Put an end to bullying

Miller, Cheryl K

6 things you can do to banish putdowns, cutting remarks, shunning, and outright abuse from your group

For many kids, school is an extended-length episode of Survivor. The best many of them can do is cram in some learning as they run the daily gauntlet of put-downs, taunting, and abuse. Here’s how one girl describes her experience as a 14-year-old:

“There was trouble every day, but on one day in particular, when I didn’t do an in-class assignment properly, the teacher… in front of the entire class, told me that I was stupid. Stupid! I Also that I wasn’t ever going to amount to anything… I wanted to crawl inside myself and die. But there was no escape. I vowed not to show any emotion, though. I sat there, stone-faced, crying on the inside and completely humiliated… If that wasn’t enough to ruin whatever self-image I had, there was this nasty group of guys who were constantly on my case. They delighted in belittling me. Their torment was endless… Almost daily they hit me with books, called me names like fat a-, pig, fatso, and said my nose looked like Porky Pig’s.”

The woman who wrote these words is Drew Barrymore1-that’s right, the well-known actress who first made a big splash as a little girl in E.T. But her fame didn’t shield her from torment-in fact, she believes her early notoriety fueled some of the abuse. Barrymore’s words could be any kid’s words. And they’re eerily reminiscent of what Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold declared in the halls of Columbine High School when they were executing 12 classmates and a teacher: “This is for all the people who made fun of us all these years.”

Now, you’d think that a youth group would offer these beleaguered kids a safe haven from their daily struggles against bullying. Sadly, not so. Teresa is a ninth-grader who recently moved to Georgia from Florida. She says, “It’s been really hard. In some churches you have to dress the right way for people to talk to you. Sometimes people will talk to me one week, and the next week they won’t even remember me. It’s been hard to even want to go to youth group when nobody talks to me.”2

The “dirty little secret” in youth ministry is that we’re never a fail-safe haven from the culture and its problems. Many of us are blind to rude and bullying behavior in our own groups. How can that be? Well, we’re immersed in the culture too. And the example set by that culture is often cruel and mean-spirited.

* Every day in the United States more than 160,000 bullied children purposely skip school because they’re afraid, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

* Researchers with the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development have discovered that up to 30 percent of sixth to 10th graders are involved in school bullying (either as victim or perpetrator), with the highest frequency among sixth to eighth graders.

* Boys are more likely to be both victim and bully.3

what’s behind all the bullying?

“I think that the outright bullying, taunting, and rudeness are a little more of an issue with middle school students,” says Russ Butcher, a youth pastor in Georgia. They don’t know how to make their shunning a subtle strategy like high school students.”

Santha Yinger, a junior high minister in Illinois, says, “It’s more of an ostracizing. Their brains are not engaged to what their mouths are saying. At this age they are so self-absorbed. The media has really pushed the ‘cuts’ and laughing at each other’s expense. In fact, I found myself excelling at cut-down one-liners until God truly convicted me of this issue after reading Ephesians 4:29. We’ve been taught a lie all our lives that sticks and stones will break our bones, but words will never hurt. Hurtful words are darts that lodge in a person’s soul.”4

1. Cliques are the breeding ground.

The violence at Columbine and other schools focused a spotlight on the negative influence of cliques. Clearly, there are far more cliques present in today’s schools than there were a decade or two ago. Unlike years past, cliques form around common interests more than status. And no matter how well you’ve fought to defuse the negative power of cliques in your group, you can be sure that some young people in your area are staying away from your youth group because they’re afraid they won’t fit in.

Cliques thrive because they offer acceptance, protection, and security-they promise kids they’ll never be left alone or unappreciated. Many students view cliques positively, defining their clique as “my best friends.” If you have tight-knit sub-groups in your ministry, the message outsiders can hear is clear-“You’re not welcome here”-and that will cripple your effectiveness.

It’s not just what the cliques are communicating, it’s what they’re not communicating. “I don’t believe that we have a significant problem with name-calling, taunts, outright rudeness, and bullying,” says Butcher. “I believe most of what we see is more related to shunning and cliques, and even that is not as open and overt but is subtler. Especially with high school students, it’s less bullying and name-calling and more social exclusion.”

2. School rivalries can throw gasoline on the fire.

Kids from competing schools can undermine community in your group by avoiding their rivals, using playful putdowns of others, and engaging in good-natured taunting if their school is the victor in a contest. Steve Miller, a youth pastor in Georgia, says a harmful rivalry between county and city school systems poisoned a past ministry. “I had a hard time overcoming the inbred mistrust and competition between the schools in my group,” he says. “I never felt that I was totally successful in erasing those feelings.”

make your ministry safe from bullying

Your group can be a bully-free zone-you have all the ammo you need in the Bible. Jesus commands us to “love your neighbor as yourself,” and the Apostle Paul chimes in with almost 50 “one another” verses (love one another, pray for one another, bear one another’s burdens, and so on). A biblical ministry roots out bullying behavior, confronts it, then chokes off the air it breathes.

