Culture Shock: Talking to Parents About Their Children’s Behavior
This series is co-written by Linda Ranson Jacobs and Wayne Stocks. Linda has drawn on her years of experience working with children of divorce in a childcare setting, in churches and in developing the Divorce Care for Kids (“DC4K”) curriculum for churches to identify and explain some major issues when it comes to ministering to children of divorce and to explain how those issues were addressed in the DC4K curriculum. Wayne has drawn on his years volunteering in children’s ministry and his work with children of divorce to provide some practical advice on how these issues can be addressed in a weekly children’s ministry environment. Together, we hope that this series will help children’s ministry workers better minister to children of divorce and help those who volunteer in divorce ministries like DC4K to better anticipate and deal with issues unique to children of divorce.
Many children of divorce exhibit behavior issues. As you have learned from reading other articles here on DivorceMinistry4Kids you know these children live stress-filled chaotic lives. Oftentimes, they are overcome with anger and confusion and guilt. They are confused, scared, depressed and angry children. In many circumstances these underlying feelings manifest themselves in acting out. They act out their feelings through their behavior. Researchers are now realizing that family crisis and trauma can lead to disruptive behaviors in kids. (If you want to learn more learn more about this subject read, “Are these sings of mental illness in kids? Or normal response to childhood trauma? http://acestoohigh.com/2012/08/30/are-these-signs-of-mental-illness-in-kids-or-normal-responses-to-childhood-trauma/)
In traditional children’s ministry, many leaders have been taught that when a child has disruptive behaviors in class, that the right thing to do is take them to their parents. Alternatively, when the child’s parents come to pick their child up after service, we pull them aside and talk privately with the parents about the behavior issue. We do this in love and respect for the family, and we usually try to partner with the parents in helping their child to overcome those issues. We might ask the parent about what is going on in the child’s life and if there are any new issues we should be aware to help us better provide for their child. In other words, communication with the parents is paramount in helping their children in our church classes. This approach is rooted in the idea that parents are meant to be the primary spiritual nurturers of their children, and our role as children’s ministers is to come alongside them and assist in that role.
One of the biggest culture shock for children’s ministers when it comes to working with children of divorce is the idea that, with those kids, we need to stop the process of bringing the divorcing parent into the picture. That bears repeating, when it comes to children of divorce, and wherever possible, you should not get the parent involved in disciple issues. In ministering to children of divorce, we discourage leaders from taking a child to their single parent’s class or paging the parent to come pick up their child. Rarely do we even talk to the single parent about the disruptive behavior of their children.
Having worked in children’s ministry, we understand that this idea seems very counter-intuitive. Are we really suggesting that we “keep” that information from the parents. However, before you cast this idea to the wind, please hear us out. There is a reason for this approach which has the best welfare of both the child and parent in mind.
First, most single parents need to be in their own groups learning about the love of Christ. They need adult time and adult support for their lives. They are experiencing the same kind of day-in and day-out chaos that permeates the lives of children of divorce, and we do them a disservice by running to them every time we can’t get their child to do what he/she is supposed to be doing. They need to heal from the divorce as much as the children, and a relationship with Jesus is a major part of that healing. In the end, if the parent has more time to fellowship, calm down, and learn about Jesus, that will help the recovery process of their children as well.
Secondly, single parents are often at a loss for what to do with their child or what to do about disruptive behaviors in the first place. If their child is having behavior problems at church more than likely they are having behavior issues at school and at home as well. Rather than pile on, as the church, we can give these parents some rest from the issues they are likely facing on a daily basis.
How Behavioral Issues are Accommodated in the DC4K Program
Rather than pull a single parent out of their group or talking to the already overburdened single parent about their child’s disruptive behavior, we suggest to leaders that they deal with behavior issues within their group. Rather than take the “parent route” we suggest that leaders provide a child with choices while still maintaining control of the class. This helps to give the child a sense of power over their own life and might help to alleviate problems.
There are several specific reasons in DC4K why we discourage getting parents involved in behavior issues. Those include:
The confidentiality issue. In order to allow the child to feel comfortable in talking and sharing with the leaders and other kids, we tell the kids in the very first session that what they say in DC4K is confidential. We tell them they can tell their own parent what they say if they want to, but they don’t have. And, we ask them not to share with their parent what the other children say. In a situation where they act out if we take it directly to the parent when the child is picked up we have just broken the trust aspect of that word “confidential.” By telling the parent, we tell it says to the child, “It’s okay for the kid to keep confidences but we don’t have to as adults.” Trust issues are broken yet again by adult who are supposed to care.
We tell the kids we are the Safe Keepers. We are going to keep them safe at DC4K and they are to help us keep things safe. Almost all discipline situations can be handled by saying, “Whoa there sport, jumping off the table isn’t safe. What could you do that would be safe?” If we go directly to the parent with this issue then we aren’t very good Safe Keepers and we are saying to the kid, “Okay I might have told you I’m your Safe Keeper and it’s your job to help me keep things safe, but I really didn’t meant it. I don’t think you are capable of helping me keep anything safe.”
