I loved my middle school youth ministry. My high school youth group, not so much. In fact, I left after a year and switched to the youth group of a different church, even though I kept attending my old church on Sunday’s. The reason? Bullying.
There were two boys who kept making degrading remarks about my weight—and the leaders did nothing. I complained, my parents complained, but nothing happened. So I stopped coming. One night, two of the elders of the church came for a visit with my parents and they wanted to know why I had stopped coming. They’d heard I was attending this other youth group and wanted to make sure my parents knew this church was ‘liberal’ (I grew up conservative baptist and this church was a more liberal baptist church). My dad got very upset with them and told them exactly why I had stopped coming. After that, the youth leaders made a half-hearted attempt to ‘woo’ me back, but I had completely lost my trust in them.
Now, I was a pretty resilient kid with a strong support network in terms of friends and a deep faith, so this experience didn’t shake my faith. I did however damage my trust in youth leaders. Not everyone will ‘survive’ being bullied at youth group however: emotionally, spiritually, and sometimes even physically. yes, we all know bullying is a problem—theoretically. We heard, read, and see heartbreaking stories about kids being bullied at school.
But what about bullying at youth group? Think that won’t happen? Think again. Bullying happens every place kids, teens, and even adults come together, including church and youth group. It may be more subtle, it may manifest itself in different ways, but it’s still there.
If you really want to fight bullying in your youth ministry, here are 5 facts every youth leaders needs to know.
1. Teasing is not Bullying. But it Could be.
First off, you have to understand what bullying really is. Bullying has three elements: it’s structural or systemic, there’s a power differential, and there’s intent.
A one-time joke at the expense of someone may be bad taste, may be mean, but it’s not necessarily bullying. Bullying is per definition systematic, so the same people targeting the same victim(s). There’s got to be a pattern.
The second element is a power differential. That means that for some reason, there’s a difference in (perceived) power between the bully and the person being bullied. This can be because of physical differences (older, stronger kid versus a younger, weaker kid, boys vs girls), status (senior versus freshman, popular versus nerd), socio-economic status (rich versus poor kids), race, etc. This is sometimes hard to spot if it’s not an obvious difference. This holds especially true for girls, who can sometimes exclude a girl from a previous friend-group based on hard-to-spot reasons, like the rumor of dating an ex of another girl. Once the girl is kicked out of the group, there’s a power differential–even if the adults don’t recognize it as such.
In your youth group, you have power differentials, too. Depending on the type of group you run and the kind of behavior you punish or reward, it can be Christian kids vs unchurched kids, different school districts, kids in leadership roles vs the others, popular kids vs outliers etc. This is a dynamic you need to be very, very aware of. Which kids hold the ‘power’ in your youth group and for what reason? Which kids tend to rank at the bottom and why? What can you do to change this, to shake up the power status?
The third element is intent. This is sometimes hard to prove, as kids will easily hide behind ‘I didn’t mean to…’ or ‘I was just joking around…’. Bullying has the intent to affirm the power differential, to make the bully feel powerful and the victim feel powerless. That’s the intent.
For more info, check out a previous article I wrote on The Difference Between Bullying and Drama.
2. Just Because You Don’t See it, Doesn’t Mean it’s not There
The fact that you don’t witness any incidents during youth group, doesn’t mean there’s no bullying going on. Bullying tends to happen when adults don’t watch—or is so subtle that adults don’t even recognize it. Bullying can take different forms: physical, verbal, social/emotional, and cyberbullying. The first two are often easiest to spot, because they can be witnessed. Social/emotional is already harder, because it’s about excluding kids from certain groups or activities and this can be very subtle. If you allow your students to make their own groups for a game for instance, you could witness social bullying. If the same kids are being systematically left out, there’s your signal.
And then there’s cyberbullying of course. Teens keep finding each other on social media and they can be vicious. Some of it may happen on profiles youth leaders can access, but a lot happens through texts, on secret accounts, through apps adults don’t use or can’t use because of geographic limitations, or even on school-related apps and websites.
You may feel that cyberbullying isn’t your responsibility because it doesn’t physically happen at youth group. But of your students are involved, either as victims, bullies, or passive bystanders, it does affect your group. Bullied kids will not feel safe as long as the bullying continues, even if it doesn’t actually happen at youth group. We’ve had a situation in a middle school ministry where everything seemed okay during youth group, though we experienced a constant underlying tension. As it turns out, during the week one of the kids got horribly bullied by a couple of the other students in youth group. We had to address it, threaten to block any student involved in bullying (providing we had proof), even if it happened outside of youth group.
