Why Victims of Bullying Often Suffer in Silence

upset girl in window
iStockphoto

When kids are victimized by a bully, there are often significant personal consequences including feelings of isolation and humiliation. And yet, many kids who are targeted don't tell anyone about the bullying.

Overview

The reasons for remaining silent are many and vary from person to person, but bullying is often scary and confusing, especially at first. This fact leaves most tweens and teens unsure of how to handle the situation. Many will keep bullying incidents to themselves while they try to figure out what they're going to do.

In fact, one report found that 64% of students who were bullied never told anyone about it. Even when injuries occurred, 40% of bullied students still never reported the incident. Here are a few reasons why kids may be hesitant to disclose that they are being bullied.

Shame and Embarrassment

Bullying is about power and control and being targeted can cause kids to feel powerless or weak. For many kids, this creates feelings of intense shame and embarrassment. If a kid is being bullied because of something they are already sensitive about like a physical attribute or an accusation about something they did, they will often be too embarrassed to talk about it.

To talk about the bullying would require them to highlight their "defect" to others. For some kids, the thought of bringing up the issue to an adult is worse than the bullying itself.

One survey found that 44% of students felt they were bullied because of the way they look and 16% felt they were targeted because of their race. Meanwhile, 14% of students felt they were bullied because students thought they were gay, 12% felt they were singled out because of being poor, and 7% felt they were bullied because of their disability. All of these scenarios are ones that kids are usually sensitive about and don't want to discuss.

Fear of Retaliation

Often, kids feel like reporting a bully won’t do any good. Not only do they feel powerless, but they also worry that the bully will only make their lives worse if they speak up. In fact, 40% of kids who are bullied report that the people who targeted them were bigger and physically stronger, while 56% report that those bullying them had the ability to influence other students' perceptions of them.

Many kids would rather try to weather the storm alone than risk escalating the problem. Sometimes, they even believe that if they keep quiet, the bullying will eventually end. If they do talk to an adult, it is often with the promise that they will not report the incidents or do anything about it.

Worry About Making It Worse

When you discover your child is being bullied, it's natural to respond with the desire to do something right away. But your tendency toward jumping in to fix problems may be the very reason why your kid hesitates to get you involved. Kids may fear parents will make a scene. To mitigate your kid's potential worry, it's important to temper your immediate reaction and not jump into action, particularly when it comes to contacting their school or other involved parties.

Instead, focus on trying to empower your child to develop a plan for addressing the bullying.

Ask them how they want to handle the situation and what they want you to do. If they prefer that you not say anything, honor their request. Unless the law is being broken, you need to let things progress at a rate that is comfortable for your child. Don't be the parent who posts on social media, calls the bully's parents, or causes a scene at the school. Doing so just compounds the situation for your child so now they must deal with the bullying and being the whose parent caused a scene.

Desire for Acceptance

Many times, kids feel like they need to accept occasional bullying in order to belong. As a result, they will succumb to peer pressure and accept bullying as a way to maintain their social standing. This mixture of peer pressure and bullying often exists in cliques.

Kids who are victimized often yearn for acceptance from the very people who are bullying them. In order to remain part of the group, they may tolerate fake friendships and mean behavior—especially if the person bullying them has a higher social standing than they do. In fact, 50% of students who are bullied ages 12 to 18 report that the people who bullied them have more social influence and 31% indicate that they also had more money.

Concern About Being Believed

Many times, bullies are the kids that teachers and parents would least suspect—the ones who are popular, do well in school, or have a high social standing in the community. Consequently, when these kids single out someone who is in trouble a lot, prone to storytelling, or has disciplinary issues, it is natural for the student being bullied to assume no one will believe them.

These kids are generally very aware of the fact that they are sometimes in trouble, and they are afraid that others will assume that they are lying or making it up. They may keep quiet because they believe opening up would not do any good—no one would believe them over this other, highly-favored student.

Worry About "Snitching"

Most bullying incidents occur when adults are not around such as in staircases, dark hallways, bathrooms, and locker rooms. In order to get help, the person being bullied either needs to tell someone or hope that a bystander reports the incident. Because no one wants to be labeled a rat or a tattletale, bullying frequently goes unreported. There is often this unspoken code of secrecy about the bullying; and as long as this code is in place, the bullying will continue.

Victims of bullying are often more afraid of being called a tattletale, a baby, a rat, or a snitch than they are about enduring more abuse, so they keep quiet.

In order to change this culture of secrecy around bullying, educators need to make sure they create an environment where reporting bullying is not only acceptable but expected. This also means that they need to be careful about how they handle reports of bullying including how they interact with students who report being harassed and mistreated.

