How to encourage teens to ask for help

August 11th, 2020

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 one of the best ‘first steps’ for dealing 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 other people often 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 or caring, and that the bullying eased or stopped afterwards.

And studies of teens and young adults have found that talking to family and friends is one of the most popular ways of coping with bullying.

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 actually told their parents about it. And a study of cyber bullying found that only about one in six teens who had 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 if they tell.
  • They don’t believe adults can help them.
  • They prefer to deal with their problems alone.
  • They don’t want their parents knowing the ‘reason’ they were bullied. Some bullying is about sensitive topics like sexual relationships or same-sex attraction.

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.

Teens may find it especially hard to ask for help if they are suffering from suicidal thoughts, or if they tend to deal with problems by withdrawing in silence or lashing out in anger.

What can parents do?

Fortunately, there are things parents can do to encourage their teens to ask for help if they need it. To encourage help-seeking, parents can:

  • Teach our teens to recognise when they need help, such as:
    • When they can’t solve a problem
    • When they’re feeling stressed, upset, scared or overwhelmed
    • When they are losing sleep, or losing interest in things they used to enjoy.
  • Help our teens make a list of adults they could ask for help, such as relatives, family friends, sporting coaches or teachers.
  • Remind our teens that everyone needs help sometimes – including parents!
  • Share our own stories about times when we asked for help, and got it.
  • Teach our teens the ‘five steps to talking to someone you trust’ (ReachOut):
    • Decide who to talk to
    • Work out what to say
    • Time it right
    • Have the conversation
    • Don’t give up.
  • Remind our teens about free, confidential helplines they can call, such as:

It’s also important to reassure our teens that we won’t react to bullying by doing things that make their lives worse, such as:

  • Blaming them for being bullied
  • Giving unhelpful advice like ‘just ignore it’ or ‘just stand up for yourself’
  • Forcing them to give up their technology
  • Starting fights with other parents.

The bigger picture

Studies have shown that teens are more likely to take positive steps to report bullying if they have good social connections, strong skills in problem-solving and asking for help, and a positive view of their school community as a supportive, caring place.

So, if we want to raise teens who are confident to speak up and ask for help, we can:

  • Help our teens to learn problem-solving skills, such as identifying a problem, brainstorming solutions, trying different ways to fix the problem, and reflecting on the results.
  • Build friendly relationships with teachers and other families, and get involved in the school community.
  • Stay up-to-date with the technology our teens use.
  • Have honest conversations with our teens about how people behave online.
  • Encourage our teens to stay connected to true friends and people who treat them with respect.