The Mistakes We’ve Made With Children of Divorce
Many children living in divorcing single parent homes experience tremendous stress leading to some out of control behaviors. When they come to your church, your volunteers question what on earth could be causing these kids to act like that. They may wonder if there is any discipline in the home at all. It is not that their parents are bad parents or that they aren’t trying, but more likely it is because there is confusion and chaos in the child’s life. Many of these children live in high conflict situations where they experience high stress levels.
In the book Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control: A Love-Based Approach to Helping Attachment-Challenged Children With Severe Behaviors, Heather Forbes and Bryan Post reference these children in their “Stress Model” chart. They say,
“Children who are misbehaving are seeking external regulation.”
They go on to say that stress causes a child to have confused and distorted thinking. With all of the children I have worked with, I find this to be true. I have often said children’s behavior becomes their voice when they don’t feel safe, don’t feel loved, are confused and when they don’t know what is happening next. For many children when they are act out or misbehave they are simply doing the best they can do to survive in that moment.
Today I’d like for us to look at the mistakes we made in the past when working with some of these children. I’d like to examine what works in today’s world when accommodating the child of divorce and their behaviors.
Mistake #1 – The Self-Esteem/Specialness Mistake
In the past we made several mistakes in our discipline and guidance of children. What we did before the divorce epidemic hit our world seemed to have worked. But now that we have many stressed out children and children living in two different worlds on a daily basis, some of those old techniques simply don’t work effectively.
Keep in mind that, for the most part, we were taught or encouraged to do these things by society, by the colleges we went to, by the experts and the child development specialists. Sometimes what we did before might have seemed to work at the time, but there were long-range consequences from some of those techniques.
- Special-ness: We told kids they were special. We sang songs that touted, “I am special!” We did art projects that said, “I am special”.
- We worked on raising kids “self-esteem”. Everything was about helping the child to feel they were special and everything needed to feel good.
I remember when my daughter Julie was in preschool at our church where I wrote the curriculum. Oh, how we worked on their self-esteem. We did all those “special-ness” activities. We sang those “I am special” songs.
When Julie went to kindergarten her teacher said,
“Julie has a very high self esteem.”
Oh my goodness, I was such a proud mother. She went on to say,
“She has a high opinion of herself and her self-esteem will serve her well as she grows up.”
I think the kindergarten teacher must have been trained in the same school of thought that I was.
Julie’s self esteem served her great – until she was about 8 years old and started telling me what to do. She thought she was entitled to what she wanted and when she wanted it. I woke up to realize that she was telling everyone what to do. Not only that, but her friends were doing the same thing. There was a lot of conflict going on among her peers.
The realization hit home one day when her little 4 yr old brother shouted,
“How dare you tell ME what to do. Just who do you think you are?”
That’s when I began to realize we were not doing these kids any favors by telling them how special they were and raising their self esteem so high that it affected their other relationships. We seemed to have left God out of the picture. We forgot that God wants us to teach children to love Him first and then to love our neighbor as our self.
Now we have a generation of adults that I call the “E Generation”. I don’t mean “E” for electronics either. I mean “E” for the “Entitled Generation”, the “I want this because I deserve it” or, “I’m entitled to have it.” Now, many of us have to deal with these parents in our churches. Their kid is the kid that never does anything wrong. Or it must be YOUR fault their child is having problems. I mean after all they don’t do these kinds of things at home!
Something might seem to be working at that moment in time but what are the long-range implications? This is one of those things I was talking about.
See when everyone is “special” no one is really “special”. Children need self-respect. They need self worth. They need a healthy self-esteem. They need a strong self-esteem. They need to learn to be part of a community or a family. They need to realize they are part of God’s family. They need to learn that God is God and He is a God to be respected and loved.
We went from telling kids “you are special” to creating family whether it is church family, school family or just feeling like they belong to a community of people. What we’d really like for each kid to feel and have is an intact family but for the kids of divorce that isn’t happening. That is where the church and the families in the church can pick up the slack. We can help these children feel a sense of belonging.
Children feel like they belong when they take on ownership, when they feel responsible and when they take part in rituals. Asking children to pass out papers, collect bibles, or help run the tech equipment in your children’s groups helps them to belong. Asking them to help ushers hand out bulletins for church wide events helps them have a healthy dose of self worth. Imagine being a kid whose father or mother walked out the door a few months ago and how lost they feel and even home-less coming to church and finding a group of loving people who want them to be there and who trust him or her enough take part in a church wide, adult event.
Mistake #2 – Rewards
Another big mistake was using rewards, stickers and candy to get the kids to do what we want. I realize many of you still use rewards. I’m just asking you to think about the reward system and what you are trying to accomplish. Rewards are based on the adult’s judgment of what happened. There are some kids that will never get a reward.
For some kids just the stress of trying to figure this out will send them to the lower level of the brain. Into the survival mode of the brain where they can’t think, rationalize or organize their thoughts enough to get the reward. They will never figure it out.
We should want kids to do these things because
- Of the intrinsic value
- It feels good under the skin
- It feels natural
- It feels like the right thing to do
Rewards, stickers, trinkets, gum, candy, stars, etc. all serve to create “other control” meaning the child does what YOU want him to do. In other words, things are conditional on how you the adult are judging them.
Rewards work for mundane types of task or for short-term memory learning. Things like memorizing a short scripture or perhaps the words to a praise song. They work for the moment – but do the children really understand the “why’s” of what is happening.
Following is a conversation that my friend, Carnisha, had with her daughter, Brianna, about taking her Bible to church.
Carnisha: How come you want to take your Bible to church?
Bree: So I can get a sticker.
Carnisha: But what’s the reason for taking your Bible?
Bree: To get a sticker!
Carnisha: What I mean is what’s the purpose of taking your Bible?
Bree: I told you, to get a sticker.
Carnisha: Let me put it this way, what do you do with your Bible at church?
Bree: Show it to my teacher so she will give me a sticker.
Carnisha: Why does your teacher want you to bring your Bible?
Bree: So she can give me a sticker.
Carnisha: Do you read out of the Bible or look at it?
Bree: I don’t remember. Once I get the sticker, I lay it down. I don’t remember what else we do with the Bible after I get my sticker.
Do you think there was any eternal significance for Brianna about taking her Bible to church? Do you think when Brianna is an adult, she will remember taking her Bible to church?
For more resources and information on divorce, family disruption and modern families please visit our Hope 4 Hurting Kids Divorce and Modern Family Help Center.
This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on Divorce Ministry 4 Kids on September 28, 2012.