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, soft voice, she was able to distract Elsa from her mother.

Elsa was a happy-go-lucky, little girl, but the past couple weeks, she had become a despondent, shy, unhappy girl. The teacher remembered how much this little girl idolized her father. When her dad brought Elsa to her class, they were always laughing and acting silly. Come to think of it, she hadn’t seen Elsa’s dad in several weeks. And her 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 news 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 parents separate or divorce.

For three- to five-year-old children, 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.

Elsa experienced other reactions:

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

More reactions children may display include:

  • Sleeping problems
  • Eating problems
  • Stomachaches
  • Whining, whimpering, and crying by younger, preschool-age children

It is important you understand what is going on in the divorced home as it concerns the child. We shouldn’t 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 to seek out 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 can help:

  • Greet Elsa with a smile and an upbeat attitude. When you smile mirror, neurons are at work. Research shows your facial expression is mirrored in a person looking at you. In other words, Elsa will catch your smile, similar to the way one catches a cold.
  • Regarding separation anxiety, tell the mom to give her daughter a 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 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 use Dr. Becky Bailey’’s Safekeeper concept, and tell her you are the Safekeeper, your job is to keep her safe, and her job is to help you keep things safe.
  • Regarding nightmares, you can teach Elsa some prayers she can say before going to sleep. Big tip—don’t tell her to ask God to not give her nightmares. This may cause nightmares because it plants the idea in her brain. Tell her to say something like “Dear God, give me happy dreams.” Then you can add appropriate Scripture.
  • Write out the prayer on a card or a picture the child can color and post above her bed. Encourage the parent to read the prayer to her every night.

Tips for church workers caring for the young child

  • Be consistent with schedules.
  • Encourage the parent to have the 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 parent’s arms. It also sends mixed messages to the child if the parent holds him tightly and hugs him but says the child must go to class.
  • Reassure the child often the parent will return.
  • Realize preschoolers may come in late and, many times, disgruntled. Be prepared to greet them with empathy and understanding.
  • Remember they may only attend every other Sunday.
  • If possible, periodically visit the child in the home 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 the class and creates a chaotic environment. Take a few minutes to calm the child and gently bring him 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 after drinking a glass of water.
  • Allow children to take a break by providing a place away from other children where they can look at books or hold a soft blanket. This is not a time out but time away.
  • Have extra supplies available, so preschoolers 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 Playdough for children to squeeze and manipulate.
  • Water play and sand play help children work through various issues. Use various animal family figures. (Rubber cat litter boxes make great sand trays and water tables. I purchased mine at a Walmart.)

Compliment single parents for bringing their children to church. Single parents of preschoolers need encouragement. They need acceptance and understanding that they are doing the best they can at the moment. Reassure single parents you will provide a loving, caring place for the children. Communicate with single parents through text messages. Single parents lead a busy, often hectic lives. 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:

  • 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 your child he is safe.
  • Tell your child often that he is loved.
  • Play and cuddle with your children often.
  • Keep visitation schedules consistent.
  • Work with the other parent, and communicate regularly.
  • Some children act out with the parent they live with but not the parent who left. Tell the parent the child wants to make sure the other parent will still love him no matter what. The parent needs to constantly reassure the child he is loved.

To the question,

Where did he go?

Answer truthfully.

   He went to work. Or, He went to his home.

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

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 has been updated and revised from the originally version published in the KidzMatter Magazine, Sept/Oct 2013 edition, and used with permission from Ryan Frank, chief executive officer and publisher of KidzMatter Magazine.

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