Why children of divorce feel helpless – and how “choices” can help


ChoicesOne of the tragedies of divorce for children is the feeling of helplessness. Many adults who experienced their parents’ divorce report that, as children, they felt powerless and vulnerable. For the children it seems as though everything is out of control.

  • Changing routines
  • People moving out
  • Things and belongings disappearing
  • People disappearing such as neighbors if there is a move

And this is just the beginning of the list.

For many children, there is no preparation. So often the adults in a child’s life don’t talk about or explain what is taking place. The children are left to their own imagination.

Children react differently. For some children the loss of power and feelings of helplessness will thrust them into acting out and aggressive behaviors. These children come across as distracted, not able to concentrate and not able to hold still or cooperate. Anyone working with or ministering to these children needs to work at empowering them.

Some of you may be thinking of particular children, and you may be saying,

“Empower them? They are totally disrupting the group now. Give them more power? No way!”

How to Empower Them in a Healthy Way

I want to encourage you to change your mindset about these children. Somewhere I read that every aggressive child is a hurting child. I believe this to be true for the aggressive children in many of our groups.

  1. The first course of action is to lift these children up to the Lord by name. Don’t hold back with God; He can handle all that you have to say.
  2. Next is to figure out how to give them back some of their power.

They are using acting out and angry because it is one of the only sources of power and control they have in life.

You can’t make a child stop being angry. You can’t make a child behave. Giving children healthy personal power and empowering children is different than allowing them to be in control of the group.

Positive forms of power

One way to give children a positive form of power is to give them some control over their choices and decisions. My DC4K Safekeepers do this the minute they walk in the room. As the children walk in, we greet each child and call them by name. The next thing we do ask them what they want to do. Since we have stations or areas set up in advance they can choose where to go.

“We have several choices today. What do you want to choose first? The snack, art, or the small group table?”

For the older child you can substitute the word option for choice. At this point take your cue from the child. If he or she makes a choice, then comment on the decision being made.

What if the child ignores you or chooses something inappropriate?

If the child shrugs his or her shoulders or ignores you, then narrow things down and give two choices:

“You may go to the snack or the art project.”

For an older child you could say,

“Feel free to go to the snack or the project. What would be better for you?”

(Dialogue from Dr. Becky Bailey’s Conscious Discipline, , p. 142.)

Don’t stop with giving the choices, but follow through by asking for a commitment.

“So what’s your choice?”

If the child hesitates, you can repeat the options. If the child chooses something entirely different and it’s an okay choice, then comment on the child making a good decision.

“You chose ______. Wow, I hadn’t even thought of that choice. That’s a good choice for you.”

If the child tries to choose something that is not an option, then say,

“______ is not a choice right now.”

Repeat the choices available and ask for the commitment.

Throughout the entire session continue to give choices. If a child begins to get out of control, be matter of fact. Let’s use the example of a child becoming obnoxious during the discussion time after a story.

“Johnny, Kara is talking. You have a choice: you can listen to her words or you can leave the group. What is your choice?”

Worst-case scenario

The child says he will listen but continues to be obnoxious. You then say,

“You have a choice. You can go over to the table and draw a picture, or you can choose to go read a story. What’s your choice?”

If he shouts out,

“I hate you. I hate this class,” or “You can’t make me,

Don’t get caught up in an argument. Simply state in a matter-of-fact tone of voice,

“That’s too bad, Johnny. I can’t make you like this class. I hope you will choose to be a part of our DC4K family.”


“You are right Johnny. I can’t make you listen. I hope you choose to be a part of our DC4K family.”

Turn or walk away from the child and give your attention to Kara. You may have to disband the group discussion at this point and move into the next activity. Be matter of fact, stay in control and move on.

It also helps to be aware of how your voice sounds. Keep it in control and calm. Look at your body stance

  • Are your arms at your side and relaxed or are they folded across your chest and tight/tense looking
  • Your shoulders relaxed
  • Are your eyes soft and twinkling
  • Is your face calm?


The Benefits of Giving Choices

It’s amazing to watch these children’s self- confidence grow as you give them choices. In time you will see the aggressive behaviors calm down also. This is a wonderful life skill that you will be instilling in these children.

When you think about it, isn’t that what God does with us? He gives us choices. He doesn’t force us or make us. He offers us the choice of accepting Jesus Christ as our Savior. He offers us the choice of eternal life. The decision is ours.



This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on the Kids & Divorce blog on July 9 2015.

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2 thoughts on “Why children of divorce feel helpless – and how “choices” can help

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