Incredible amazing brain Part 3: Sweet kid or grumpy kid, which do you prefer?



Ever have a sweet, little kid run up to you, throw his arms around you, and tell you how much he missed you this week?

Ever have a grumpy, little kid snarl at you as he enters the classroom? He slides past you, goes over to the corner, and sits down. You already know from past experience that this kid is going to be a challenge today. You don’t know whether to smile or run for the hills.

What is going on in the brains of these two very different children? You already know the “grumpy, little kid” is in the midst of a family divorcing. Then you remember that the “sweet, little kid” experienced her parent’s divorce just a year ago. Why is one child resilient and the other not so much? Is there anything you can do?

What nurturing environments do

Brain research shows that nurturing and encouraging environments shape the brain for a lifetime of healthy adjustments to strive and thrive. You might say these kinds of environments have the capability to rewire a child’s brain. It’s called plasticity. It’s the ability of the brain to retrain the shape of its wiring. If the brain is exposed to repeated stimulation and experiences, you might say the brain becomes like pliable plastic.

Child abuse, constant stress, and discouraging environments may alter brain chemistry and affect children’s learning ability. Some children in abusive and unhealthy, non-nurturing environments cannot engage the frontal lobes of the brain that deal with perceptual mapping and complex behaviors, such as the ability to problem solve and think. These may be the out-of-control children coming to your classes. They literally cannot access the upper levels of the brain. (How to help these children access the upper level of the brain will be discussed later.)

Threatening environments are not conducive to helping children become lifelong learners nor do they help children become successful, happy, and joyful as adults. These can include environments where teachers or leaders tack on threats at the end of instructions and directions. A simple warning might not be intended to be threatening, but because of the way it is delivered, it sounds like a threat to many children.

Survival behaviors

In some children who have experienced severe trauma or other uncontrollable events, such as emotional abuse or violent environments, their brains have been wired to not be successful but to survive. This is true also for some children of divorce, especially if there was a lot of arguing and fighting between the parents.

  • These are the children whose attention is difficult to gain.
  • They may fight or swing at others.
  • In their minds, they are protecting themselves.
  • They are territorial and don’t want other kids close or in their way.
  • You will hear them scream things like “Stop looking at me!” or “You’re in my spot!”

These children may be displaying survival behaviors. Their brains have reverted to the brain stem, or the lower level of the brain. These children have learned not to be successful. They live in a high-stress mode where their brains have shut down due to perceived threats.

Resilient kids

But don’t give up on these kids. They really want to belong. For their future well-being, they need to connect and form positive relationships. In a YouTube video, several experts on brain trauma talk about the resilience of kids who have experienced traumatic events. The experts say that even when children have insecure attachments in the home, access to just one person, such as a church worker, makes a huge difference in planting the seeds of resilience. It means that someone knows the children and that they belong to someone.

In the same video, Dr. Bruce Perry says connections to other human beings are so very important for these children. These connections need to be with people who are kind, present in the moment, patient, sensitive, comforting, and encouraging. These relationships and connections literally rewire the children’s brains.

These are the children who upon hearing the words “Jesus loves you” are not able to understand at first. They need for you to “be” Jesus to them. It takes longer for these children to come around, but the children are worth it.

Jesus does love these children. I’ve said for years that God didn’t create any child to be thrown away, yet our society is throwing away kids, and our churches are sending away droves of kids simply because we don’t know how to accommodate them. Research shows that children like the ones just described need to be in programs and classrooms that offer hope and have an encouraging atmosphere of

  • Trust
  • Safety
  • Caring
  • Mutual respect

Doesn’t all of this sound like a good Sunday school, Vacation Bible School, or another children’s church class? It is what we in children’s ministry do.

Practical tips

For children in general—but especially for the children who live in survival mode—here are a few more ideas to help them tune into your class.

  • Encode instructions, directions, and messages in pictures.
  • Use movement to register words in the brain.
  • If possible, anchor everything you say to them in movement.
  • Sing instructions.

Some children appear to be resilient when it comes to trauma. This could be from the early brain wiring that took place as infants. These children have experienced stable, warm, nurturing relationships with the adults in their lives.

  • They trust their caregivers.
  • They feel safe.
  • They have hope.
  • They are encouraged even though they may have temporary setbacks.

Research also shows that support systems bolster resilience. Children who have people to lean on and allow others to lean on them are able to bounce back faster and cope with trying events such as the divorce of their parents.

DC4K, DivorceCare for Kids, is one such environment that helps children of divorce become resilient.  The stories coming out of DC4K groups around the world tell us that kids’ brains are being rewired for successful coping with divorce and other traumas, such as child abuse.

Which child do you want in your class—the sweet, little kid or the grumpy, little kid? If the grumpy, little kid shows up, why not apply brain research and change this child’s world and his brain?


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

DC4K blogs posts are great to use for 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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2 thoughts on “Incredible amazing brain Part 3: Sweet kid or grumpy kid, which do you prefer?

  1. This is what Sunday Plus was all about. Disciplers who weren’t just with the children every Sunday but committed to reaching out to the children during the week.

    The curriculum taught the way Jesus created children to learn – using Reality Learning where the children actually experience the truth they will learn that week. Then in elementary digging in deep with their trusted discipler – being real. Being in a safe place.

    I will never forget standing outside a Gathering Room door, “Alice, (discipler’s name) tomorrow I have to tell a judge if I want to live with my mommy, my daddy, or my grandma.” He went on in tears that he loved them all and couldn’t do that. Together the discipler and other kids cried with him and called out to Almighty God for help.

    That doesn’t happen when there is a different adult with the kids every Sunday, or if they only connect with the kids on Sundays. Trust has to be built over time, trust demands commitment on the part of the other person.

    • Thanks Wanda for commenting. Yes, I believe you are correct about Sunday helpers. Thanks for all you do for children and the Kingdom.

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