Dale Johnson: This week on the podcast, Dr. Sam Stephens, our Director of Training Center Certification here at ACBC, sat down with Tim Keeter who’s one of our teachers and trainers. Tim is a certified member of ACBC and he’s been training counselors for fifteen years with ACBC. Tim and his wife Carmen have three children. He works as an aerospace engineer and serves as an elder at his church, Grace Community in Huntsville, Alabama. Tim and Sam, I am so glad that you’re going to be having this conversation today. Bullying is a growing issue in our school systems. Thank you, gentlemen, for encouraging us and equipping parents to deal with this issue.
Sam Stephens: Tim, thanks for joining us today. The topic of parenting the bullied child hits home for a lot of people. To kick off our time together, how does this topic hit home for you? How did this topic come to interest you and push you to teach on what the Scripture speaks about it?
Tim Keeter: In the Lord’s wisdom, I was a very, very small guy for my age when I was younger. As a matter of fact, when I was eighteen I didn’t even look old enough to buy fireworks much less drive a car, and I could tell you plenty of stories about that. Since I was so small, I experienced a lot of bullying growing up. I had believing parents who tried to shepherd me through that. Then as a parent myself, as I was seeking to be a godly father and shepherd my children, I had a son who got my same genes in terms of his size and experienced a lot of the same thing. The difference was that when I was younger, bullying was more about physical violence or vandalism, whereas now it can involve a lot of other things like cyber bullying. I had to research to understand it, and as I looked for resources I didn’t find a lot out there. What I did find is that the Word of God is still applicable to the things that we were trying to do as parents in the home.
Sam Stephens: Help us understand what exactly bullying is.
Tim Keeter: There are a lot of very helpful secular resources out there, even government websites like stopbullying.gov. In order to determine if something is actually bullying, typically there’s an emphasis on the following three things that are supposed to happen at the same time. The first is acts of some kind of an aggressive nature. Second, there is the presence of an imbalance of power, which can look like physical strength, access to embarrassing information, or something involving popularity. Third, it’s a repeated event with some level of frequency. It can look like making threats, spreading rumors, physical attacks, verbal attacks, or excluding people from groups can be interpreted as bullying by some.
It can occur face-to-face or digitally with social media, texting, gaming sites, email, or other apps. The use of digital devices is frequently referred to as cyber bullying. That offers the bully something that they couldn’t do when I was younger: to persistently impose their tactics. It can feel like a nonstop beating on the young person, in some sense, because it can reach them at all times. Not to over trivialize it, but what the Bible says about what to do when people sin against you is not limited to what the secular definitions of bullying are. God’s Word equips Christian parents, and that’s the hope that I want to share to faithfully deal with sin-cursed people doing sin-cursed things to our sin-cursed children.
Sam Stephens: When a Christian parent sees that their child is being bullied, what are some initial steps they can think about when they engage with this problem?
Tim Keeter: As a parent, because of my experiences, I thought I was ready to go. The emotional swell of having someone do that to your child brought to our attention that we needed to get control of ourselves first. If we were going to lead, then we needed to be following Christ so that they see our example and could follow Christ as well. Those moments are hard, especially when you find out your heart is just caught in this concert of different emotions from anger to frustration and possibly even thinking, “Why can’t my kid just be more normal? Why do we have to deal with this?” God’s grace is not on pause for Christian parents in this situation and we need to be reminded of that.
There are four quick principles we can think about. One very practical principle right out of the gate is to discern how urgent the situation is. We always want to err on the side of caution regarding our child’s physical safety. We want to ask specific questions about threats, document which individuals are involved, those who might have witnessed it, and take note of any type of abuse, especially if serious physical threat or criminal activity has occurred. That could include cyber activity. If there are authorities that need to be contacted, consult them for advice on how to do that. Even if you don’t want to falsely accuse someone, err on the side of caution of protection while you investigate.
Second, we need to pray and seek wisdom. God loves to give wisdom. James 1:5 reminds, “Let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” That exhortation is given to people who encounter various trials, and bullying would be involved in that. Parents also need wisdom because our children are watching. I love the old parent adage that says, “Much more is caught than taught.” They are watching, and wisdom is what we want them to have and we need to demonstrate it.
Third, gather data continually and do it with humility. A very difficult thing, especially if you’re talking to those who are involved in the matter, is to hear properly before you answer. We see all kinds of wisdom in Scripture that teaches this such as Proverbs 18:15, “The mind of the prudent acquires knowledge, and the ear of the wise seeks knowledge.” Proverbs 18:17 then says, “The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him.” That reminds us that no one is infallible, not even our children and their observations. No one is omniscient in their knowledge, and we have to be in a continual quest to gather information and learn. Then respond biblically with what the Lord has revealed to us and deal with what he has not told us until such time as it’s revealed.
The fourth basic principle is to expect only good from God. That’s a tone we need to set with our children. We see it in Romans 8:28-29 where we realize that God works all things, even situations with parents and bullies and those who are sinning against our children, to help conform us to Christ and to demonstrate what grace looks like in our life. We continue reading in that passage through verse 32 and we’re reminded that God is for us and, “He who did not spare His own Son but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?” Our greatest challenge is behind us and the Lord has demonstrated that through the sacrifice of Jesus on our behalf. We can desire no greater good than to be made more like our Redeemer, and that’s a challenge in our hearts to put that first above all things, above wanting to exact justice or even to seek relief from the trial.
