Question of the week: How do I help a single parent with a young child who screams when being left on Sunday mornings?


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Helping the single parent of a young child can be difficult when there is upheaval going on in the home. A children’s minister friend experienced this to me and sent me the following scenario. The mom was bringing her young son to church, but the little boy didn’t want to stay.

“We’ve assigned one person to accept this little boy, and even if we get him into the room and get Mom out of the room, he cries so much we end up asking Mom to come and sit with him. The little boy does fine as long as Mom is sitting in the room. Help! We are at a loss. This has been going on for weeks now.”

Young children whose parents have separated feel the tension between the parents. Some preschool-age children may revert to separation anxiety, and having Mom leave them anywhere is going to cause concern. They may wonder, “If Dad left me, is Mom going to leave me too?”

The other reason some preschool-age children and even young elementary-age children have trouble leaving parents is because the parents feed into the anxiety. Not all parents do, but some do. These are the moms and sometimes the dads who don’t realize they hold onto the children as much as the children hold onto them. In other words, their child becomes their security—like a security blanket. The single parent feels anxious without the child in his arms.

You’ve got the start of a good plan by assigning the same person for the intake of this child. Keep it up. Here are some suggestions to offer the single parent that hopefully will make your job easier and successful.

Suggestions for the single parent

  • When the parent brings the child to church, have the child walk into the building and into the room (instead of being carried by the parent).
  • If the parent insists on carrying the child into the room, have the parent hold the child with the child’s back to him.
  1. When the parent holds the child on the hip or the chest, it becomes difficult to pull or wrestle the child away from the warmth of the parent. Frontal hugs between a mom and child are intimate connections.
  2. When a child has to be removed from that special mom–child connection, it may feel emotional if not physical pain.
  3. With the child’s back to the parent, throwing arms around the parent’s neck and holding on becomes difficult.
  4. When the mom holds the child with the child’s back to the mom, the child is looking directly into the room instead of having to turn his body around to see into the room.
  5. It is easier for the mom to release that hold with the child’s back to her rather than the child buried in the crook of her neck.
  • Encourage the parent to talk in a low, soothing, calm voice.
  • Encourage the mom to leave the child with you first before filling out paperwork or standing in line with the child to check in at the computer.
  • For some children, you may need to set a goal of keeping them in the room for 10 minutes the first couple of weeks. Then gradually increase the time to 15 minutes, etc.
  • When the mom is called to come to the room because the child can’t settle down, it is better if the mom takes the child home than staying in the room while the child plays.
  • Encourage the parent to play peek-a-boo with the child at home. This game will help with separation anxiety.
  • Encourage the parent to play games like hide-and-go-seek at home.
  • If possible, have the parent put her perfume or his aftershave on a scarf or a hankie and allow the child to keep this item at church. This keeps the parent’s aroma with the child.

One time, I had a dad who was literally clinging to his little girl when he brought her. When I told him about having his daughter walk into the room, he said, “Not the baby. Not the baby. She’s too young to walk into the nursery.” The dad was so caught up in the situation that he hadn’t realized his daughter was almost 3 years old now and not in the nursery but in the preschool room. Dad was having a harder time than the child. Once she started walking into her preschool room, she was fine. Dad, however, continued to have tears in his eyes when he left her.

Keep in mind that divorce is hard on both young children and parents. However, it is a wonderful time to minister to this family. These single parents need to be in their own groups or in the worship service, so they, too, can be fed, and their souls nurtured during this hurting time.


For further reading on how divorce affects young children, read the following:

How Divorce Affects Children

How Divorce Affects Infants and Toddlers

How Divorce Affects Preschool-Age Children”

Effects of Divorce on a 6-, 7-, and 8-year-old Child

This article is updated and adapted from an article originally published on the Kids & Divorce blog on June 2, 2014.

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