Question of the week: How do I help a mean or hurtful child?


Many children come across as being mean or hurtful. However, most of these children just need help regulating their behavior. They don’t need consequences and punishments. Let me say it again: they need help regulating their behavior.

How do you help a child who comes across as being mean? How do you have empathy for a child who is hurtful to others? I have a strategy to help. As a bonus, this technique is a great tool to deepen your relationship with every child and help children accept and trust their personal Savior, Jesus Christ.

There are two parts to this strategy

First:  Confront the child about inappropriate behavior.

One time, I posted a blog about not forcing kids to say, “I’m sorry.” I got a lot of comments on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media. One man said,

Do you tell them they have done wrong? I think we should at least teach them right from wrong. Is there punishment for what they did? I always explain that what they did is wrong and not acceptable, and if the children apologize willingly, much grace can be applied.

Yes, I believe it is right to tell children what they have done wrong. If we don’t tell them, how do they know what they did is wrong? Sometimes, the action is overt, and they know it was wrong, but there are times a child might be left wondering, “Hey, what did I do? I didn’t know I was being hurtful. I didn’t mean to hurt anybody.”

Second:  Use the grace card.

I also believe we need to teach children about grace and the grace that applies to them personally. And that, my friends, is what I call the grace card. The grace card is an important concept that can help hurting children.

Christ gave us grace on the cross. He died to forgive our sins. Let me tell you, there is not a day that goes by that I don’t sin in some way—probably hundreds of ways!

It makes no difference to Jesus because He loves me and continually gives me grace and forgives me. Even if I keep on sinning the same sin, grace, mercy, and kindness are applied. So with some of these children, you might need to allow grace to be bestowed upon them.

Understanding the grace card

The grace card is an act you can use to teach children about forgiveness. When you apply the grace card, there is no punishment for wrongdoing, other than perhaps natural consequences due to children’s actions, such as scraped knees from falling while running.

If you are helping single parents, explain it’s okay to allow children to play the grace card once a week or month. If you work or minister to children, use it when the situation calls for it.

Using the grace card in your group

The following responses are only examples of things children might say. At the beginning, you may have to prompt children and help them word their repentance and request forgiveness. Children can ask for grace to be extended, or you can extend it when you deem it necessary.

  • The child needs to repent of wrongdoing: “I got mad when that boy was teasing me, and I hit him. I’m sorry I did that.” (This is said to you, not the other child.)
  • The child needs to ask for forgiveness: “Forgive me for hitting you. I know it was wrong.” Some children need help wording the apology. Give them words if they don’t have the them.
  • Teachers need to develop plans, so children don’t feel like they are left on their own to solve problems: “Son, next time you get mad, come to me, and I will help you calm down. Together, we’ll figure out how to handle things when someone is mean or hurts you. Hitting is not allowed. It is hurtful, and we don’t hurt others in this class.”
  • If you feel like a child needs to follow up with another child, say something like: “What do you think you can do to be helpful to other people in our group?”

One thing you need to keep in mind is that all hurting children are individuals. They have individual needs, and they need personal attention. You have to accommodate all children’s needs differently, even if they are in the same family.

Hurting children need forgiveness modeled for them. The idea of forgiveness is a hard concept for some kids of divorce to truly understand. Keep in mind they might not see forgiveness extended between their parents.

Playing the grace card in a group situation

Here is an example of how I played the grace card several years ago in a DC4K group in Raleigh, NC. We had an older child very angry with his dad for leaving when the child was a baby. After weeks of ministry, this young man began to blossom and take on a leadership role.

One evening, he was leading a game and got so caught up in being the leader that he got excited. While everyone was laughing and following him, he began running through the room.

Me: J-man, we have talked about running through the room. It’s not safe.

J-man: I know. I didn’t mean to run. I just got so excited. I’m really sorry.

Me: Hmm, I can tell that you are sorry, and I can see how you got really excited being the main man in that game, and you got carried away. I’m going to give you grace and forgive you for running. Try to remember, though, that I count on you to be an example to the younger kids, especially when you are the leader in a game. Hug, hug!

The grace card can go a long way in helping children heal. The grace card is putting actions to the idea of forgiveness. Let’s face it: many divorcing people don’t understand the concept of forgiveness, yet we expect their kids to automatically understand it.

The grace card won’t work when

  • The child only uses forgiveness to get out of the consequences.
  • The child doesn’t repent of the wrongdoing.
  • The parent is lenient and can’t set boundaries, and the child gets away with everything
  • There is no follow-up conversation with the adult.

When using the grace card, remember you are teaching children about the love of Jesus Christ. You are teaching them about the saving grace found in salvation. It is serious business, so it is important to bathe the entire concept in prayer before you extend the grace card.


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