Sam Stephens: There may be some whose child is being bullied, but they don’t even know what to look for. Are there any common responses of bullied children or signs that parents can be looking for?
Tim Keeter: There’s different combinations of these in different children’s hearts, and you want to explore these. I’ve found some very helpful resources online that help me think through some of these and put them in biblical categories. One is a sinfully strong desire to escape unwanted emotions. Intense painful emotions come along with things like this and it’s a temptation to want to be free of that so much that it generates sinful behavior to escape it. In other words, the desire to be free becomes a demand in our children’s heart and maybe even in us to the point to where it becomes idolatrous in its strength above the desire to please the Lord. You might see things like the child avoiding talking about it, possibly because it simply makes them feel awful. They may choose to control or suppress those unwanted emotions by finding refuge in unbiblical ways, running to things like hobbies, food, forms of entertainment, cutting, alcohol, drugs, or things like that as a means of escape.
What we want to do there as parents is to help them move from a sinful desire to escape unwanted emotions toward patient hope in God. That’s authentic suffering as Steve Viars puts it in his book, Putting Your Past in Its Place. God doesn’t want us to avoid talking about our pain, he encourages us to do so. We can follow the examples of so many of the psalmists. As parents, we want to help our children to cry out to God and admit their weakness and doubts and to ask God to help them. Similarly, God doesn’t want us to resort to sinful means of escape as well. We want to please the Lord by bearing up under the trial for as long as God desires it and to help our children bear up under it. We want them to learn what it means to trust the Lord for that strength and to take Christ’s example in 1 Peter 2 where, “While being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering He uttered no threats.” What did he do? He “kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously.” We must learn patient hope, patient trust in God while the emotions are going on and the trial continues.
The second thing that children tend to struggle with is negative self perceptions. Sadly, bullies often capitalized on the differences between children and what they believe others should be like. That’s an obvious snare that can tempt them to buy into those kind of comparisons. You want to listen for those kind of comparisons and understand how your child thinks about them. In this line of questioning, what you’re trying to do is understand how they look at themselves, but also the values that are reflected in that.
I have a favorite tool that I learned about back when I was in training for the counseling certification at Faith Baptist Church in Indiana. It’s a self-perception diagram. I show this tool in a little mini book that Shepherd Press put out called, Help! My Child Is Being Bullied. Basically, the idea is to take each perception and first categorize it as one of three things: inaccurate, accurate but not sinful, or accurate and sinful. If there’s an inaccurate perception, such as, “I always mess everything up,” that needs to be changed to things that are true. Secondly, accurate perceptions that are not sinful may require you to help your child change what they value. As an example, “I’m not good at sports.” Okay, but that’s not sinful. How do we address that as parents? And finally, accurate perceptions that are sinful require biblical repentance. For instance, “I have a bad temper. I blow up easily.” We want to help them move from negative self-perceptions toward accurate views of self in light of their need for Christ and what it means to live faithfully in this situation.
Third, a bitter spirit is another common thing. They’ve been wronged, hurt, and humiliated, and they may respond with a bitter spirit and unwillingness to overcome evil with good as we’re instructed to in Romans 12. You may see things that are pretty obvious like bitterness and anger toward the bully, but also those who joined in with bullies or teachers for not protecting them. Bullies can be pretty adept at not getting caught or doing things when no one’s looking. They may respond pridefully, replaying the event over in their mind or entertaining fantasies or plots for revenge.
This was admittedly my personal go-to as a bullied child, thinking things like, “Why does everybody think I’m stupid? I’m smarter than all those idiots.” We want to help our children move from a bitter spirit toward compassionate kindness. I love Colossians 3:12 which says, “So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.” Even if the bully is an unbeliever and doesn’t come to repentance and ask for forgiveness, we stand in that spirit of compassion and kindness because that extends not just to our church family, but to the world as we reflect the gospel.
Helping our children turn towards deliberate reflection on the gospel is very important because we’ve wronged God infinitely more than that bully has wronged our children. Even though it will cost us to stand in that spirit of forgiveness in terms of humility, setting aside our desires, and trusting in God for justice that is His job and not ours, we can be sure it will never cost us more than it cost Him to redeem us.
We should also learn to, in a sense, pity this other child because they have wronged another image bearer of God, and that puts them in a situation of rebellion towards the Lord. I remember with one of our children, my wife found an old picture of this one child and my son playing together when they were younger. We put that up on his desk so that he could see a time when they were friends and that would help him remember to pray for that individual. Philippians 4:8 tells us to think on what is right, admirable, and lovely. Right thinking is thinking from God’s point of view, clearing away all the muck that our sinful minds can come up with. Admirable thinking means reflecting on the good in the other person as opposed to fault-finding, finding evidences we can see of God’s grace in their life. Lovely thinking is considering how we can serve or build others up, including the bully.
Finally, fear of man can manifest itself in the bullied child. It’s so easy to develop an overanxious concern about what others think, primarily because it erodes our trust in the Lord. We see in Scripture that the fear of man brings a snare, but by contrast, he who trusts the Lord will be exalted. It’s a powerful temptation for them, and we want to help them move from fear of man to fear of God. There are so many resources available to Christian parents and believers in that area.
Sam Stephens: Tim, thank you so much for helping us to understand this rightly through not just your personal testimony, but your study of the Scriptures as well. Your booklet is going to be a great resource for many parents.