Heartbreakingly, 60% of children with additional needs are bullied (source: Ability Path). With one in five children and young people having an additional need of some kind, that’s many millions who have experienced bullying. One is one too many, so many is an absolute outrage!
When we think about childhood bullying, the stereotypical environment is bullying at school or in the street. We may also think about online bullying, a huge problem for many children today. But do we think about how children with additional needs and their families are regularly being bullied in church?
Surely church should be a place of safety, a place of belonging, a loving place where all are welcomed and all are treated with respect, however this is often far from the case. Bullying of children with additional needs, and their families, happens in the church all too often. Since my blog post last month ‘Let ALL The Little Children Come To Me’, telling the story of one family's negative experience of church, I’ve been sent many other equally upsetting stories. This family is not alone in being badly treated by their church.
There are lots of ways that these families are treated badly, sometimes bordering on and stepping over the line into bullying, and it isn’t possible to include them all here, but as well as the exclusion experienced by the family in my previous post, there can be poor behaviours demonstrated within our church congregations, behaviours that can often fall into three areas, all linked, but all very hurtful.
The ‘Tut’ - A sound that is so short, but which can leave a lasting impact. People tut when they disapprove of something, or someone; when they wish to show distaste or dislike. A ‘tut’ can be like a dagger to the heart of a family of a child with additional needs. It condemns, it judges, it articulates opinion in a cruel and harsh way. When trying to support a child who is overwhelmed and having a meltdown, the ‘tut’ says to parents “You have failed to control your child and now you are inflicting their issues on me, and I disapprove…”. That simple sound can be so hurtful, but it is often accompanied by…
The ‘Look’- A harsh stare often follows the ‘tut’; a glowering, accusatory, frowning, purse lipped look that make families with children with additional needs want to hide from the glare. It reinforces the sense of helplessness and hopelessness that the family will be feeling as they try to help and support their child, just at a time when what they really need is kindness and understanding. But then often the third part of the bullying ‘triple whammy’ comes swiftly along…
The ‘Loud Comment’ - After the ‘tut’ and the ‘look’ often comes the loud comment, ostensibly aimed at someone nearby, but made loudly enough to be heard by the family (and probably most of the church congregation!) It can frequently start with “Well...” and continues with something like “if they can’t control their child they shouldn’t bring him/her into church…” (control is just about the last thing possible during a meltdown), or “I wouldn’t put up with bad behaviour like that if she was my child” (this isn’t bad behaviour, it’s could be a response to sensory overload).
I could add many other examples here, perhaps including the ‘Smug Smile’when the family drag their distressed child out of the church so that they aren’t subjected to any further abuse. Many have seen people do one or all of these things in our churches, seen the impact it has had on families and their children; we can see how our churches, our churches for goodness sake, might add to the stark statistic at the top of this post… Does it break your heart? It certainly breaks mine…
We need to be better than this, to model a better way to the rest of the world, to make a positive difference to that statistic rather than adding to it. It needs change; change to come from the top, from those with positions of responsibility in our churches. Good practice needs to be preached and poor behaviour needs to be challenged.
We need to see the ‘tuts’ turned to offers of support and help, the ‘look’ to become one of friendship and encouragement, the ‘loud comment’ to be “how can we help you?”
Jesus was bullied, was ridiculed, was treated harshly, so he understands what families with children with additional needs go through. Perhaps that is one of the reasons that he reminded us of those verses in Leviticus 19:9-18 which he summarised as “…and love your neighbour as yourself.” (It’s worth reading the whole Leviticus passage, it’s good thought provoking stuff…) Loving our neighbour as ourselves talks about fairness, justice, generosity, righteousness, forgiveness, and honest to goodness loving…
So, let’s follow this teaching and let it change us, change our congregations, change our churches, and change the experience for many families with children with additional needs…
As Jesus himself said, “Let ALL the little children come to me…”
To find out more about how Mark and his work can help you, contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or @Mark_J_Arnold