A preschool child questions, “Where did he go?”


Where did he go

The teacher looked on as four-year old Elsa clung to her mom and screamed,

Don’t weave me mommy. Please don’t weave me.

The teacher was confused because little Elsa had always loved coming to her Sunday school class. Mom seemed at a loss as to how to comfort Elsa and get her into the class. The teacher gradually moved into the scene and with her calm and soft voice she was able to distract Elsa from her mother.

Elsa was a happy go lucky little girl but the last couple of weeks she had become despondent, shy and an unhappy little girl. The teacher remembered how much this little girl idolized her father. When dad brought Elsa to her class they were always laughing and acting silly. Come to think of it she hadn’t seen dad in several weeks. And mom appeared very stressed.

During the week the teacher called Elsa’s mom to see if there had been changes that might cause Elsa such distress. As the mom talked the words tumbled out that the dad had moved out weeks ago and they were getting a divorce. The mom said,

She just keeps asking, ‘Where did he go’ and I don’t know what to say to her.

Right before her eyes this teacher witnessed a family falling apart. She had just experienced many typical reactions of preschool children when their parent’s separate or divorce.

As a 3 to 5 year old child it is hard to understand what is happening when one parent moves out of the home. A young child has no concept of what this means or what the word divorce means. The child is left in a state of confusion and wondering when daddy (or mommy) is coming back home.

Other reactions Elsa experienced

  • She began having toileting accidents and sucking her thumb
  • Elsa experienced separation anxiety and would cling to her mom
  • She appeared to be fearful
  • Elsa experienced nightmares

More reactions preschool children may display

  • Sleeping problems
  • Eating problems
  • Stomach aches
  • Whining, whimpering or crying (especially younger preschool-age children)

It is important you understand what is going on in the divorced home concerning the child. We don’t need to be intrusive but by connecting with the parent, we can learn ways to accommodate the child and comfort the parent. When talking to the parent, you don’t need the sordid details of the adult’s problems but only how the child is reacting.

For instance regarding Elsa and her reactions here are ways you could help:

  • Greet Elsa with a smile and a upbeat attitude. When you smile mirror neurons are at work. Research shows that your facial expression will be mirrored in the person looking at you. In other words Elsa will catch your smile just like one catches a cold.
  • For the separation anxiety tell the mom to give her daughter the key to their home. Say to Elsa, “This is the key to our house. I want you to keep it and you can help me unlock the door when we come home from church.”

Children are worried their parent will leave them like the other parent did. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve used this technique or a variation of it to help children who have separation anxiety due to the divorce.

  • Children like Elsa not only appear to be fearful they are scared. Safety is a big issue with most children of divorce. As her teacher you can tell her you are the Safekeeper [1] and that your job is to keep her safe and her job is to help you keep things safe.
  • Regarding the nightmares you can teach Elsa some prayers she can say before she goes to sleep. Big tip – don’t tell her to ask God to not give her nightmares. This may cause nightmares, since it is an idea that is planted in the brain. Tell her to say something like, “Dear God give me happy dreams.” Then you can add a scripture that is appropriate.
  • Write out the prayers on a card or a picture that she can color and post above her bed. Encourage the mom to read the prayer to her every night.

Tips for church workers caring for the preschool age child

  • Be consistent with schedules
  • Encourage the parent to have her child walk into the room and physically place the child’s hand in the teacher’s hand. It is hard for a preschooler to leave the arms of the parent. It also sends mixed messages to the child if the parent is holding them tightly and hugging them but saying the child must go to class.
  • Reassure the child often the Mom will return
  • Realize preschoolers may come in late and many times disgruntled. Be prepared to great them with empathy and understanding.
  • Remember they may only attend every other Sunday.
  • If possible visit the child in the home periodically to reassure the child you care
  • Have the same teacher greet the child each week upon arrival and gently move the child away from the parent and into the room (Do not have the parent sneak away as this adds to the child’s insecurity. The parent should always tell the child goodbye.)
  • Realize many children come from chaotic homes. Ever have a class when everything was going fine until one of “those kids” walked into the room and everything fell apart? It is because the child brings the chaos from home into your class. They create chaotic environments. Take a few minutes to calm the child and gently bring him or her into the group.
  • Offer the preschooler a glass of water. Stress causes dehydration and dehydrated brains can’t think. I’ve seen children’s out of control behaviors calm down within twenty minutes of drinking a glass of water.
  • Allow children to take a break by providing a place away from other children where the child can look at books or hold a soft blanket. This is not a time out but time away.
  • Have extra supplies available so the preschooler can make two items – one for each home.
  • Communicate often with the parent who brings the child to church and, with permission from that parent, send invitations and notes about the preschooler to the other parent.
  • Provide play dough for children to squeeze and manipulate.
  • Water play and sand play help children work through various issues. Use various animal family figures. (Rubber cat liter boxes make great sand trays and water tables and can be purchased at a discount department store.)

Compliment the single parent for bringing his/her child to church. Single parents of preschoolers need encouragement. They need acceptance and they need for you to understand they are doing the best they can at the moment. Reassure the single parent you are going to provide a loving and caring place for the child. Communicate with the single parent through text messages. Single parents lead a busy and often hectic life. Most don’t have time for long conversations or emails but they do need to know there is hope for their situation and there are people who care.

Tips to share with the single parent[2]

  • Maintain a consistent routine.
  • Be gentle and calm with a smile on your face when talking to your child.
  • Be reassuring by using a soft voice.
  • Tell the child she or he is safe.
  • Tell the child often that he is loved.
  • Play and cuddle with the preschooler often.
  • Keep visitation schedules consistent.
  • Work with the other parent and communicate regularly.
  • Some children act out with the parent they live but not with the parent who has left. To a child they want to make sure the other parent will still love him no matter what. The parent needs to constantly reassure the child they love them.

For the question,

Where did he go?”

Answer truthfully.

“He went to work.”


“He went to his home.”

Don’t be worried that the child is thinking about the divorce. It may be that he or she is just wondering where the other parent is at that moment.

You can be assuring, calming, supportive influence in the life of a preschooler affected by divorce and also to the parents, by using these tips each time you have the opportunity.

But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Luke 18:16 (NRSV)


This article first appeared in the May 2013 edition of “K” Magazine as “A preschool child asks, ‘Where did he go?'”

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[1] Dr. Becky Bailey developed the Safekeeper concept. More information can be found at

[2] For more information to share with the single parents in your classes see the article “Preschool-Age Children and Divorce” at


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