Why Victims of Bullying Often Suffer in Silence

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Kids who are targeted by a bully often face significant personal challenges, including feelings of isolation and humiliation. Anxiety, fear, and low self-esteem are also common. Even so, many victims of bullying don't tell anyone about the problem.

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

One report found that 54% of students who were bullied didn't report it to an adult at school. 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; being targeted can cause kids to feel powerless or weak. For many kids, this dynamic creates feelings of intense shame and embarrassment.

Sometimes kids are bullied because of something they are already sensitive about, such as a physical attribute. In other cases, the mistreatment may take the form of an accusation about something they did. In either instance, they will often be too embarrassed to discuss it with anyone.

Talking 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; 16% felt they were targeted because of their race. Meanwhile, 14% of students felt they were bullied because of their sexual orientation.

Twelve percent felt they were singled out because of being poor and 7% felt they were bullied because of a disability. All of these scenarios are ones that kids are usually sensitive about and may not want to discuss.

Fear of Retaliation

Often, kids feel like reporting a bully won’t make a difference. Not only do they feel powerless, but they also worry that the bully will only make their lives worse if they speak up.

Among kids who are bullied, 40% 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 prefer to weather the storm alone than risk escalating the problem. They may 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 the adult will not report the incidents or take other action.

Worries of Making It Worse

When you discover your child is being bullied, it's natural to respond with immediate action. 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, try to let things progress at a rate that is comfortable for your child. Don't post on social media, call the bully's parents, or cause a scene at school. Doing so just compounds the situation for your child; now they must deal with bullying and being the one 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 between the ages of 12 and 18 who have been bullied report that the bully had more social influence. In addition, 31% indicate that they had more money.

Concern About Being Believed

Many times, bullies are the kids that teachers and parents would least suspect. They may be popular, do well in school, or have a high standing in the community.

Consequently, when these kids single out a victim who is often in trouble, prone to storytelling, or has disciplinary issues, it's natural for the student being bullied to assume no one will believe them. They may be afraid that others will assume that they are lying or making it up.

Worry About "Snitching"

Most bullying incidents occur when adults are either absent or not close enough to witness the behavior.

According to the National Bullying Prevention Center, "bullied students reported that bullying occurred in the following places: the hallway or stairwell at school (43%), inside the classroom (42%), in the cafeteria (27%), outside on school grounds (22%), online or by text (15%), in the bathroom or locker room (12%), and on the school bus (8%)."

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 an unspoken code of secrecy about bullying among peer groups. 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 of enduring ongoing abuse, so they keep quiet.

In order to change the 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 should be careful about how they handle reports of bullying.

One 2020 study noted the following responses from adults when tweens told them about being bullied: "the adult responded irrationally, conferred blame and criticism, didn’t take the time to understand the context or empathize, or was apathetic and dismissive." All of these can be barriers to kids reporting bullying to adults.

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 child 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. This can have devastating and lasting effects on their self-image.

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. Even subtle behaviors like teasing can morph into 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.

Thinking It Won't Help

Despite recent progress with bullying prevention, the underlying message that kids need to be tough during difficult situations still prevails. Many assume that adults won't help or they fear that the adults in their lives will think poorly of them due to the abuse they are experiencing.

They may also 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 harassment and bullying they are experiencing.

Many schools fail to distinguish between tattling and reporting.

Instead, because they are busy trying to meet academic goals, school staff would prefer not to be bothered by bullying, encouraging kids to handle all problems on their own. This can be especially troublesome if students try to deal with potentially violent situations without help.

Not Knowing How to Report

In cases involving cyberbullying, the person doing the bullying is often anonymous or unknown, so kids don't know if reporting bullying will 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 cyberbullying. This includes showing them how to report people who troll or cyberbully them.

Adults should also talk to kids about blocking bullies online. Teaching how to utilizing privacy and security settings when using social media apps, games, and other online sites is also important.

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 take steps toward increasing 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. For instance, kids may hint that they are being bullied by saying there is 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 they're facing. 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.

While it can be difficult, try to keep your emotions in check. Instead, remain calm and work with your child to make a plan. When kids feel as if they have options, they are less likely to be overwhelmed with negative feelings.

10 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.
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  2. U.S. Department of Education. Student reports of bullying: Results from the 2017 School Crime Supplement to the National Crime Victimization Survey.

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

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

  5. 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

  6. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. StopBullying.gov. Facts About Bullying.

  7. 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

  8. National Bullying Prevention Center. Bullying statistics.

  9. Cyberbullying Research Center. Tween cyberbullying in 2020.

  10. Anti-Defamation League. Statistics on bullying.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.