Talking to Teens About Bullying: 4 Dos and Don'ts

Both teens and adults are concerned about bullying. Unfortunately, adults and teens often find it difficult to communicate about this issue.

Although it may not seem like it at times, teens desperately want to talk about their problems, especially when it comes to bullying. However, they often keep silent, fearing that the adults in their life will “freak out” or get angry with them if they do admit that they’re struggling.

What can adults do to communicate with teens? Communications experts Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish offer some practical advice in their bestselling book “How to Talk So Teens Will Listen & Listen So Teens Will Talk.” The book doesn’t talk about the issue of bullying specifically, but it does offer a number of ideas for adults on how to communicate effectively with teens.

Here are four “dos” and “don’ts” that we’ve gleaned from Faber and Mazlish’s book.

When a teen comes to talk to you about bullying...

DON’T dismiss their feelings.
DO listen to them.

“Don’t worry,” “Forget about it,” and “Just move on” are the kinds of things we want to say to teens when they voice their concerns, because seeing them in pain makes us uncomfortable. The problem with this approach is that it makes them feel as if no one is listening to them. We need to listen to our teens so we can really understand what is going on in their lives.

DON’T ignore their feelings.
DO empathize with them.

Several researchers have discovered that teens in crisis often wait until their emotional pain is overwhelming before they seek help from adults. When a teen does open up to you, then, don’t ignore or push aside their expressed feelings; empathize with them instead. Reflect what they’re feeling back to them in your words and tone. This helps them work through their feelings.

DON’T jump to conclusions.
DO listen calmly and carefully.

When teens admit that they are being bullied (or that they are bullying others), we are often surprised and hurt. Left unchecked, our raw emotions can cause us to lash out at our teens. For example, we might ask why they haven’t come to us before or gotten help for the problem themselves. This kind of response will only make teens shut down and wonder why they decided to confide in you. Do your best to listen to your teens so you can hear what they are saying.

DON’T tell them what to do.
DO work on the problem with them.

When a teen talks about a problem in their life, we often try to jump in right away with a solution. This keeps us from fully understanding our teens, makes them feel they are not being heard, and denies them to chance to work through their problems themselves. Brainstorm potential solutions to their problem with them instead of giving them instructions so they “don’t tune out.” When you do this well, you can make them feel safe while also building their self-confidence.

Finally, keep in mind that teens might not be willing to tell adults their problems, even when they know that the adults in their life care about them.

Some problems are so difficult to talk about that teens may not want to come forward to discuss them with an adult face to face. That’s why we believe anonymous reporting programs like the CyberBully Hotline can be of assistance to teens affected by bullying and other issues. If the schools in your community don’t have a CyberBully Hotline, we encourage you to explore whether it would make sense to implement one.