Why kids of divorce don’t feel safe and what you can do about it


afraid child

Here’s one place where we go wrong as children’s ministry leaders: we expect the child of divorce caught up in an emotional train wreck to function like any other kid when participating in church programs.

Memorizing Scripture, answering questions about Bible stories, joining in praise and worship, and behaving appropriately may be almost impossible for children of divorce. Why? Their bodies are poised to respond to outside stimuli and interactions with fear.

We know from brain research that fear strikes at the heart of learning. When a child is fearful or feels unsafe, the learning brain begins to power down, so to speak. Learning becomes difficult, if not impossible.

The desire to feel safe is a basic instinct each person has, and fear is a basic human emotion. From the time we’re born, our brains are equipped with the fight-or-flight instinct, which is found in the lower brain level called the brain stem. Many times, we can sense or feel when something is dangerous. Depending on the situation, fear can be intense, mild, or moderate and brief or long lasting.

From KidsHealth we read,

“When we sense danger, the brain reacts instantly, sending signals that activate the nervous system. This causes physical responses, such as a

  • Faster heartbeat
  • Rapid breathing
  • Increase in blood pressure
  • Blood pumps to muscle groups to prepare the body for physical action (such as running or fighting)
  • Skin sweats to keep the body cool
  • Some people might notice sensations in the stomach, head, chest, legs, or hands. These physical sensations of fear can be mild or strong.”

Fear and the child of divorce

Many times, children of divorce experience intense safety issues because they have lost their sense of trust in the very people who are supposed to keep them safe. When this happens, the fight-or-flight part of their brain takes over. It’s a reaction to the situation.

Have you ever had a child of divorce come into your group with a hoodie on, pulled way down over his eyes? Many of us will try to convince the child to remove the hood from his eyes by giving his reasons not do it. We might try and kid him out of it or what I call “happy him up” in order to get him to remove the hood.

If the child is truly in the fight-or-flight part of the brain, though, he can’t rationalize or analyze any reasons to remove the hood. All he knows is that he doesn’t feel safe, and hiding his eyes is a way of taking “flight” from the situation.

Talking and kidding can send this child even deeper into himself or cause him to react inappropriately. At the very least, it can isolate him from the entire class or possibly even push him away from church completely.

Helping children deal with fear

One of the best approaches to help children filled with fear is to assure them that they are safe. Calming them and assuring them of their safety allows the fight-or-flight response to relax, bringing them back to the upper levels of the brain. It slows down the racing heart, lowers blood pressure, slows breathing, and stops the release of harmful chemicals and hormones in the brain.

Calming fearful children

Helping children breathe from the diaphragm can assist in calming them. Even simply saying, “Breathe! Breathe! Breathe with me!” as you model deep breathing is helpful. You’ll know whether they’re breathing from the diaphragm by watching their shoulders. If their shoulders are moving up and down, then they are still breathing from the chest.

Only when children feel safe can they

  • Be effectively pulled into the group
  • Learn
  • Connect with other children, with you and with our Savior, Jesus Christ. And the Savior is who these children desperately need in their lives.

In my next post, find more tips to help the child of divorce who doesn’t feel safe.


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6 thoughts on “Why kids of divorce don’t feel safe and what you can do about it

  1. In my public school wearing a hoodie is a strict violation of the dress code. Having some experience with children of divorce and out of control children I know not to make things a battle. Unfortunately, my assistant makes it a battle. I have one young lady that attempts to wear her hood often. I’ve had to step in between her and my assistant many times. I’ve started bringing the child to my side immediately in the morning. Once I make her feel safe in our school environment she will hang her hoodie up. It doesn’t take anymore time to do that than it does to try to settle her down after the fight about the hoodie. Probably takes less time 🙂

    • I’m so glad you are there for that little girl and many other children. Thank you for serving in a public school and making accommodations for hurting children.

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