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Bully-Proof Your Children’s Ministry

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Bully-proof your children’s ministry by stopping put-downs, power-mongers, and peace-breakers.

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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!”

Children's Ministry Local Training

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.

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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 real scrutiny since the events at Columbine High School and the string of horrific school-violence instances that have followed, 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.

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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:

  1. The spreading of rumors and gossip.
  2. The deliberate exclusion or isolation of a child.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Abusive emails, phone calls, or other technology-related communication. Druck identifies this as “cyber-bullying.”
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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.

For Adults

  • 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.
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About Author

Jennifer Hooks

Jennifer Hooks is managing editor for Children's Ministry Magazine and a contributing author to Sunday School That Works (Group).

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