Many things we talk about in DC4K bring out the hurt the child is feeling. Since some children can’t verbalize their feelings, they let times their actions and behaviors speak for them. It’s our job to give them the words and language to help them express themselves. If we go to the parent we run the risk of the parent denying the child is feeling anything. Or the single parent feels so guilty they are clueless as to what to do. If this is the case, we heap coals of guilt upon the parent. Neither of these represents a partnering with the parent. Many divorcing parents do not have the capability to partner with you. They are trying, and many times unsuccessfully, to partner with the other parent. That is about all they can handle at the moment.
Many divorcing parents are so stressed and in such a state of shock they literally don’t have the ability to parent their child. We have to give them time to settle down, get control of their own emotions before we can offer parenting suggestions.
Some parents are stressed to the max and if approached about their child’s actions will only prompt them to use inappropriate discipline measures such as yelling and threatening, “If you can’t behave at church, then you just won’t be allowed to go see your dad this weekend.” Bad, bad, bad consequence! Now the child really doesn’t feel safe and look out next week because the behavior is probably going to get worse.
Many divorcing parents have no control at home and will not have a clue what to do with their child.
The divorcing parent is only one side of the child’s family. There is another parent who might be parenting completely opposite of the parent bringing the child to DC4K. They have no say in what goes on in the other home and may just throw up their hands because things are out of their control.
Guilt, embarrassment, loss of control with their child, feeling of hopelessness, stress and depression are a few of the reasons in DC4K we don’t take discipline situations to the parent. Most of the kids coming to DC4K will not have a parent who regularly attends your church. For the most part a children’s minister will not be well acquainted with the family. DC4K might be the only bridge into the church family. We don’t want the divorcing parent to pull their child from the one place that can help bring this child into the Kingdom. In extreme cases when a leader can’t get control of the child, then we gently probe what might be going on at home. After a visit to the home and once a relationship has been forged with the single parent, we can then offer parenting helps and resources that are designed specifically for the single parent. These are much different than what a children’s minister would offer a two-parent family.
Behavioral Issues and the Child of Divorce in a Traditional Children’s Ministry Setting
Unlike some of the other issues in this series where certain things can be “tweaked” to accommodate the child of divorce, the issue of behavior and children of divorce may dictate an overhaul of how you think about discipline in your children’s ministry. That said, you may find that rethinking your discipline plan for all kids, to accommodate children of divorce, may actually lead to a system that is built more on discipleship than punishment.
So, where do you start? I believe you start first with a plan. If you do not have a discipline plan, you should develop one. All kids need structure and a plan – children of divorce will particularly appreciate it (even if they might not seem to at first). Sit down and write your plan for the ministry. Do the children in your ministry know the expectations? Do you go over the rules of the room regularly? Are the rules clear and easy to remember? Do you warn a child about a behavior? If so, how and how many times before you move to the next level of discipline? Do you let the child know what is going to happen if they do not head your warning? When, if ever, do you get parents involved? Are there exceptions to that rule? When would you remove a child from your ministry based on behavior? Would you ever do that? All of these are questions which should be wrestled with in order to develop a uniform discipline plan. Once the plan is established, is should be shared with all leaders in your ministry so that discipline is consistent. This is particularly important, again, for children of divorce who may already be living in two different homes with two very different discipline plans.
Second, you need address the issue of when you will go to the parent with discipline issues. I believe that, wherever possible, you need a plan that applies to all children in your ministry but also leaves room for grace and common sense in individual circumstances. In other words, I would discourage any plan which singles out children of divorce and treats them differently than the rest of the kids in the class. On the other hand, I would also discourage any plan which does not account for what me going on in a child’s life (whether divorce or something else) and allow for grace in those circumstances. This is a fine line to walk and requires, first and foremost, that you have a ministry where the adults are invested in the children’s lives to the point where they will know what is going on.
So, where does that leave us when it comes to traditional children’s ministry and behavior issues specifically with the child of divorce. I think it means that you need a discipline plan where getting the parent involved is a last resort (i.e., after you have tried everything else). It also means that you need to know the kids, and the parents, in your ministry. The ultimate question is, “What is the best thing I can do in this circumstance for both the child and the family?” In some cases, that will mean talking to the parents about what is going on. This is, of course, easier to know if you already have a relationship with the parents. In the case of most children of divorce, this will mean dealing with the issue yourself, and many times trying to get to the root cause of the behavior issues.
Above all else, point these kids to Jesus and pray fervently for them. He is much more capable of dealing with their issues and problems than any of us!
This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on Divorce Ministry 4 Kids on September 07, 2012.