Bullying happens in every school across America. This means it is highly likely that your child or one of the kids in your church has experienced bullying. And since it has become an area of concern in schools and a focus in national media, techniques and advice now abound. The Christian faith offers a perspective on bullying that goes beyond punishment or behavior modification and toward wise love for the bullied and the bully. We recently sat down with Julie Lowe to discuss this issue and practical helps for parents, youth leaders, and children’s ministry workers.

What are some warning signs to watch out for if you are concerned your child is being bullied?

Many kids are subtle about being bullied. They may come home one day and say, “I was picked on today.” But then for weeks you won’t hear a thing until suddenly they tell you that they don’t want to go to school anymore. Often there is “withdrawing” behavior, like stomach aches in the morning or comments about wanting to stay home. By the time warning signs become obvious, it is possible bullying has already been happening for a period of time. As a parent you hate it to get to that place, so you want to be proactive not reactive. You will see warning signs sooner if you talk regularly with your kids about their interpersonal experience at school—what the other kids are like and who they fit in with.

Sometimes it is hard for kids to open up. From your experience as a counselor, what are some creative suggestions for how parents can engage in conversation with their kids?

One way I encourage parents to engage with their children is by role-playing. It is non-threatening and kids enjoy being creative. The goal is to foster open conversation. You can start by brainstorming different scenarios with your children on a variety of topics or difficulties.

Brainstorming about bullying is a great idea because you can ask many “What if?” questions: “What would you do if you saw your friend being bullied? How could you help? Where would you go for help?” Give them every scenario you can think of: “What do you do if you are being bullied? What do you do if your friend is bullying someone? What do you do if you got in trouble at school for intervening in a fight?” Each new question provides an opportunity to shape and teach your child and learn more about who your child is as a person.

Why do you think brainstorming is a helpful tool to teach and counsel children?

Kids think in black and white, and we want to help them think about the grey areas of life. Often those grey areas include things that kids have never thought about, but as parents we have because of our life experience. As we teach different principles (e.g., loving your neighbor), we want kids to learn how those principles transfer into different situations. The more willing parents are to talk about the “What ifs?” the more their kids are willing to say, “I don’t know. What do I do in this situation?” This provides an open door for parents to enter in.

Let’s move from conversations at home to ministry in the context of a church. Where should ministry leaders start?

First, leaders need to ask themselves, “Am I observing and actively building the dynamics of the group? Do I know who the outsiders are? Am I building cohesion—a positive and supportive atmosphere?” Second, they need to realize who is coming to the group and what they struggle with. There could be kids who struggle with cutting, homosexuality, or promiscuity. Some of these kids may be outsiders. They may experience bullying, either in this group or at school. Unless there is a safe and supportive atmosphere, none of these struggles will surface. As a leader you want struggles to surface so you can minister the gospel. Ask yourself if this is a safe place for anyone to come, and not just safe for those who fit a certain mold.

What if a youth leader is working toward a safe and accepting environment, but still sees bullying dynamics?

Call it out right away. Pull the kids aside and let them know this group has zero tolerance for bullying. But don’t stop there. Engage them in conversation and ask, “Why do you feel the need to do this? Has this person provoked you or done something to you?” That’s where you will get into the messiness of the situation, which is necessary.

You also need to say to the group, “No one is ever allowed to pick on someone or threaten others in this group. How else can we say the love of God is in us? You must commit to embracing each other and letting each other be different. We all struggle in different ways.” As a leader this is how you communicate boundaries to the kids in your group and provide a place that makes it safe for new people to come in.

If there is an ongoing issue, what fundamental goals should leaders have when they intervene?

Too often youth leaders deal with surface issues, but they are unsure of how to handle difficult issues. But these types of situations are opportunities to go deeper and ask meaningful questions, to find out what is really going on in a child’s life. Your goal is resolution. Both godly love and wisdom have to be in place for real resolution. And that’s what we are hoping will happen in these situations. We are really talking about living in relationships—wise decision making, loving well, being honest, showing respect for one another, and learning how to put another person before yourself.

You want to help kids see what motivates them and what’s going to help them grow. “What’s going to turn this situation around?” For the bully the focus will be on showing respect, putting the other person first, and seeking forgiveness. For someone being bullied you want to teach them to speak up and say “no” to someone, how to forgive, how to speak about this child to others, and how to guard against hate. You are putting this in the context of loving well—with an eye on Christ who loved us well and gives us the Spirit to love others well.

This brings a longer vision of ministry into the picture. There is an immediate goal of stopping the bully and protecting the victim and a longer vision for teaching children how to live in relationships. And the world won’t do that. The world will say, “End the relationship. Guard your boundaries.” Sometimes that may be necessary. But often we can equip people to love well and remain in relationships. These are our goals in gospel ministry.