It’s a fact that a lot of bullying goes unreported, as much as 35% (I’ve written about this in a post called Bullying: How Many Students Never Tell Anyone?) By the way: statistics show that the older teens get, the less likely they are to report bullying. One research reported as much as 85% of 19-year old guys had been bullied online without reporting it. As a matter of fact, there’s an alarming number of senior citizens being bullied! So when you try to ‘investigate’ bullying in your youth group, make sure older teens are actually reporting it.
3. Bullying is a Big Cause in Teen Suicide
Let this statistic sink in: as much as 80% of teen suicides have been caused or influenced by bullying. Now, I admit that this statistic can be somewhat misleading, as kids who end up committing suicide are more likely to have issues that may make the bullying more severe. Mental issues, developmental problems, underdeveloped emotional coping skills, these are often factors in teen suicide—but are also issues that tend to make teens the prime target of a bully. That in itself is a heartbreaking reality, by the way, because on top of everything else these kids struggle with, bullying is added as well. The fact is, however, that bullying is a crucial factor in leading teens to commit suicide. That fact alone should make you take it incredibly serious.
4. You Set the Tone
If you want to be serious about your youth group being a bully-free space, you have to set the tone. Students will unconsciously look to you and your leaders to see what they can get away with—or how much you will tolerate from bullies. If you want the ‘weaker’ students to feel safe and want to send a strong ‘no’ to the bullies, you’ll need to be consistent and crystal clear. Here are some suggestions:
- set up a formal anti-bullying policy in close conversations with your leaders, the parents, and the students. It needs to spell out exactly what bullying is, what responsibility your youth group will take (think: is cyberbullying that happens outside of youth group part of your policy?) , what the burden of proof is, and what the consequences are. Everyone needs to be on board with this.
- getting support from the parents is especially important, as you may need to have some uncomfortable conversations with the parents of the students doing the bullying. This needs to happen before you start executing the policy and ‘punishing’ the bullies.
- zero tolerance is needed. As soon as you start making excuses, or accept excuses (the infamous ‘locker room talk’ for instance), you erode your policy. Every leader on your team needs to be aware of this. Exceptions break your policy.
- take every instance of bullying seriously. That doesn’t mean overreacting, of course. It’s better to gather facts before doing anything. But it does mean you will follow up on every incident, or even report of a potential incident. For more, see a previous article I wrote, titled Bullying: How Serious do we Take it?
- make sure to protect the victim first, not the bullies. I’ve heard of instances where the victim was excluded from youth group because the bullies were kids of elders, or important church folks. That cannot happen, and you need to choose the right side there, even if the situation is less extreme than that. Realize that if you don’t, your entire policy is useless.
- set the right example. I’m the type of person who loves verbal banter, but I’ve had to learn to dial it back with my students. My teasing can be interpreted as bullying, and that’s the last thing I want. Don’t make jokes at the expense of weaker students especially, don’t just pick popular students for tasks or positions, shake up the power differential any way you can.
- understand the dynamics of bullying. For instance, sometimes victims will engage in bullying themselves to fight back. How will you handle this? Another aspect is the why of bullying, for instance the fact that Bullying Brings Status.
- building trust is crucial here, but this will take time. Victims won’t fully trust you until you’ve shown you’ve really got their back. In the same way, bullies won’t respect you until you show them you mean business.
5. Friendships Stop Bullying
The most important step in fighting back against bullying is friendships. Research shows that 57% of bullying stops when a peer intervenes. I was bullied in middle school and high school as well, because I was overweight. But it never got as bad as it could have been, because I had a few fantastic friends who had my back. We were a bit of a band of misfits, but the fact that we were a strong, cohesive group made the bullying way less than it could have been.
Promote friendships amongst your students and make an extra effort with those ‘ranking low’. If you have students with lacking social skills, try and help them specifically in that aspect. I’ve heard of youth groups who gave the socially weaker students an older buddy as a peer ‘guide’.
Keep teaching your students about the power of intervening and make this as practical as possible. My then 7-year old was part of an anti-bullying program in his jiu-jitsu class and I loved how concrete his teacher (professor) made it. Kids that age have hardly any abstract skills, so merely telling them they have to intervene is pretty useless. Instead, the teacher went over dozens of different scenario’s and helped them come up with an appropriate response in each. One example was to make up an excuse to take the victim from the situation (‘Hey Ryan, I need to talk to you about our math homework’) and physically remove him/her from the situation. To this day, my son not only remembers but he applied that particular strategy when he watched a kid he knew getting bullied in his after school program.
OK, it turned out to be a bit of a long post, but I hope this will help you see bullying in a new way. Hopefully, you’ve also gotten some starting point for making your youth group bully-free. I’d love to hear any thoughts, suggestions, or additions—or even push back!
(For more on bullying statistics: https://nobullying.com/bullying-statistics/)