give preferential treatment to your daughter, because of your family circumstances.” So, my hard work was denied recognition.
    The bullying was rarely stopped by teachers. On one occasion, fibreglass was shoved down the back of my clothes. The teacher did intervene – I recall being taken into School, and a spare School uniform being taken out of a brown box for me to wear for the rest of the day. Hardly appropriate! Mostly, the name-calling and insults were not dealt with. On another occasion, a boy in class tried to pull a chair from under me as I sat down. In shock, I shouted at him. The disgusting thing is, that it was ME who got told off by the teacher, and not the boy! I was sent to the Headmaster for being noisy and disruptive in class!
    It might interest you to know that the teacher responsible for failing to look after me in this last incident, also knew that my parent had a mental illness. This teacher, herself, regularly picked on me. She would put unpleasant comments on my report cards, which did not make any sense. I would get an A grade, but she would write “could try harder”. How do you get better than A, if A is the top grade? If one of my friends misbehaved, I would get blamed too. The teacher would say things like “Oh, you MUST be the ringleader – you are the cleverest”.
    Another thing I noted, is that I would have people who were “friends” inside School, but who did not want to be seen associating with me outside School. It felt as though the fact of my parent’s illness somehow made me “tainted”.
    Secondary School was worse. The bullying followed me, but now also came from a group of girls I had thought were my friends. A lot of it was again about my grades. Having done well in the Eleven Plus exam, I was placed in the top group at School – my friends were not. Again, I was teased for being a “swot”, “nerd”, “geek” or “teacher’s pet”. I was quite into Emo/Goth type music, so I also got called “weirdo” a lot, as well as taunted for being a “witch” or a “vampire”. Worse still, all my family have dark, mediterranean colouring, so I got called “gippo” and “pikey”, too.
    My friends often seemed to want to ostracise me from their group, and it became clear they talked behind my back. However, they also got very “possessive” – if I made a new friend, they got jealous, and tried to bully that person, too.
    Increasingly, the bullying focussed on two things – my academic grades, and my looks. I have never been a very self-confident person, so being told I was “ugly” or “flat chested” I believed it. It also really knocked my confidence to be picked on for getting good grades. It makes you feel as if you can do nothing right – even something that another kid would be proud of, causes YOU shame!
    The worst incident was when I confided in my friends that I had a crush on a boy at School. One girl in the group (the main bully, it seems) went and approached the boy, and brought him over. She thought it was hilarious, telling him my secret crush. To make things worse, the boy in question was a couple of years older, took one look at me and said dismissively, “Her, fancy me? Does she f***!” I got the impression he thought me such a baby, that I wouldn’t dare have a crush on anyone – I wasn’t old enough. Everybody was looking at me like I should still be in nappies!
    The bullying also spread outside School, and lots of name calling took place in the street. One “friend” decided, after hearing that I was to be in a more academic group than her, that she did not wish to be my friend any more. She told me so – publicly humiliating me in front of all our other friends. She made it out to sound as though I was at fault for being “swotty” and “snobby”. When I tried to explain to her that this was not true, and I still wanted to be her friend, she refused to give any further reasons for her decision. Afterwards, she would make a point of ignoring me. She made it clear to all her new friends that she had stopped being friends with me because “I was not as pretty as her” and this was “embarrassing”. The number of times I heard girls infer that I was plain or unattractive just makes me feel sick!
    By Sixth Form, I was so miserable that I had allowed my grades to fall (it all felt like too much effort). I was scared of doing well, just as much as I was afraid to do badly! I thought if I did anything that drew attention to me, it would lead to more bullying. The few friends I had were also targets for bullies, most of them being other girls (and a few boys) who were seen as “geeky”, “weird”, “Goth”, “swotty” or “unattractive”. At the time, I actually got on better with lads than I did with girls – they seemed to accept me as some sort of “tomboy”, as much of what I was “into” included motorbikes, Indie and Rock Music, rally driving and custom cars (a friend had an old Capri that he was renovating so he could take it on hill climbing races!). Most girls I knew were into make-up, shoes and handbags. They judged me as “not pretty enough” for that!
    I tended to miss a lot of classes, and most of my friends were far older – people I know from going to a local Rock Club underage. I accept that my behaviour may have looked very rebellious. Alas, deliberate bad behaviour was far from the case. I would NEVER have done anything criminal, nor would I have harmed another person, or animals. I was only a harm to myself! My changed appearance, slovenly dress, and couldn’t care less attitude were more a cry for help. I thought that somebody might notice, and ask questions.
    Truth is, I did not know how to seek help the right way. I was scared to go to teachers, in case I was not believed, or in case they took action that actually made the bullies more angry. Besides, I had never found teachers to be supportive at any particular time; quite the CONTRARY. THEY seemed to look down on me for my family’s problems, and my parent’s mental illness, just as much as any bullying child did!
    Worse still, because the bullying was done mainly by girls who had been counted originally as part of my circle of friends, it was very hard to “tell on them”. As children we seem to devote a lot of our trust and loyalty to our friends – perhaps a disproportionate amount, in relation to their own actions. There seems to be an unwritten “code of conduct” that suggests it is “wrong” to “snitch on a friend”. Thus, my bullies having once been my friends, how could I end the friendship and go tell on them, without this action actually bringing more grief? Would anyone actually BELIEVE that my FRIENDS were also my BULLIES?
