When Families Fall Apart
She’s always been such a bright, happy child,” the teacher said to me. “Always listening intently and taking part in everything we do. But lately, she’s been withdrawn and participates only rarely. I thought maybe she was just going through a phase. Then today, in the middle of the Bible story, she climbed into my lap, turned her face up to mine and said, ‘My daddy went away.’ Her eyes were so sad; I didn’t know what to do! So I just held her. Can you tell me what’s going on in her family?”
I didn’t know, but I told her I’d find out. Several days later, I discovered that her parents had separated a few weeks earlier and were now in the process of a divorce.
I have to admit I was a bit shaken by this experience. It was the first time I’d encountered such a dramatic change of behavior in a child due to what was happening in her family. That was many years ago, and in those days, I didn’t know what to do for children in that situation. So I told the teacher to give her a little extra love.
It wasn’t until years later that the issue surfaced again. In a new children’s ministry position, I encountered more out-of-control behavior than I’d seen in all the years at my other church. As I became better acquainted with the families in the church, I discovered most of the problems could be directly traced to what was happening within each child’s family. We had children whose parents were separated, divorced, or remarried. We had children being raised by their grandparents, children in foster care, and those living with an alcoholic or addicted parent.
What bothered me most was that it was so difficult to connect with these kids! They weren’t interested in Bible stories, children’s choir, or Wednesday night clubs. Their disruptive behavior made it difficult for teachers to bond with them. On the other hand, those who were quiet and withdrawn were easily overlooked. I have to admit that, in those early days, I had absolutely no idea what to do. I found precious few resources to help, so figuring out what to do became the focus of my ministry. Today, fortunately, we know a lot more about reaching children who live in these kinds of family situations.
WHY They Can’t Connect
For children, family is the center of their world and the source of their security. When the family is in crisis, disrupted, or in any way different from what the children desire, they have difficulty connecting in church settings for the following reasons.
• They’re in a great deal of pain. In any disrupted family, the children are always the innocent—and often overlooked—victims. They’re dealing with difficult life circumstances which they didn’t want or ask for! Consequently, they feel powerless over their circumstances. They experience intense feelings, such a grief, anger, betrayal, and guilt—just to name a few. These overwhelming feelings are frightening to children who aren’t yet emotionally ready to cope with them. Children express these feelings through aggression (acting out) or depression (withdrawal).
All these factors are in play as children sit in Sunday school classes. Is it any wonder it’s hard for them to connect with what’s happening in class? It’s hard to care about the kings of Israel when you’re not sure where you’re going to live or who’s going to pay the bills now that Dad has left the family. It’s hard to sing praises to God when you can’t understand why he didn’t answer the one prayer you wanted answered more than anything else in the world—that your mom would stop using drugs so you could all live together as a family again. It’s hard to care about witnessing to your friends when you can’t understand why your dad abandoned you to marry a stranger and he expects you to like living with her and her kids!
• They don’t trust easily. Children’s life circumstances form a filter through which they evaluate every other part of their lives. For instance, when parents divorce, children feel betrayed and that pain of betrayal seriously affects their ability to trust. But that’s seldom the end of the story. In most cases the child’s parents begin dating again and the children are exposed to new adult relationships—only to possibly have those relationships come to an end, too. How many times does it take before a child says, “No more! I’m not going to trust anyone again; it’s too painful”? This subconscious conclusion is common in children who’ve been wounded by the trusted adults in their lives and becomes a filter of distrust for every other adult relationship. This is a huge issue for us in children’s ministry—building trust with children who’ve been hurt by the adults in their lives.
• They filter faith through their life experiences. They evaluate everything we say about God (and other spiritual realities) in terms of their life experiences. Many times in our support groups we hear of children who don’t believe in God anymore or simply have no desire to pray. When questioned why, we discover they’ve drawn conclusions about God based on their life circumstances, such as:
- God doesn’t take care of my needs.
- God doesn’t rescue me when I really need it.
- God is punishing me for all the bad things I do.
- I’m too little for God to see me (the invisible child).
