The Rev. Lara Whitley longs for a day when there will be no need for pastors to perform the heartbreaking task she just handled — the funeral for an eighth-grader who took his own life.
Jon Carmichael, 13, of Joshua, Texas, a small town near Fort Worth, hanged himself in his family’s barn after enduring a year of bullying by classmates. Whitley, lead pastor of First United Methodist Church in Joshua, was asked by the family to perform the April 1 funeral.
Jon, a straight-A student, had been bullied since the seventh grade. His death joined the growing number of “bullycides” in the news recently.
“Bullycide is the most disquieting trend facing youth today,” said Missy Wall, a former United Methodist youth pastor and director of Teen CONTACT, a suicide-prevention organization in Dallas. “Our children and youth are being bullied verbally, mentally, emotionally and virtually to the point of suicide.”
Wall believes cell phones and the Internet have made bullying more pervasive — and more destructive — than ever.
Until recently, children were likely to get picked on at school but could be “safe” once they got home. “Now, with the Internet,” Wall added, “students don’t ever have a break. They go home and they still get text messages or comments on Facebook.”
And when bullying seems inescapable, despairing victims may believe suicide is the only answer.
Experts say faith groups can play a key role in teaching young people empathy for others, especially victims of bullying. Youth leaders can challenge young people to stand up to bullies, rather than simply looking the other way. And church youth groups can serve as a “safe space” where young people can feel accepted and protected from bullying behavior.
“If they can’t talk about it in youth group, they probably won’t talk about it anywhere,” Wall said.
Robby Balbaugh, youth pastor at First United Methodist Church in Stephenville, Texas, said not addressing the problem of bullying has a domino effect.
“You get picked on in situations where you are weak, but you may be able to go somewhere else where you are stronger and take it out on someone else.”
Balbaugh would know. He was a bully himself.
“I’d get bullied at school, but go to Boy Scouts, or home to my sister, and I was the bully,” he said. “Belittlement of your self-esteem gets passed on to whomever you’re around.”
Balbaugh’s epiphany came when he made his sister cry at a family function and he vowed never to cause that kind of harm again.
“It’s still a conscious decision for me not to bully today. I have to watch my sense of humor. Maybe I want to poke fun at someone and I have to ask whether the comment I’m going to make would cross the line into demeaning them,” he said.
In youth group situations, Balbaugh employs a rule where anyone who says something harmful or offensive to another person must then say three genuine, nice things about that person. He also tries to break up cliques at youth gatherings.
“Bullies are miserable and misery loves company, so they run in packs,” he said. He takes the lesser bullies and puts them with others and “those bullies will begin to act like the others in the group. I put the ‘head’ bullies in groups with strong Christians who won’t put up with that behavior. When no one joins them, they give up on it pretty quickly.”
While it’s important to discourage bullying behavior and protect children who are victims of bullies, most youth will fall into a third-but-crucial group in the dynamics of bullying: the bystander.
Here’s where youth leaders can call Christian kids to a higher standard.
“The bystander plays a huge role in the dynamics of bullying,” said Mary Muscari, author of Not My Kid: 21 Steps to Raising a Nonviolent Child. “Just having one kid who says, ‘Hey, cut it out,’ can totally change the dynamics of a bullying situation.”
Muscari encourages role-playing to show young people ways to react around bullying. Have one youth portray the bully and another the victim. Then let kids invent ways to defuse the situation.
At a minimum, young people who witness bullying should make teachers, administrators or other authorities aware of what’s going on.
How to intervene
- What should young people do if they witness an act of bullying?
- Ask yourself, “Is it my job to help?” Think about how you might feel if the bullying were happening to you.
- Don’t just stand there. Say something.
- If you feel safe, tell the person to stop the bullying behavior. Say you don’t like it, and it isn’t funny.
- Don’t be a bystander. If other students laugh or join in, let them know they’re not helping.
- If you don’t feel safe confronting the bully, say something kind to the child who was bullied. Be a friend.
- Don’t bully back. It won’t help and could make things worse.
- Tell an adult—a teacher, school counselor, school nurse or principal. Take a friend along if you need help. If you’re afraid of retaliation, ask the adult at school to help keep you safe after telling.
- Talk to your parents about bullying that you see or know about.
A safe place
Churches can make the youth program a “safe place” where bullying doesn’t occur and fellowship opportunities are available for young people who feel vulnerable. That might mean hosting “Stop Bullying” days or creating “anti-bullying zones.”
But getting at the root of the problem takes creating a deeper culture of acceptance and respect for all.
“Even in church, there are often cliques within the youth group,” Wall said. “I think the biggest thing is to talk about it. Ask questions. How do we rate our youth group? Is this a safe place? How do we make this a safe place?”
Kids who are bullied, particularly older children, often won’t tell their parents or other adults in their lives if someone is bullying them. Youth leaders can watch for signs that a child may be a victim of bullying, such as turning up with torn or damaged clothing, books or other belongings; having few, if any, friends; unexplained cuts or bruises; behavior that suggests sadness, depression or moodiness.
Youth leaders can also be sensitive to watch for kids who are targets for bullies.
“It’s the vulnerable kids that get picked on,” said Muscari. “Bullies are predators. They hone in on those weak kids. Help them to have more friends and better social skills, so that they aren’t being picked out as targets.”
Balbaugh points out that even the bully needs the church’s attention.
“Often, we address it from the side of the weak. Jesus called us to care for the meek, after all. We neglect to minister to the bully,” he said. “We can treat the symptoms, but if we don’t treat the cause, it will never go away.”
Jacobs is staff writer for United Methodist Reporter, Dallas. Adapted from UMR reports with additional information by Joey Butler, 18-34 content editor for United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn. Reprinted with permission of the United Methodist Reporter, where the original version appeared at www.umportal.org.