Why kids don't talk

Bullying can have a huge impact on children’s mental health and wellbeing. But kids can be reluctant to talk, and it’s not always an easy topic to discuss. Knowing why children clam-up and what adults can do about it can help change the conversation.

On this page:

Experienced guidance counsellor Nicole Macquet shares her tips on talking to kids about bullying. She has worked for 20 years as a teacher and school guidance counsellor, mediating with students, families and schools on wellbeing, including bullying issues. 

Reasons kids don’t talk

I’m not a 'nark' or 'snitch'

Most children being bullied just want it to stop. They don’t want to be labelled a ‘nark’ or ‘snitch’. To them that will make things worse and give another reason to be bullied.

Telling isn’t the same as narking or snitching. Narking/snitching is getting someone into trouble. Telling is the start of getting help. Adults can help children see the difference and reassure them that talking to someone they trust is the first step to feeling better and doing something to stop the bullying.

I’m scared parents will interfere and make it worse

It can be hard for parents, but marching off down to the school or confronting the family of the person bullying just confirms your child’s fears. For young people, it’s something else to deal with – now not only are they being bullied, they’re also ‘that kid’ whose parents ‘caused a scene’.

A good relationship with your child is critical to providing support. Reacting too quickly and getting angry can shut down communication and damage trust.

It’s private: I don’t want parents to know about school stuff

Bullying can make a person feel helpless and humiliated. Telling parents recreates the embarrassment over again. Young people are also scared that if they know, parents might think less of them.

It can also be about ownership and independence. Teenagers in particular often want to keep boundaries between friends and home. They may want to handle it on their own to feel in control again.

What you can do

Check they’re okay

Before leaping to solutions, check on how your child is feeling and how the bullying effects them.

If your child falls over, you see to cuts and grazes first, before fixing what they fell over or telling someone off for causing it. This is no different.

If your child is being bullied, check how they are hurting first and find out what they need. This lets them know they are heard and that it’s OK to feel what they feel. Reassure them that bullying is not their fault – bullying can happen to anyone, anywhere, for any reason.

Take a breath

As a parent, you might experience strong emotions about what you hear. This will cloud your thinking and you could be led by your own feelings. Take a breath, and try to remember this isn’t about you. Children can be overwhelmed by their emotions. As adults, it’s up to us to do the thinking.

Connect and listen

It’s really important to connect first. If your child isn’t communicating with you, do something you can enjoy together to remind them you care and that they can trust you. Putting in time to connect improves the chance of your child opening up to you.

Find out as much as you can about what happened and how they feel about it.

Ask curious questions like ‘help me understand…’, ‘tell me more…’, ‘what do you mean?’.

Let your child tell their own story and try not to jump to your own assumptions, or minimise a situation because it doesn’t seem that important to you. Show you understand and validate how they feel.

Ask your child what they want to do about it

It’s natural to want to protect your child, but it’s important not to jump in and fix the problem for them. Giving your child a chance to solve it first helps them regain some control.

They may not be adults yet, but young people in particular are the experts in their own lives and know their own situation best.

Ask questions that tap into their own knowledge and ideas:

  • "Who else could they ask for help?"
  • "What ideas do they have?"
  • "Was there an instance when the bullying didn’t happen, and what worked that time?"

Help them work out a plan that includes who else they can talk to, and ways to stay safe. Talk about how to approach the school or coach – even if they disagree, at least they’re involved in the decision and know what will happen next.

Think of helping them to deal with bullying like teaching them to drive their own car.

Pre-schoolers start as passengers, but are soon doing things for themselves and learning to drive. Depending on a child’s age or the situation, parents may use their own pedals or grab the steering wheel.

As children get older they drive their own car, whilst we give directions and help navigate. As adults, we can’t always be in their car, for example when they’re at school or with friends. Ultimately, every young person will need to make their own decisions and drive their own car.

Contact the Police if the bullying involves criminal behaviour, such as sexual assault or use of a weapon, or if the threat to your child’s safety is in the community rather than the school.

Checking in

Keep checking on your child and how things progress. If your meetings with school staff haven’t made the bullying stop, go back and talk to the principal. Follow-up on the steps that were agreed to at the meeting.