- God gives good gifts to everyone—but me.
- I don’t want anything to do with God (anger response)!
- I wish God would come and rescue me, but he probably won’t (victim mentality).
Of course, not all children respond to God in this way. Some of them find help and comfort in their relationship with God. But on the whole, we can expect children from families in crisis or transition to be struggling with God and skeptical of the spiritual realities we present.
WHAT Children Need
We must take seriously, and seek to meet, three primary needs of these children.
1. Consistent Relationships—This is the first issue we must address, because if children don’t trust us, they won’t listen or accept anything we say. To provide this, we must do the following.
• Keep classes and groups as small as possible. This is a difficult truth to accept when all of us face the problems of recruiting. However, trust is built as children are known by the adults who work with them. What we need to constantly remember is this: Children are changed by people—not programs! They don’t need bigger and flashier programming; they need teachers who care about them and will be there each week to lovingly greet them when they walk through the door.
• Model the positive qualities of God. This is the most important thing we do for children who have, or might be, disconnected from God because of their life circumstances. When we’re consistently present, unconditionally accepting, attentive, affirming, and reliable, we make it possible for children to believe that God could really be all these things we say he is!
• Provide a children’s support group. There are times when children facing painful life circumstances simply need a little more help and attention than we can provide in our regular children’s ministry settings. Children’s support groups integrate wonderfully with the ongoing children’s ministry programs and have proven to be highly effective. And they aren’t as difficult to run as it may sound. Excellent curriculum and training is now available. If you’re interested in this kind of programming, contact Confident Kids at www.confidentkids.com or call (805) 614-2824 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting (805) 614-2824 end_of_the_skype_highlighting.
2. Lots of Boundaries and Structure—In divorce situations, stepfamilies, and other nontraditional family settings, the lack of clear and consistent boundaries is a huge problem. Therefore, it’s a great source of relief to be in a class with clear boundaries, enforced consistently by the adults. To provide this, we must:
• Post class rules. This helps children know exactly what behavior is expected of them. Include the consequences for breaking rules (timeouts work well). Five rules are plenty.
• Consistently enforce rules. Apply the consequences as needed. This is crucial! Children will feel safe only when they know the rules will be enforced by the adults in the room.
• Provide lots of structure. Overplan your lesson, and engage the kids as soon as they arrive. Then keep them involved the entire time. Give special attention to transition times. The most vulnerable time for losing control of the class is when the teacher isn’t prepared.
3. A Safe Place—These children need an accepting place where they can talk about what’s real. Encourage them to talk about the realities of their lives with opportunities, such as:
• Prayer—Many times, children will share their deepest concerns at prayer time. Keep a prayer journal for your class to write all the requests. Use the prayer journal to pray for kids during the week, and then record what God is doing in the journal as kids report answers.
• Real Talk—Many children in nontraditional families have no place where they can talk about what’s happening in their lives. Consequently, they hold it all inside, where it continues to dominate their thoughts and emotions, and makes it hard to concentrate on what’s happening in the class. Many children aren’t thinking about what we’re saying because we’re not saying what they’re thinking about!
• Good Organization—Do your forms collect the information you need? For example, in divorce situations, the child has two parents who live separately. Sometimes, the parent the child lives with is not the one involved in your church. Consequently, when you send mailings just to the child’s mailing address, it never reaches the parent who needs to see it.
Forms should also clarify the identity of the person bringing the child. Is it a parent, stepparent, grandparent, or foster parent? Is the last name the same as or different from the child’s? Does the adult have the legal authority to give permission for off-campus activities? Are there any restraining orders against adults who may show up at church trying to gain access to the child? All these pieces of information are necessary for your children’s ministry to minister effectively to the child and family and to keep your church safe from legal problems.
The realities of divorce, stepfamily life, living in foster homes, coping with addicted parents—and a host of other subjects—need to be acceptable subjects for children to address in our ministries. It’s in the context of these discussions that we may find our best opportunities to talk about spiritual things.
Linda Kondracki Sibley is the founder of Confident Kids Support Groups (www.confidentkids.com).