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My parents were loving and supportive, but I never told them about the relentless bullying I faced in school. It's not unlikely that your child wouldn't either. Why, and how do you recognize the signs of bullying?

My parents were loving, supportive, and very progressive for their time — they were totally onboard with my interest in "ungirly" things like judo and woodworking. They were, in short, pretty great parents. So why didn't I tell them anything when I was relentlessly bullied, verbally and physically, at school for three years?

Decades on, I'm still not sure. As I set out to discover why children who are bullied make this choice, it immediately became clear that I'm far from unique. One paper noted that "it appears that adults are aware of only a small amount of the bullying behavior found in school", and it went on to find that only a meagre 14 percent of children (whether bullied or not) believe that adult intervention would make bullying stop. [1] That leaves us with one question: why?

Why Don't Victims Of School Bullying Tell Their Parents?

"It might be because a lot of parents simply tell their children to toughen up," a coworker immediately commented when we discussed the topic, noting that this is exactly what had happened to her brother. Research indeed found that "some parents viewed different forms of bullying as more serious than others and were more likely to respond to their child’s victimization if it escalated into physical forms" [2]. This means that some parents may brush their child's nightmare off with suggestions like "ignore them" and "they're just jealous", even if they don't get the dreaded "toughen up" spiel. 

Some kids are actually afraid their parents will punish them for being bullied, and that brings us to a closely-connected reason; the fear of looking weak and helpless [3]. 

In my case, I think my mother's health problems were a large piece of the not-telling puzzle; I simply didn't want to bother my parents, who already had so much going on. There may also, however, have been an element of fear that my dad would have blown up and did something... violent to my tormentors, which might have made the bullying worse, and I also didn't want them to be physically hurt.

A rarely discussed reason not to tell is the child's ability to temporarily shed the role that has been pushed onto them at school, and to simply be themselves. Determined to keep it that way, they never speak of their victimization. In adolescence, many victims of bullying have also come to the conclusion that they ought to be able to deal with their own problems. [4]  Alternatively, their self-esteem may have been so damaged that they don't believe anyone would care or tha they deserve help, too. [3] What's more, in the case of cyberbullying, some children are even reluctant to inform their parents about what is happening because they fear their internet access could be taken away. [5]

The study above indicating that only a small percentage of children believe that adults could be helpful in stopping bullying gives us a glimpse into yet another reason kids don't tell — they don't think it'll make a difference.

There may be as many reasons for not telling parents about bullying as there are bullied children who don't tell their parents. The question is what this means for parents. If your child may not tell you when they face bullying at school, how can you learn when there is a problem?

Signs A Child Is Being Bullied

The US initiative Stop Bullying quite accurately notes that there won't always be identifiable signs of bullying, but then goes on to offer up some possible red flags that take me right down memory lane [6]:

  • "Unexplainable injuries" — well nope, I just lied about how I acquired them, and that did the trick. (I did play judo.) Pay attention to frequent bruises and injuries even if your child does have a plausible explanation!
  • Things going missing — books, whole backpacks, money, electronics... anything. I distinctly remember this time I borrowed an expensive jacket from my mother, and how sad and angry she was when I "lost" it. I'd actually hung it up where jackets were supposed to go that morning, but found it cut up and in the toilet (!!!) at the end of the day. 
  • The child repeatedly has headaches or stomachaches when they have to go to school. Fear and dread can cause physical symptoms!
  • Changes in behavior, whether eating habits, nightmares, social withdrawal, declining grades, and many others. You may notice some of these, but not all of them. 

I think I'd add never talking about friends or bringing friends home as another possible sign of bullying. 

Also remember that there are risk factors for becoming a bully target, any child can face bullying — even those who were previously popular in school. Finding themselves in a completely new environment may pose a special risk, so pay attention if your child is moving schools.

How To Have Good Conversations About Bullying At Home

As a parent, you can't change the existing culture, human nature, or the factors that lead individual bullies to bully. What you can do is have open conversations with your child, and create a family culture of openness from an early age. Being a warm, loving parent who doesn't use aggression will go a long way toward preventing your child from becoming a bully (see: What makes a school bully?). It will also foster your child's self esteem, which may slightly reduce your child's odds of becoming a victim. [7] If you're reading this, you're probably doing all of that already. 

Since many children decide to keep the fact that they are bullied to themselves, those open conversations might include you saying that your child can tell you if they encounter bullying. Tell them that it can happen to anyone, doesn't make the victim weak, and may require adult intervention. At the same time, also tell your child that, while you would never tell them to simply "toughen up", you'll also not freak out and take actions you haven't thoroughly thought out.

Research shows that children of parents who encourage their children to stand up for others when they see bullying, and to comfort victims, are more likely to do so than children of parents who tell them to stay out of it [8]. While this comes as no surprise at all, it does show that taking the time to have these conversations can promote a culture of kindness. 

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