When kids of divorce explode emotionally, how do you help the parent?


Emotional Explosion

In ministering to children of divorce and single parents, it is important to realize that single parents might need to quickly change how they discipline.

They’ve moved from a two-parent partnership to a one-parent home. What worked before might no longer work for the single parent. It can be scary to parent alone, especially when children exhibit behaviors not normal for them.

This past Friday night, I got a text from a panicked single mom in a recently divorced family. Her elementary-school-aged child was throwing a fit of rage.

That evening, the kids came from the dad’s home to the mom’s home, and everything went fine until she told her son to pick up his clothes and put them in his room. She texted me, “All I said was ‘Take your clothes to your room and put them away,’ and he went berserk.”

It was just too much for the young man. It wasn’t the laundry that caused him to go into a rage. It was the stress of the divorce and all that went with it:

  • Living at dad’s one week and then mom’s the next week
  • Switching homes on Friday evening at the end of the week when most children are tired
  • The looming holidays
  • Uncertain plans
  • Schoolwork
  • Tests
  • Trying to please two parents in different homes

The list could go on and on. But the final drop that filled this boy’s bucket to overflowing was just his mom telling him to put his laundry away.

I like how Rob Rienow explains this situation in Visionary Parenting: Encouragement for Single Parents: “Kids may blow up when they are hurt because their buckets of hurt are full. Someone says one little thing or does something, and it’s only a drop, but it’s a drop too much that falls into their full bucket, and they blow up.”

I texted the mom and explained that this was not a disciplinary situation or the time to draw the line on behavior. It wasn’t her or the clothes that caused the rage but the divorce and stress.

To help the immediate situation, I suggested that the mom:

  • Wait for her son to calm down
  • Not try to talk or bribe him out of his rage
  • Not offer food or anything else right now
  • Not call his dad for help
  • Deal with this situation herself. (This was appropriate for this particular situation. It is important to know and understand the divorce situation when ministering to children and single parents.)

Then, I suggested how to handle the rest of the week and empower her child for the next transition between the parents’ homes.

  • Allow her son to move at his own pace when coming out of his room.
  • Offer him choices, and make everything a choice. For example, ask, “Do you want to sit at the table to eat or at the bar?”
  • Don’t offer one positive choice and one negative choice. That’s manipulating the child to do what the parent wants. Right now, he needs to feel like he is in control of himself.
  • Always offer two or three positive choices. Choices empower a child.
  • Be aware that, right now, his anger is his power, and expressing it is all he knows to do when that one drop falls into his bucket.
  • Develop a ritual for when the children come to your home.
  • Wait until after the kids have settled in to have them do chores. Is it really that important for the clothes to be put away as soon as the kids arrive, or can it wait?

In this situation, the child did not need a firm hand or punishment. This situation called for a calm adult who could lovingly work through the child’s raging, screaming fit. It called for empathy from the mom. It also called for a change in how the mom normally dealt with her child.

In the end, this single mom and her son had a good outcome. When he calmed down, he had a good cry, came out of his room, and apologized to his mom. He picked up all the clothes and cleaned up his mess. The child was back to his sweet, loving normal self, and they had a good weekend.

Children’s ministers and volunteers, though, should realize this won’t be the end of it. This child is really hurting. He is confused and wants things to go back the way they were before the divorce. It will take time for his hurting heart to heal.

If you’ve had a single parent come to you for help with this kind of emotional explosion, what advice have you given?


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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6 thoughts on “When kids of divorce explode emotionally, how do you help the parent?

  1. Pingback: DC4K » 10 ways to help kids of divorce when they explode emotionally at church

  2. I have been going through the weekly blogs and ones that I feel are pertinent to my DC4K team and those for the parents, I have printed out and to use them as teaching tools. Little did I realise that I would need some of the tools myself regarding “the child who explodes emotionally!”
    I realised that this not only happens with kids of divorce but in intact families as well! I was asked to baby-sit 2 of our grandsons (5 and 2). When mom arrived to leave them with us, 5 yr old had one almighty meltdown. He did not want to stay which was unusual. He had his mom chasing him around the car, then got into the car and refused to get out, and when eventually he came inside sobbed for at least 20 minutes!
    After he calmed down eventually, I suddenly remembered the blog. That was it! This child is constantly moved from one friend’s house to
    another, to aunties, to grandparents, has at least 2 sleep-overs a week. His mom is a gym trainer and works at every opporunity, so the kids also go to caregivers over the week-ends.
    I think his stress levels are really high and he just couldn’t cope anymore. I made some mistakes in how I handled it but wow, what a huge learning curve for me! Thanks Linda.
    Have a God-blessed Christmas and although you and family live on the other side of the world, you are in my prayers!

    • Mal, what a learning curve and with your own grandson. Praising the Lord you are perceptive and loving.

      Merry Christmas to you and your family. It is a blessing to have friends on the other side of the world and especially ones who pray for you. Thank you.

  3. This article is excellent I am so thankful for these insightful articles that keep us on the right track in understanding and helping kids of divorce. Thank you Linda!

  4. Pingback: DC4K » 10 ways to help kids of divorce when they explode emotionally at church

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