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How to encourage teens to ask for help

How to encourage teens to ask for help

We’re always telling teens ‘If you are bullied, tell an adult you trust’. And usually, this is pretty good advice: studies show that talking to family and friends is a good first step to deal with bullying.

However, too many teens are still being bullied and keeping quiet about it. If we want them to ask for help, we adults need to do things differently.

It helps to speak up

There is no magical fix for bullying, but talking to someone helps. We were fascinated to read an Australian study which asked school students about their experiences of asking for help with bullying. The majority of bullied students who had told a parent, a teacher, or a friend agreed that the person they told was helpful and caring, and that the bullying eased or stopped afterwards.

Why do teens stay silent?

If talking to other people is such a good idea, teens must do it all the time – right? But unfortunately, that’s not the case. In that study of Australian students, only half the teens who’d been bullied had told their parents about it. And a study of cyber bullying found that only about one in six teens who’d been cyber bullied said they’d fixed the problem by speaking to their parents.

So, why don’t teens ask for help? There are many reasons, including:

  • they are embarrassed or afraid of seeming ‘weak’
  • they are afraid the bullying will get worse
  • they don’t believe adults can help them
  • they prefer to deal with their problems alone
  • they are so distressed that it’s hard to communicate at all
  • they don’t want their parents knowing the ‘reason’ they were bullied. Some bullying is about sensitive topics like sexual relationships.

Cyber bullying can be particularly hard to talk about. Some teens assume their parents won’t understand how the technology works or how people behave online. Other teens stay quiet because they’re afraid their parents will take their devices away.

What can parents do?

As parents, we can teach our teens to recognise when they need to ask someone for help. For example, they might need to ask for help when:

  • they can’t solve a problem
  • they’re feeling stressed, upset, scared or overwhelmed
  • they are losing sleep, feeling sick or losing interest in things they used to enjoy.

Parents can help teens make a list of the trusted adults they could ask for help, such as relatives, family friends, sporting coaches or teachers. It’s good to talk through the ‘five steps to talking to someone you trust’ (ReachOut), which are:

  • decide who to talk to
  • work out what to say
  • time it right
  • have the conversation
  • don’t give up.

Parents can also reassure our teens that we WON’T do anything to make their lives worse. For example, we can explain to our teens that if someone ever bullied them:

  • we would not blame them for being bullied
  • we would not force them to give up their technology
  • we would not say ‘it’s no big deal’ or ‘just ignore it’
  • we would not get aggressive or violent with other parents, kids or teachers.

Seek professional support if you need it

Families may find it useful to speak to a trusted GP, school wellbeing team, or a free, confidential helpline, such as: