Sunday Morning Strategies: Discipline and the Child of Divorce

Wayne Stocks —  In Teaching February 11, 2014

imageWelcome back as we continue our “Sunday Morning Strategies” series designed to help you to accommodate children of divorce and children from single parent homes in your Sunday morning children’s ministry. Today, we start to tackle one of the most visible issues you will likely face in your ministry in deal with children of divorce – discipline issues.

Children of divorce live in a world where they feel like they have no control over anything. Oftentimes, that leads to them acting out or lashing out in their behavior. They misbehave as a means of getting attention and as a way of exerting the little bit of control they do have left over their lives. You have likely seen these discipline problems in your ministry and dealt with these kids, yet you may never have realized that the root of these problems was in dealing with family disruption. In the coming weeks, we will look at specific things you can do and techniques you can use in terms of discipline and children of divorce, but before we do that, it’s important to step back and take a broader view of the issue of discipline and children of divorce.

What Is Discipline?

pdf to share rightAt its root, discipline has to be about discipleship. It’s right there in the root of the word. We when we talk about any discipline, whether for the child of divorce or otherwise, it is important to keep the goal in mind. The goal must be to disciple the child – to guide them and teach them to make right and God honoring choices. Discipleship, and therefore discipline, has to be about the heart of the child. As such, the ability to discipline boils down to relationship.

Relationships

In order to effectively discipline any child, you must first develop a relationship with them. This is particularly true of children of divorce who may be leery of relationships to begin with. In order to develop relationships with these kids, you have to know the family situations of the kids in your ministry and understand the issues they are facing and the circumstances they are living through.

Knowing What To Expect

You need to know what to expect when dealing with kids suffering through family disruption. Emotions like fear, anger, sadness, grief, guilt and many more are likely racing through the minds and hearts of these kids. These kids are facing emotions they may never have dealt with before.

When you find a child acting out in your classroom or Sunday school, you need to make the effort to figure out the emotion underlying the action. In little Johnny is being mean to the other kids or not listening to your adult leaders, he may be trying to exert some control where the rest of his life is totally out of his control. Rather than punish or give consequences, you might want to give little Johnny something constructive that he can control. By doing so, you are addressing the issue underlying the behavior rather than just dealing with the behavior.

You also need to be realistic. Many children of divorce and children from disrupted families live very chaotic lives, and they likely spend much of their time in a “fight or flight” kind of mode. These kids might not be capable of sitting still or memorizing scripture or discussing your lesson for the day. They are just trying to make it to the end of the day only to do it all over again tomorrow. You have to adjust your plan accordingly. Create a safe place for the child (something which takes time) so that they can come down from the “fight or flight” mentality and engage with you and the rest of the kids in the room.

Don’t Be Lax

We need to understand how family disruption affects kids, and we need to show grace wherever possible, but we can’t let kids “get away with it” just because of their life situation. In doing so, we are defining them by the choice(s) of their parent(s) – even if it is with the best of intentions. Be consistent and set boundaries that the kids are aware. Study after study shows that all kids, and particularly children from disrupted families, are happiest in, and thrive the most in, an environment with clear boundaries and structure. They want and need to be able to count on you to be in charge.

In the coming weeks, we will look at more practical ideas when it comes to discipline and children from disrupted homes.