Children of divorce need YOU to help them manage their behaviors


Safe in her mother's arms


Children of divorce face many struggles on a daily basis. Because of these adversities, some children of divorce have out-of-control behaviors. It’s not because they want to misbehave or like misbehaving; it is because they are doing the best they can in their state of confusion.

Many children of divorce who misbehave are actually seeking external regulation or management. In other words, they don’t know how to internally regulate themselves, so they seek outside regulation. They need someone to help them manage their behaviors. This is where you, the church leader, volunteer, or staff member, can help.

For children of divorce, their behavior becomes their voice when they

  • Don’t feel safe
  • Don’t feel like they belong
  • Don’t feel loved
  • Are confused
  • Don’t know what is happening next

Equipping yourself and volunteers to work with stressed children

  • Use empathy to get these kids’ attention. Empathy is heart understanding. It’s feeling what they feel. It’s feeling the same emotions. Empathy means providing comfort. These children need you to comfort them. Sometimes, we forget to comfort them, and we punish them instead.
  • Activate the mirror neurons in the brain to change a child’s mood. Mirror neurons allow what is happening in your brain to be projected onto other people. When you smile, it can activate the mirror neurons in another person’s brain, and he will mirror your expression. Just like a child catches a cold, kids can catch your mood. Make it a good mood they are catching.
  • Listen with your eyes. In other words, keep a watchful eye, and notice what is going on at all times. To be fair to kids in divorce situations, one has to be aware of the things happening around them.
  • Some kids’ brains are wired for self-preservation. That means that if you have children who have lived in stressful environments and been hurt, hit, slapped, or kicked, they will be reactive in a lot of their movements. For instance, they might push a child who walks in front of them. All they see is someone they think is coming at them, so they react by pushing that person out of the way.
  • Children who have experienced a crisis or a family trauma such as a divorce are intuitive. They are people watchers. They have to be to survive in two separate households with different rules and expectations. These children will notice when you are judging them and will shy away from any interactions with you.

  • Does every infraction need to be verbally addressed? Sometimes a look, head nod, or hand signal works effectively. It gives children of divorce the attention they need from you and lets them know they belong to the group enough to follow the rules. It reassures them that you will hold them accountable and that you are seeing them with your eyes. After the children comply, use a simple smile or wink to let them know you care and are happy they belong to your group.

  • Prepare yourself first by having your mind free and clear and ready to listen. Children of divorce learn to read body language and will look at your face and eyes to see if they have your attention. They also will be able to tell if your mind is some other place. If your mind is on something other than that very moment, they will turn you off. You will lose them, probably for the rest of that session.

When children wonder about stressful situations—where they will sleep that night, whether they will have enough to eat, or if they are loved—they need to know you care about them enough to help them manage their behaviors.

For the time being, think of yourself as their behavior manager. Teach them how to develop external regulation and how to behave in different situations. As the children and the family heal, and life moves forward, you can gradually pull back from your role as behavior manager and allow the children to regulate their own external behaviors.

What are your suggestions for helping children of divorce who have many stressors permeating their lives?


This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on the Kids & Divorce blog on March 20, 2014.

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