Bully-proof your children’s ministry by stopping put-downs, power-mongers, and peace-breakers.
Erik was small for his age. He kept to himself. He wore thick glasses. He came from a poor family. And he was the perfect target.
Rather than experiencing the glory of God at church, Erik experienced the terror of being the target of bullying. He spent his Sundays after children’s church running — yes, literally running. A group of older boys who were generally viewed as leaders and good kids would come after Erik in a malicious “game” of chase. Nearby adults dismissed it as a child’s game, but Erik ran to save himself. The chase went on relentlessly, with the boys calling out threats, insults, and taunts just out of adults’ hearing. Eventually the boys lost interest-not because they couldn’t catch Erik, but because he’d learned how to hide in trash cans, underneath cars, and in the girls’ restroom.
No adult realized what was truly happening until Erik lost his footing one afternoon and fell face-first on the concrete walkway, shattering his glasses and suffering a concussion. Rather than lie on the walkway, in his terror he scrambled to his feet and tried to run. A young bystander witnessed Erik’s fall and saw his shattered glasses and the blood. She helped him up and escorted him into the children’s ministry director’s office, where she cried out, “Why won’t you do something? Those boys chase him every week!”
Jessica was a genuinely happy girl who excelled in school and was popular among her peers. However, her parents noticed a change in her not long after they joined a new church. At first, Jessica was just quiet after church. When her parents asked her how Sunday school was, she’d shrug. Soon, she began to ask her parents if she could skip Sunday school and just go to “big church” with them. They urged her to try harder to make friends.
Jessica’s parents felt great relief when, after several weeks, Jessica appeared excited and happy after Sunday school. Her mother asked what had happened.
“Stephanie invited me to her birthday party. It’s a slumber party! Can I go? Please?”
Delighted and relieved that Jessica had finally made a church friend, her mother quickly consented.
But that Wednesday, the phone rang. It was Stephanie. As Jessica picked up an extension, her mom couldn’t help but listen in momentarily, elated that Jessica’s new friend was calling. She was stunned to hear Stephanie rudely uninvite Jessica to the party, saying, “It was a joke. Nobody wants you there!”
The face of bullying is shifting, as is the face of the bully. Bullies don’t come prepackaged in the image of the lumbering schoolyard oaf rolling up his sleeves before pummeling his hapless victim. Bullies can be attractive, popular, wealthy, and well-rounded. They can also be unattractive, unpopular, disadvantaged, and narrow-minded. They can be a mixture of all the preceding. Bullies can be hard to spot, especially in places where adults don’t expect to find them…such as in our children’s ministries.
“Bullying is a conscious, willful, and deliberate hostile activity intended to harm, induce fear through the threat of further aggression, and create terror,” writes conflict resolution expert Barbara Coloroso in her book The Bully, The Bullied, and the Bystander.
Schools have come under scrutiny since the events at Columbine High School, but many churches have felt exempt from dealing with the bullying issue. After all, church is supposed to be a safe haven. But the truth is that bullying happens wherever kids are — regardless of where they are. And the sad fact is, kids who spend their energy bullying or defending themselves against a bully have little energy left over to learn — or appreciate — the truths we want to instill in them. As a children’s minister, you can take concrete, practical steps to thwart all kinds of bullying and to build a caring community among the children you shepherd.
Spotting the Symptoms to Bully-Proof Your Ministry
One of the first steps to stopping bullying behaviors is to recognize the symptoms.
“Recognize that bullying often takes place under adult radar,” says Coloroso. We typically look for the overt signs of bullying, such as fighting, verbal threats, and crying. Often, though, the signs are so subtle that they’re overlooked or misinterpreted by adults. “[Bullying] can be a dirty look, rolled eyes, a nudge, a pinch, a turned shoulder — all while the teacher’s back is turned,” Coloroso says.
If you suspect bullying is taking place among the children you minister to, you’re probably correct. And if you feel bullying isn’t a threat in your classroom or ministry, you’re probably wrong. Coloroso and Ken Druck, author of How to Talk to Your Kids About School Violence, offer these suggestions.
• Know the three kinds of bullying-verbal, physical, and relational. While physical bullying is the most common form adults look for, it’s the least common in occurrence. More common is verbal bullying — jeers, taunts, put-downs, and insults — that can be devastating to kids’ self-esteem. Unfortunately, it’s relatively easy for bullies to get away with this type of behavior because they consciously do it out of adult earshot. Relational bullying is the girl bully’s weapon of choice, and one that’s far more powerful than physical or verbal bullying. When a target experiences this, he or she is shunned and ostracized from the group.
• Look for the signs of relational bullying. Druck says there are five common signs that relational or social bullying is happening. Look for:
- The spreading of rumors and gossip.
- The deliberate exclusion or isolation of a child.
- Verbal taunting or harassment. Often adults misinterpret this as harmless teasing. Teasing is defined as harmless and for fun. Taunting or harassment is when there’s a repetitive, deliberate attempt at cruelty and when it’s apparent that the target is uncomfortable.
- Hostile body language or expressions. These expressions, such as rolled eyes, aggressive staring, and derogatory gestures usually occur when the adult’s attention is diverted.
- Abusive emails, phone calls, or other technology-related communication. Druck identifies this as “cyber-bullying.”
Look, Stop, Prevent
Identifying the signs that bullying is taking place is the first step to stopping it. To break the cycle of violence, though, you must put a stop to current behaviors and attitudes — both in kids and in adults — and prevent future incidents by creating a bully-free environment.
Once you’ve identified bullying behavior, Coloroso and Druck offer these “Do’s and Don’ts” for stopping the cycle.
- Don’t minimize or disregard instances of bullying — whether it’s reported by a child or observed by an adult.