1. Check your own behavior.

Here’s a shock-you might be modeling the very kind of behaviors that drive you nuts. Think about your last group gathering-how did you interact with your kids and other adult leaders? Did you gravitate to only the popular kids, or did you spend time with those who unnerve or irritate you? The more inclusive you are to those marginalized kids in your ministry, the more you communicate “this group is for everyone.” Compliment them openly, and ask them to do ministry tasks.

2. Make sure your kids are “body” conscious.

In an ideal community, students feel loved and cared for. They know it’s safe to share their deepest sorrows and fears. And inside they say, “I’m glad I’m here because I’m important to God.”

Yinger says, “I’ve struggled with how to make it emotionally safe for kids. But, more importantly, how do I change the heart issues and character of my students? How I’ve dealt with it is to really teach what it means to be a part of the body of Christ. In our group, called the Aliens, we have a phrase we use continuously: ‘I belong to you. You belong to me. Together we make up the body of Christ.’

“Early in the year, I teach them that a rational person doesn’t mutilate himself by cutting off his foot or hand. When you speak unkindly to each other, you’re cutting your arm off or you’re poking your eyes out. I got the idea for that phrase when I was studying 1 Corinthians 12-14 and 1 Peter 4:10-about the gifts that the Spirit gives to make up the body. I was also influenced by a scene in the movie First Knight, where the round-table knights go through the ceremony to welcome Lancelot into their midst. I wanted a similar bonding to occur in my group of junior highers.”5

3. Train your leaders to spot and reach out to outsider kids.

Modeling by your leaders and group members is key to developing a spirit of safety and trust in your group. “My strategy is to rely on student leaders to look for students that are excluded and shunned and left out by cliques,” says Butcher. “If I personally see this type of behavior, I will step in and try to connect students that feel left out. I also train and encourage our adult leaders to step in and be a part of dealing with this type of behavior.

“I also include a series on the body of Christ with the need for unity in a retreat, along with some team-building activities like ropes courses and leadership development. I put the students in mixed groups-not divided by schools. Another idea is to intentionally mix students together from different schools in your Sunday small groups.”6

4. Build affirmation into your group’s DNA.

Use creative community-building activities to give your teenagers opportunities to affirm one another. Yinger says, “In Hebrews 3:13 it says to encourage one another because it helps guard our hearts from being hardened and deceived by sin. From that, I’ve applied the Three Compliment Rule. When one student cuts another verbally, they ‘owe’ three compliments. The only guideline is that it can’t be about that person’s clothing, but about character. After we started this, the students began to ‘police’ each other on cuts.

“Another thing that’s worked well is we have an Alien Autograph Night once a quarter. We tape our Alien letterhead to everyone’s backs, and that night everyone goes around to write words of encouragement to one another. I regularly do community-building activities and continually teach biblical community.”

Another group put up a Barnabas Board in the youth room-a permanent place for teenagers to “graffiti” words of encouragement or to record others’ successes.

5. Avoid divisive programming.

Some activities actually encourage divisiveness. Why pit group members against one another on a weekly basis to see who wins a prize? Even crowdbreakers can be divisive when competition is overemphasized. Instead, celebrate diversity. Some students are turned off by schools’ sports orientation, and they resent having to attend pep rallies every week during the football season. So give them a breather by planning activities that focus on concerts, books, extreme sports, or the arts.

6. Teach kids how to be friends.

Most students just don’t know how to make friends. Teach them how to actively listen, affirm others’ gifts, and look for opportunities to serve. A great resource for teaching on this is Dale Carnegie’s classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Use it, and you’ll help your kids build successful relationships far into the future.

In Jason Dorsey’s book Ending School Violence: Solutions From America’s Youth, he writes, “I spoke at a school where they had a suicide. The guy was 12 years old. He was in the seventh grade. I never got to meet him, but he left a note that they read to the school. His note said ‘I killed myself because no one says hello to me, so no one will miss me.’ Isn’t that sad? All he wanted was for someone to say hello to him. It’s not rocket science. I’m not asking you to do some big algebraic equation. All he wanted was hello. It’s so simple, but so many people don’t do it.”

Cheryl K. Miller is a youth leader in Georgia. She’s a freelance writer, full-time student, and the mother of seven sons in a blended family. Youth ministry happens every day at their house since five are teenagers and they have FRIENDS.

Copyright Group Publishing, Inc. May/Jun 2003

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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