    When you are bullied, you begin to think YOU have done something wrong. Something that caused it. This means that you are very reluctant to get help, because then you have to explain the bullying. You worry that somebody might actually believe YOU were at fault. You worry that they will ask you questions, about what you did to start it. You worry that you will feel ashamed, and embarrassed, or upset – and that you may cry. You worry that people will dismiss you as a “telltale” and a “crybaby”. You’ve possibly been called these things already – by your bullies!
    One final note as to why I would not have gone to teachers for support – and this is perhaps the hardest for some people to hear, and accept… Teachers, just like all the rest of us, have PREJUDICES. They can be guilty of STEREOTYPING. When you are the “Goth” kid, or the “Emo” kid, or the “Indie” kid; in fact, any child who stands out as a little different; it’s a sad thing, but teachers can sometimes be inclined to label YOU as a problem. For some reason, adults appear to have an inbuilt fear of any child who acts or dresses differently, which leads them to categorise the child as a “risk” or a “threat” or a “nuisance”. All too often “naughty” behaviour is stereotypically linked with the teenager who dresses in black, or the “tomboy”, or the “rough-and-tumble” lad. This attribution is often made long before any adult has truly got to know the child, and their real nature. In my experience, Religious Schools are often the worst culprits. They seem to have made the assumption that any of their pupils who dresses in black, or listens to rock music, has somehow sold their soul to the Devil! “Good children” are blonde, blue-eyed, and wear pastel colours!
    As to why I would not have told my parents… well, many of the above explanations apply. However, to tell your parents that you are being bullied is a huge thing! It is charged with emotion, for a start. Even some of the most dysfunctional parents would still find it difficult to turn a blind eye to the bullying of their own child.
    Bullying induces all sorts of awful feelings in the victim. Fear, failure, fear of failure. Guilt. Fear of blame. Loss. Anger. Bewilderment. Suspicion. Loss of trust. Shame. Humiliation. Embarrassment. Sometimes also rebellion and defiance. I know I felt all of these and more.
    How do you approach any adult, even your parents, feeling like this? You feel simply DREADFUL, and often wish you just weren’t there. Or that things could go back to the way they were before the bullying. So… the last thing you want to do is talk, possibly in detail, about it with our parents. You don’t want to be reminded. What if, by being bullied, you have LET THEM DOWN?
    Some children, like me, are brought up by old-fashioned parents who don’t talk much about emotional matters. My father, in particular, was someone I could never have told fully about my bullying. His attitude to growing up was this… “You are a big girl now, stop being a baby, sort it out for yourself”. He was also of the mindset that “if someone hits you, hit them back”. NOT good advice for the bullying victim.
    Both my parents had a very much “don’t bring your problems and issues to us” attitude. Perhaps they had enough of their own? They were distant and emotionally unavailable, and thus gave the impression that I was to deal with my own affairs from a pretty young age. I suspect that when there are problems in a family – parental disability or illness, unemployment, substance misuse, financial troubles – it creates this sort of atmosphere. The parents become self-absorbed, and too wrapped up in their own troubles to be bothered much about their kids.
    The other thing is, that even as a child, I sensed “something wrong” in my family, and feared causing more trouble. I would have bent over backwards to please my parents – hence my obsession with pressuring myself into always getting high grades. I feared letting them down, upsetting or annoying them. Children are highly emotionally astute – they pick up on things going on around them that adults might think they are utterly unaware of. Having a “poorly parent” whom I felt protective of, I was often on the defensive. So, to tell my parents I was being bullied felt “wrong”.
    It meant burdening them with a problem that was “mine” and not “theirs”. It meant adding an extra issue to a household that already had issues. It meant causing distress to a poorly parent.
    I was also very frightened that my “uptight” parents (for that is how they always seemed to me) would dramatically overreact – something they had a habit of doing. I knew from experience that trying to tell my parents something of a sensitive nature would be awkward, and might end in an argument. They seemed often to get “the wrong end of the stick”, and I was afraid of being misinterpreted. I was also afraid of being ignored, if they were “too busy”. I was afraid of being shouted at, if they were already in a bad mood. There is NEVER really a “right time” to tell your parents you are being bullied.
    The biggest fear I had was that they would go into School and formally complain, and cause an almighty row. Both my parents can be very abrupt at times – they are true “say it as you see it” people. They do not procrastinate, they do not mince words. Alas, they are not always tactful.
    I can only assume that there is never a good way of telling your School that you are being bullied. I can imagine, however, that once it has escalated to parental involvement, the School sees this as particularly bad. What they see as bad, they can also see as threatening, and damaging to the School reputation and image. Therefore, some Schools may not take kindly to parents who report to them that their child is being bullied. I suspect this is why so many Schools like to take the well-rehearsed line of “we do not tolerate bullying” and “we have a strong anti-bullying policy”. It’s to placate parents. Schools like this seem to think that just saying they have a policy is ENOUGH. (How and whether it operates is a different matter, that they DON’T want to discuss, if they can help it).
    Much more needs to be done to help the victims of bullying. It destroys confidence and self-esteem. It destroys lives. Much more also needs to be done to help society learn about the different types of bullying, its triggers, the reasons why bullies act as they do, the ways and the reasons why they select victims. Part of what we need to do is learn to understand why children are reluctant to tell adults about being bullied. We need to make it easier, safer, and therefore more likely that they they will do so in future.

    July 23, 2013

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