- Don’t resolve the situation yourself. Doing so only reassures the bully that his or her target is weak.
- Don’t tell the target to avoid the bully. This doesn’t solve the issue — it’s only a superficial fix to a deeper problem.
- Don’t allow the bullied child to become a bully in response to his or her feelings of vulnerability.
- Don’t confront the bully or the bully’s parents alone. “Bullying is a learned behavior, and you’ll most likely find yourself being demeaned by the bully or the parents if you confront them on your own,” says Coloroso. Get backup.
- Do pay attention to targeted kids. If you hear kids refer to another child as a “loner,” there’s a good chance this child is being targeted. Hone your listening skills. Be alert for telltale signs.
- Do teach kids to stand up for themselves and others. Teach them to speak up — either during the incident or by reporting it — when bullying occurs.
- Do teach kids it’s okay — and that it’s the right thing to do — when they report bullying to a trusted adult.
- Do teach bystanders and targets that reporting bullying is not tattling.
- Don’t let any situation reach the “boiling point.” Talk to a trusted adult long before exploding in response to bullying.
- Don’t do or say things to antagonize a bully.
- Don’t taunt, make fun of, or isolate others.
- Don’t be disrespectful, cruel, or aggressive toward another person.
- Do learn to recognize and manage your anger.
- Do think before you speak, especially in situations of anger or conflict.
- Do “live and let live,” says Druck. “Be direct and forthright, but be kind.”
- Do be respectful, even when you disagree or dislike someone.
- Do apologize when you do or say something you shouldn’t. Ask for forgiveness. Be willing to forgive, too.
- Do communicate respectfully when there’s a problem. “Make time to clear the air,” says Druck.
Because bullies often don’t act alone — they enlist a group of henchmen to carry out their cruel deeds — kids take the side of the bully out of fear that they’ll become targets. The key then to creating a bully-free environment is to hold everyone — bullies, the henchmen acting on the bully’s behalf, targets, and bystanders — accountable for their actions. Addressing each person’s role in bullying will lead to a more responsive, collectively caring environment.
“There are no innocent bystanders,” says Coloroso. Kids must understand how their participation — or lack thereof — in bullying affects the cycle of violence. Bystanders generally fit in one of these two categories.
• Actively Involved Bystanders-These bystanders witness the bullying and do nothing. Through their non-action, they give silent approval of the situation. They’re unwilling to step in and stand up for the target because they’re either gratified by the bully’s behavior or on his or her “side.”
• Disengaged Onlookers-Adults often fall into this role without realizing it when they witness a bullying situation and dismiss it as “kids being kids.” Kids take on this role when they refuse to stand up for the victim out of fear that they’ll become targets.
As parents, teachers, and children’s ministers, our role is to teach kids to have integrity. “We need to teach [kids]to do the right thing when the burden is heavy,” says Coloroso. “And this burden is very heavy.”
Teaching kids to stand up when the pressure is on takes commitment on your part and the ability to set a powerful, positive example of caring. Here are suggestions to ensure a bully-free attitude takes hold in your ministry.
• Do as you say. Look at your behavior toward kids. If you find there’s a Little Bully lurking in you, work on eliminating that tendency.
• Put in place strong anti-bullying procedures. By doing so, you’ll ensure the safety of targeted children and bystanders. The code in your classroom should be, “Everyone has value. Everyone is an integral part of our group. No one is left out.”
• Deal with bullies sensitively. Understand that bullying children may be bullied at home. As many as 89% of American children witness some type of abuse at home, and 79% of those children turn to violent behavior, according to a recent report by the YWCA.
• Set behavior standards. Then stick to your guidelines with the kids you minister to. “Teach that bullying is not going to be tolerated,” says Coloroso.
Healing the Collective Hurt
An important step in helping bullies move beyond their aggressive ways is to help them develop self-discipline and self-worth. Coloroso recommends this three-step cycle for former bullies.
1. Be good. Bullies have a big ego but not a strong sense of self. Help them learn that they have self-worth and are important. Encourage good behaviors and create situations that’ll help these kids succeed in “being good.”
2. Do good. Give bullies the opportunity to serve others and experience the positive emotions associated with putting someone else first. They’ll be less likely to feel the urge to harm others.
3. Will good. By teaching bullies to act with integrity and compassion, you’ll bring them full circle. At this stage, they often become the person standing up for a victim.
Check out these valuable tools to combat bullying.
• Bullies Are a Pain in the Brain by Trevor Romain. This book is designed for kids who’ve experienced bullying firsthand. Free Spirit Publishing
• The Bully Free Classroom by Allan Beane. More than 100 tips and strategies for teachers to put a halt to bullying. Free Spirit Publishing
• The Hurt That They Feel by Mister Rogers, Hedda Sharapan, Grace Ketterman, and Sue Bredekamp. This book addresses a variety of tough issues preschoolers deal with, including violence, fear, and anger. New Hope Publishers
• If Only I Had a Green Nose by Max Lucado. Help preschoolers learn about self-acceptance and diversity. Tommy Nelson
• The Kids’ Guide to Working Out Conflicts by Naomi Drew. A complete guide for kids to navigate through conflict while keeping their self-esteem intact. Free Spirit Publishing
• Stick Up For Yourself! by Gershen Kaufman, Lev Raphael, and Pamela Espeland. A child’s guide to personal power and positive self-esteem. Free Spirit Publishing
• We Can Get Along by Lauren Murphy Payne. A child’s guide to making good choices. Free Spirit Publishing
• Words Are Not for Hurting by Elizabeth Verdick. Kids learn how to use their words in a positive way. Free Spirit Publishing
Jennifer Hooks is managing editor of Children’s Ministry Magazine.