Ministering to a Bullied Heart
There is a razor blade hiding in a night stand, in a small upstairs bedroom, of a rundown home in the suburbs of Minneapolis.
Sitting on the bed is a 7th grade boy named Rafique. He slowly studies the ripped pages of his latest Manga book, trying to figure out what order they go in. Tears fill his eyes as he throws the hopeless project on the floor. The book was a gift from his dad—his one souvenir from their semi-annual visits.
He stands, shirtless, to look in the mirror. He examines the purple bruises growing on his dark, Jamaican shoulders. He remembers the sharp pain from when the boys pulled his backpack so hard that his head hit the bus floor. He remembers the kind bus driver helping him put his destroyed possessions back in to his destroyed backpack.
His eyes move down his shoulder to the word he had carved in his own bicep a month earlier: retard. The name that had been assigned to him on the first day of 3rd grade. There were other names too, but none of them were important enough to make a permanent part of his body. His mom called him special, his dad called him different, his therapist called him autistic.
Earlier, at dinner, he begged his mom to let him stay home the next day, hoping that she was in one of her more nurturing moods.
Her thick Jamaican accent responded, “And who will look after you? If I don’t go to work, I’ll lose my job! Then we’ll lose the house! Is that what you want? Go to your room, Rafique!”
Now, in his room, examining his scars, he is thinking about his razor.
Once he starts cutting, he can’t stop.
“What the hell, Rafique?!”
His adult brother looks up from his video game to see Rafique standing at the bottom of the stairs, blood dripping onto his new white socks.
“What did you do?!”
When the ambulance arrives, the paramedics wrap his mutilated forearms in gauze. As the doors to the ambulance close, he thinks, “At least I won’t have to ride the bus tomorrow.”
Rafique landed in a long-term children’s psychiatric hospital that provided both education and therapy. By the time he migrated back into regular schools, he had developed both physically and socially and the bullying came to its natural end.
I met Rafique when he was in 10th grade. Even though the bullying was mostly over by then, he was still very much suffering its lingering effects. He had what I call a bullied heart.
A person with a bullied heart seeks approval and acceptance, quick to make acquaintances but slow to let their guard down to make true friends. They may experience deep shame; the belief that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. Some shy away from peer interaction but shadow adults that show them positive attention.
As youth ministers, we need to pay unique attention to teens to who have been through bullying or are currently in the midst of it. I’ve identified four needs of a bullied heart and what we can do to meet those needs.
A Bullied Heart Needs Love
Every student we work with needs love, but a bullied heart is desperately hungry for it. For many, the violence and humiliation they’ve experienced has reinforced the lie that they’re unlovable.
Our job is to move toward them in love. Spend time with them. Listen to them. Enjoy their company. Build them up.
Dive deep into God’s word together, learning about His love and approval.
And lay it on thick.
What might sound corny to our adult ears will be like refreshing water to a bullied heart.
Say things like:
“I’m so glad you’re here, we’re lucky to have someone like you in youth group.”
“Want to do lunch tomorrow? I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have lunch with.”
“I can’t imagine going through what you’ve been through. You’re one of the bravest people I know.”
“Man, God did a really good thing when he made you.”
A Bullied Heart Needs Friends
Many teens who experience bullying have a very limited number of friends. A great way to love your teens is to help them to build a robust peer group.
This can take a few different forms. In the short-term, you can set up “play-dates” with other teens in your youth group. Grab two boys and go to a movie, grab two girls and get dinner together. Be a conversation facilitator, trying to get the teens to spark a genuine friendship with one another.
For teens who struggle with social anxiety or awkwardness, the long-term strategy is teach them quality social skills. Watch them interact with others and then lovingly—and privately—point out areas where they might improve their skills. Be careful not to shame them for being themselves, rather help them become more socially astute.
A Bullied Heart Needs Identity
As you know, adolescence is a time when teens are trying to figure out who they are. Bullying is violent interruption of the identity formation process.
The labels that often accompany bullying—such as loser, retard, victim, scrawny, weird, slut—will likely land at the core of the bullied teen’s identity.
Getting teens to believe that these labels are lies from the enemy is always an uphill battle. The best thing you can do is to teach them to embrace their identity in Christ, exchanging the lies for truth.
Teach them that they are lovable because God loves them.
Teach them that they are perfect because Christ’s righteousness has perfected them.
Teach them that they are valuable because God died for them.
Teach them they are a perfect gift to the world because God created them.
Teach them that they are sons and daughters of the king because God adopted them.
This identity is based on eternal truth rather than preference, circumstance or lies. It can be the solid foundation of their continued journey of self-discovery.
And remember, a big part of teaching teens their identity in Christ is in how you interact with them.
Treat them like they are lovable, valuable and perfect, even when they’re frustrating, annoying and mean.
A Bullied Heart Needs a Guide
Finally, contrary to what your instincts might tell you, teens with a bullied heart don’t need you to be their friend—they need you to be a caring adult mentor. Someone who can guide them through difficult times, advocate for them with their parents or school, and connect them with any needed mental health care.
Holding onto your position as a caring adult will enable you to speak truth into their lives in a way that a friend can’t.
Above all, they need an adult who will love them and guide them toward the love of Christ.
If you make this your goal, you’ll see bullied hearts begin to find peace and hope.
Ash SanFilippo has done youth ministry from the streets of Chicago, to a small church on a secluded island, to the suburbs of Minneapolis. He currently works for TreeHouse, leading a team that creates online training content aimed at helping people minister to at-risk teens. Ash lives in Minneapolis with his wife and 1-year-old son. Check out TreeHouse at: treehouseyouth.org.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.