Low Self-Esteem

Kids are often very aware of their faults. As a result, if someone zeroes in on one of those faults and uses it to taunt and tease them, many kids will automatically assume that they deserve the treatment. When a kid is overly self-critical or lacks self-esteem, they may find that they buy into the bully's taunts and, as a result, accept the poor treatment.

Failure to Recognize Bullying

Physical bullying is easy to recognize and therefore more likely to be reported. More subtle forms of bullying like relational aggression, on the other hand, are likely to go unlabeled and unreported. Kids may not realize that spreading rumors, ostracizing others, and sabotaging relationships are also forms of bullying.

For this reason, it's important that parents and educators talk to kids about what constitutes bullying. Make sure your kids know that healthy friendships and relationships involve mutual respect and support. Even subtle behaviors like teasing can morph into bullying.

Thinking It Won't Help

Despite all the progress with bullying prevention, there still is the underlying message that kids need to be tough during difficult situations. Many assume that adults won't help and/or fear that the adults in their lives will think poorly of them or be angry about the abuse they are experiencing. They may believe that adults expect them to handle the situation on their own.

Consequently, as kids get older, fewer and fewer report the bullying incidents they experience with only 39% of bullied high school students reporting the harassment and bullying they are experiencing.

Additionally, many schools fail to distinguish the difference between tattling and reporting. Instead, because they are busy trying to meet academic goals, they would prefer not to be bothered by bullying and encourage kids to handle all problems on their own. This can be especially troublesome if kids try to deal with potentially violent situations on their own.

Not Knowing How to Report

In cases involving cyberbullying, the person doing the bullying is often anonymous or unknown, so kids often don't know if reporting bullying will help make it stop. They also aren't sure how to report the bullying online through social media apps and internet service providers.

More than a quarter of the time, kids who are cyberbullied don't report the bullying or they assume there is nothing they can do about the online incidents.

Parents and educators need to teach kids how to effectively address and prevent cyberbullying including showing them how to report people who troll or cyberbully them. They also should talk to kids about blocking people online and utilizing privacy and security settings when using social media apps, games, and other online sites.

Fear of Losing Digital Access

When it comes to cyberbullying, most kids won’t admit they are being targeted because they are afraid their parents or teachers won’t allow them to use their electronic devices any longer.

If adults take away kids' access to computers or cell phones because they were bullied, this sends two messages: First, telling an adult is not worth it, and second, they are to blame because they are being punished.

Instead, addressing cyberbullying should involve keeping copies of the correspondence, blocking the offender, changing passwords or telephone numbers, and reporting the cyberbully. Try to increase your kid's safety and security online rather than taking away their technology. Social media, texting, and gaming are the primary ways in which kids connect to others. Restricting technology or taking away their phone only isolates them more.

A Word From Verywell

Because kids rarely tell an adult when they experience bullying, it's important that parents, teachers, and other caregivers are aware of the warning signs of bullying. For instance, kids may allude to bullying by saying there is a lot of drama at school, that kids are messing with them, or that they have no friends. These are all signs that they are experiencing one of the types of bullying.

If your kids confess to being a target, tell them you are proud of them for having the courage to talk about it. This reinforces that you value having an open dialogue about issues in their lives. It’s also important that you believe what your kids tell you and that you make a commitment to work with them to find solutions.

Also, keep your emotions in check. Getting upset, angry, or emotional will only stress out your child. Instead, remain calm and work together to make a plan. When kids feel like they have options, they are less likely to be overcome by negative feelings and emotions. Help your child find ways to respond to and overcome bullying.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Petrosino A, Guckenburg S, DeVoe J, Hanson T. What characteristics of bullying, bullying victims, and schools are associated with increased reporting of bullying to school officials?.  (Issues & Answers Report, REL 2010–No. 092). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Northeast and Islands. August 2010.

  2. Wolke D, Lereya ST. Long-term effects of bullying. Arch Dis Child. 2015;100(9):879-85.  doi:10.1136/archdischild-2014-306667

  3. Youth Truth Survey. How are students experiencing bullying?.

  4. Troop-Gordon W, Ladd GW. Teachers' victimization-related beliefs and strategies: Associations with students' aggressive behavior and peer victimization. J Abnorm Child Psychol. 2015;43(1):45-60.  doi:10.1007/s10802-013-9840-y

  5. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (stopbullying.gov). Facts about bullying. Updated August 12, 2020.

  6. Boulton MJ, Boulton L, Down J, Sanders J, Craddock H. Perceived barriers that prevent high school students seeking help from teachers for bullying and their effects on disclosure intentions. J Adolesc. 2017;56:40-51.  doi:10.1016/j.adolescence.2016.11.009

  7. Anti-Defamation League. Statistics on bullying.

  8. Cyberbullying Research Center. Tween cyberbullying in 2020.