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What Children Need From You When Families Fall Apart

when families fall apart

If you’re in children’s ministry for any length of time, you’ll unfortunately experience the sad situation of broken families. Discover how you can help kids when families fall apart.

“She’s always been such a bright, happy child,” the teacher told me. “But lately, she’s been withdrawn and participates only rarely.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 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. Days later, I discovered her parents had separated and were in the process of divorcing. This experience shook me, to be honest. It was the first time I’d encountered such a dramatic change of behavior in a child due to family circumstances. Back then, 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 kidmin position, I encountered quite a bit of out-of-control behavior. As I became better acquainted with the families, I discovered most of the problems could be directly traced to what was happening at home. Parents were separated, divorced, or remarried. Children were being raised by grandparents, in foster care, and living with an alcoholic or addicted parent.

Connecting with these kids was so difficult! They weren’t interested in Bible lessons, 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 On the other hand, those who were quiet and withdrawn were easily overlooked. 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 when families fall apart or are hurting.

When Families Fall Apart: Why Kids 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.

1. They’re in pain.

When families fall apart, children are always the innocent—and often overlooked—victims. They’re dealing with difficult life circumstances they didn’t want or ask for! Consequently, they feel powerless over their circumstances. They experience intense feelings such as grief, anger, betrayal, and guilt. 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. When families fall apart, is it any wonder it’s hard for kids to connect in the classroom? It’s hard to care about the kings of Israel when you’re not sure where you’ll live or who will pay the bills now that Dad has left. Singing praises to God is tough when you can’t understand why he didn’t answer the one prayer you wanted answered more than anything: that Mom would stop using drugs so you could all live together again. It’s hard to care about witnessing to friends when you can’t understand why Dad abandoned you to marry a stranger and he expects you to like living with her and her kids!

2. 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 families fall apart and parents divorce, children feel betrayed. 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. So the children are exposed to new adult relationships—only to possibly have those relationships 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 trusted adults. It becomes a filter of distrust for every other adult relationship. This is a huge issue for us in children’s ministry: building trust with kids when adults have hurt them.

3. They filter faith through their life experiences.

Children evaluate everything we say about God (and other spiritual realities) in terms of their life experiences. Many times in support groups, we hear of children who don’t believe in God anymore or 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.
  • When I really need it, God doesn’t rescue me.
  • 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 this way. Some find help and comfort in their relationship with God. But on the whole, when families fall apart we can expect children to struggle spiritually.

What Children Need

When families fall apart, we must take seriously, and seek to meet, children’s three primary needs:

1. Consistent Relationships

This is the first issue to 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 we face the problems of recruiting. However, children build trust as the adults who work with them get to know them. Remember: People—not programs—change children! Kids don’t need bigger and flashier programming; they need teachers who care about them and will be there each week to lovingly greet them.

• Model the positive qualities of God. This is the most important thing we do for children who have been, or might be, disconnected from God because of 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. When families fall apart or face extreme challenges, kids may need more help and attention than we can provide in a regular Sunday school setting. Children’s support groups are highly effective. 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.

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 adults. To provide this, we must:

• Post class rules. This helps children know exactly what behavior you expect. 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 feel safe only when they know that the adults in the room will enforce the rules.

• Provide lots of structure. Overplan your lessons, and engage 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 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 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 must 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 the child’s? Does the adult have legal authority to give permission for off-campus activities? Are there any restraining orders against adults who may show up trying to gain access to the child? All this information is necessary to minister effectively and to protect your church legally.

In our ministries, children need to be able to address the realities of divorce, stepfamily life, living in foster homes, coping with addicted parents—and a host of other subjects. In the context of these discussions, 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).