If you’re concerned that your child is being bullied, or you know they are but need to find out more, it can often be quite challenging to get them to open up about what’s going on and how they’re feeling.
There are many reasons for this, including one or more of the following:
- They might be embarrassed (mistakenly although understandably of course, as there’s never any reason to be embarrassed about being bullied)
- They might not want to worry you, especially if you’ve got a lot going on in your own life
- They might be too angry or upset to talk about it
- They might not know how to articulate what they feel, describe what’s happening or even just how to start the conversation
- They might be concerned that they’ll be bullied even more for “telling”
Whatever the cause of your child holding back, one thing is for sure: it’s no reflection on the strength of your relationship or on how “good” a parent you are.
Here are a few ideas on things to try to get your daughter or son to open up. They won’t all appeal or work for every child or parent but we hope there’s something that might just make a difference for you among them.
Time and place matter
Go for a time and place when you’ll both feel relaxed and without distractions – perhaps at a café with a treat (as long as this is private enough and not too noisy), during a walk in the park, or simply cuddled up on the sofa.
With pre-teens and teens, some parents find chatting in the car can work wonders to get them to open up because they can avoid eye contact when you’re driving, reducing the awkwardness.
If these options might be too intense, you could try doing an activity you both enjoy but which still allows for conversation.
When it comes to timing, if you’re going to start a conversation on bullying, avoid parts of the day when they’re more likely to be tired or hungry as that never helps.
It’s really important when helping your child to talk about their bullying situation to make sure you allow space for them to chat by being a great listener. That means giving them undivided attention (put that phone away…), not interrupting, showing you’re fully tuned in with body language and now and then reflecting back what your child is saying (for example, “okay so I’m hearing that…”). The last point helps them realise they’re being heard and also checks you’ve understood the situation.
Use open-ended questions for open conversations
Questions that can be answered with a “yes”, “no” or “okay” aren’t going to get communication going between you as well as open-ended ones, especially if your child is shy, feeling awkward or having a rather mono-syllabic phase as a teenager. So for example, asking “how do you feel about this?” is usually more effective than “are you sad?”, and “what are you worrying about?” is better than “are you worried?”
Grab a conversation starter
The right prompt can help children to open up, especially if they’re feeling shy or awkward or you or they simply don’t know where to begin.
Here are some ideas for conversation starters:
- Tell a (truthful) story from your own childhood about a similar experience which you can then relate to their current situation – or the situation you suspect they’re facing. It might not be you who was being bullied, but a friend or sibling
- Watch a film, TV programme or read a story book or novel together involving similar themes – although you might want to check beforehand how the scenario is portrayed (those with tremendously unhappy endings clearly might not set the right tone).
- For older children, is there a non-fiction self-help guide or website link (like Kidscape’s!) on the subject which you could give to them and then talk about together?
- Ask broader questions about how they are feeling/how their day was/what they’re happy or unhappy about right now and then drill down to specifics of what’s going on in their life
Help them to name their emotions
With younger children especially, you might need to help them learn descriptions of what they are feeling, be it anger, frustration, excitement or something else. Gently doing this for them (“I can see that you feel angry/upset”) can help your child understand their emotions, plus they’ll know that they are being heard and understood by you. But do ensure that you’re not making an incorrect assumption about how they feel and foisting it on them.
Don’t dismiss your child’s reality, tease or mock them
“Don’t be silly”, “why on earth would you think that?”, “sticks and stones will break your bones but names will never hurt you” - rare is the child who heard these types of comments and thought “ohhhh, you’re right, I AM being silly I’ll stop feeling the way I do”. The fact is that telling your child how they should react really doesn’t change how they actually feel and can make them think their parent isn’t listening to them or respecting their emotions.
Draft in ‘agony aunts’ (or uncles, grandparents or family friends…)
Still no luck? If they’re not willing or able to discuss their bullying situation with you, is there someone else they’re close to and trust who they might feel comfortable talking to? An aunt, uncle, grandparent or family friend perhaps? If you do go down this route, their confidante will need to be clear and honest about whether they’re going to share what they’re told with you, or else your child might feel their confidence has been betrayed.
Liat Hughes Joshi is a parenting journalist and the author of six parenting books including Help your Child Cope with Change, and Five-Minute Parenting Fixes, both published by Summersdale/Vie.