Two big mistakes we make with stressed-out children of divorce!


Sad Girl

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 this? They may wonder if there is any discipline in the home at all.

It is not that their parent is a bad parent 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. For many children when they are act out or misbehave they are simply doing the best they can do to survive in that moment. They need loving people who will help regulate the world around them so they can learn and experiment with their own internal regulation.

Down through the years those of us working with the child of divorce have made a lot of mistakes. Thankfully because of brain research and through much prayer and with the direction of the Holy Spirit we’ve learned how to better accommodate these hurting children.

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.

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”. But the kids of divorce didn’t feel special because after all if they were really all that “special” one of their parents wouldn’t have left. So in reality we separated these kids from the rest of the group because inside they felt everyone was special but them.
  • We worked on raising kids “self-esteem”. Everything was about helping the child to feel good about everything they did. Again many children of divorce didn’t feel good about anything. They were sad and depressed. I think we drove them deeper into the sadness when we were trying to raise their self-esteem.

We used a worldly approach to a spiritual problem. We 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. We forgot that when children love God first, they will feel good about themselves as well.

Children of divorce need

  • Children need self-respect.
  • They need self worth.
  • They need a healthy 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.

Kids need to feel like they belong especially kids who no longer feel they have a family. 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
  • They feel responsible
  • They take part in rituals.

How do you help them belong

  • Asking children to pass out papers
  • Collect bibles
  • Help run the tech equipment in your children’s groups
  • Asking them to help ushers hand out bulletins for church wide events

Get creative. There are many things a child can do in church services as well as before and after an event.

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 – Using Rewards

Another big mistake was using rewards, stickers and candy to get the kids to do what we wanted. I realize many of you still use rewards based systems. 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?

Do you think rewarding this child with a sticker really meant anything?

What mistakes have you made with stressed-out children of divorce?


DC4K blogs posts are great to use in training children’s leaders and volunteers and they are free.  Subscribe to the DC4K blog here.

Want to learn more about how to start a DivorceCare for Kids group for the hurting children in your community? Click here.

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12 thoughts on “Two big mistakes we make with stressed-out children of divorce!

  1. What an insightful reminder to all, not just church teachers. The children in the church where I attend and teach children’s church has several children from divorced parents. This reminds me that they do look at life differently. Thank you.

    • Cindy thank you for commenting. I’m glad the post was a reminder to you as you work with the children of divorce in children’s church.

  2. “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.”
    In your article you mentioned “Brain research” and you share this information. Can you share a citation for a research journal? I was curious because of some things being covered in my son’s school. I was telling his teacher about the article and she asked me if you had the citation. Could you please share? Thanks!

    • Jessica, there are several resources that sight brain research. The one I rely on for much of the information regarding children is Dr Becky Bailey at I am out of town right now and don’t have her book in front of me but this information is in her book which can be found at the website above. Hope this helps. Linda J

  3. Hi, I looked at the website and it was very interesting. I will probably forward the information. When you get a chance, would you just see if she has a citation or where she gets her info. Thanks!

  4. Jessica, you’ll probably just need to order Becky’s book, “Conscious Discipline” to get her resources. She uses many resources in her materials. There are 4 pages in the back of her book on resources, plus when she quotes a resource she puts in the text. Dr. Bailey or her associates go into school districts and they will work with the entire school to help people understand the idea and rational for loving these kids and changing how teachers approach discipline.

  5. Thank you Linda Antle Ranson Jacobs! This is great advice. I’ll share and vouch on a personal level. My stepdaughter was young when her parents divorced.She acted out. The counselors didn’t want to “stress her out” so they advised removing “stressful things” like chores; school teachers bent the rules and didn’t enforce due dates for projects/tests; she was given “passes” on poor behavior and my husband (under the advice of counselors) created countless reward systems – that never worked. When I entered her life as a stepmom I did not agree with the reward systems especially when she would say “what do I get if I behave?” – I’d respond “the satisfaction of doing the right thing.” (That didn’t compare to the new toy or ice cream cone she was used to getting). As a stepparent I couldn’t come in and change everything yet my heart could see this child manipulating the system and being rewarded for it. She felt such a loss of control at her mom leaving that she acted out and took control wherever she could find it and if teachers weren’t going to enforce school rules or she was rewarded with treats why wouldn’t she take them up on it. Fast forward to the teens and she often doesn’t want to do anything unless she gets something for it. It’s become learned behavior. I chose in my role not to use the reward system and to establish loving boundaries with her. If I could encourage any parent – single, married, divorced, remarried – give your children responsibility and accountability. They will rise to your expectations. Divorce does NOT have to define a child yet when we change the rules for them in some ways we are communicating that it does. Sorry for the long post. I absolutely love your wisdom and share with with the stepmoms I work with. They often share with their spouse that they are reading your blog and it’s been helpful. You bless many!

    • Heather, thank you so much for posting your comment. You are wise and your stepdaughter is lucky to have you. And thank you for saying divorce doesn’t have to define you. I love that comment. Linda

  6. Pingback: DC4K » 10 ways to use God’s glory to de-stress the child of divorce

  7. I love your thoughts about developing a self esteem that is rooted in the truth of scripture and focused on God.
    One thing about rewards when kids are under the age of 12.. at that grammar stage of life, kids don’t often relate what they are doing to a bigger picture of why. Around age 12 they start asking the bigger picture questions and developing logical thinking. Bringing a Bible to class and getting a reward when young is perfect at the grammar stage, and they probably can’t tell you how it relates to how it was used in class. That is normal at that age . What is important is when they hit middle school, you start talking about why they are bringing the Bible and start showing them how it’s important to them. Their brain is ready for that information at that stage of life, but not before. By high school, you encourage them to take on the study and bringing of the Bible on their own, and ask them about what they are learning in it. That is how the mind develops. Children under stress may be delayed in these stages, but taking away rewards will not accomplish movement into thinking they aren’t ready for yet.

    • Michele, thank you for your response, however, I am not in favor of rewards for behavior at any age. I truly believe rewards creates other control especially in young children. In other words, kids do something because they get a reward to please the adult in front of them. If kids, especially kids from divorced homes, are rewarded at church, it can imply that God’s love is conditional on how I act or on what I do. I never want a child of divorce to think God’s love is conditional. Many of these hurting kids from warring parents are already getting conditional love and they will transfer that to church and to God, the heavenly Father, very quickly.

      • I understand what you mean about feeling conditional love, because I was one of those kids. I am 50 now, and worked in dc4k for 8+years. I love what you have done and written. Honestly, growing up, the church was the place I felt loved, by Sunday School teachers and leaders. They gave us rewards for memorizing scripture and bringing Bibles and volunteering for things, but I didn’t feel it was related in any way to how they felt about me. Perhaps it was because I was a child who loved that kind of thing . I can see your point of how a child who doesn’t participate in those things might think they were less loved if a teacher didn’t take the time with them to build a relationship too . It is still true that kids don’t develop the reasoning to think through the”why” until around Junior high. Some are earlier, and some are later. It’s good to explain things to them, but they can’t always respond back with why things are important until they are older. Emphasizing that these ways/things are good in the young years is enough, without the expectation for them to tell you why they are doing them, other than a brief answer they have memorized from a teacher’s repetition. A middle school curriculum for dc4k that delved into that deeper thought process and builds on the principles from dc4k would be awesome.
        Thank you for all you do!

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