Caleb eats too much, plays roughly with other kids, and in general can’t control himself. Jesse is emotionally delayed and can’t get along with kids his own age. Iris has every toy and gadget available, but she craves adult attention.
Sometimes it is difficult for us as church leaders to help parents when we don’t know the reasons kids misbehave. Sometimes it is the child’s lifestyle that prompts misbehaviors. Other times it is trauma and life crisis that cause the misbehaviors.
Because children don’t always have the vocabulary skills to be able to express themselves, they act out. In other words, their behavior becomes their voice. And sometimes those voices are screaming, kicking, scratching, biting, and shouting out for help.
Today I want to introduce you to some children who have different reasons for misbehaving. Many of these are reasons one might not consider when ministering to children in a church environment. With each story, I’ll offer suggestions of ways to help their parents or caregivers.
Caleb, unsupervised and uncontrollable
The behavior: Caleb’s single mom works a lot of overtime. Because her schedule is erratic, she leaves Caleb at home alone most days before and after school. He eats snacks all afternoon and then won’t eat the dinner she prepared. He has left juice boxes on the carpet, and now the carpet is stained in several places. He only watches TV or plays video games and refuses to do his homework until she forces him to do it in the evenings.
His mom has developed a lot of rules, and she has severe consequences in place for every infraction. She spends most of her evenings punishing her son for his actions instead of enjoying his company. She doesn’t understand why he can’t follow her rules when she isn’t there.
What’s the issue? Like Caleb, many children in single-parent homes are left unsupervised for long periods of time. These kids have never been taught self-discipline. Out of self-preservation they have learned how to fend for themselves and meet their own needs of hunger, play, and relaxation. They behave when the parent is around only because of the punishment the misdeed might incur. When the “threat” of punishment is taken away, they misbehave. The children think only in the moment. They don’t have self-control—or they haven’t been taught to exercise it.
Solutions: These parents need to be taught to think about why their child misbehaves. They need to ask themselves, “Does my child behave and follow rules because he fears punishment, or because he understands why rules are important and he has developed a conscience and a desire to make good choices?”
Here are a few ideas to get such a parent on the right track. Encourage the parent to:
- Develop a checklist of chores that need to be done after school. Keep the list short and simple at the beginning. Other things can be added as the child masters this list.
- Allow the child to contribute to the list and offer suggestions about what he wants to do.
- Praise the child in the small things. In other words, when a child does something he is supposed to do, offer praise in a descriptive way. “Look at that. You unloaded the dishwasher. That was helpful.”
- Give the child choices about how to spend leisure time, and make sure that a couple of nights a week are spent in leisure time.
- Provide activities in which the child can develop a special talent or skill and can feel pride in his accomplishments.
- Provide opportunities for the child to contribute to the family in a positive manner.
While no one wants children to be left unsupervised, the reality is, it happens. Rather than condemning the parent (or parents), pray for suggestions you can offer. Perhaps there are other parents or retired adults in the church who may be interested in helping provide child care.
Jesse, distraught and delayed
The behavior: Jesse had just finished fourth grade when he was invited to go with the older elementary kids on the weeklong summer church camp. The camp leader was surprised at Jesse’s lack of social skills. He acted more like a second-grader than a fourth-grade kid. As the week wore on, Jesse began to alienate the other kids. He acted out, was hurtful to others, and wasn’t able to follow simple instructions.
For the past couple of years Jesse has traveled back and forth between his parents’ two homes. While dad is a disciplinarian at his home, mom tends to just shout and scream out threats. He seems to be stuck emotionally at the age when his parents separated.
What’s the issue? Jesse is emotionally delayed. Many children who have faced a trauma or a family crisis are emotionally delayed. That is, they stopped maturing emotionally when the crisis happened. They get frustrated with kids in their own age group and tend to migrate toward younger children.
Solutions: Children’s church leaders can become an advocate for this child. If possible, allow this child to spend time interacting with younger children. Visit with the parent who brings the child to your church about his behavior. Be positive in your communication about this child. The parent probably already knows the child is delayed but is just not sure what to do. Keep in mind that the parent who brings the child to church may have the child only every other week. This complicates guiding the child in difficult situations, but it’s not impossible.
When the child is hurtful or alienates another kid, bring it to the child’s attention. You can begin by describing what the other child’s face looked like. Many of these kids don’t read facial cues, so help them by saying something to the effect of, “Did you notice the look on Gavin’s face when you took his paper? His eyes were scrunched together and his face looked angry. He was upset that you took his paper. How could you have handled that differently?” More than likely he doesn’t know, but give him an opportunity to explain anyway. You may have to answer the question for Jesse. Next time you see Jesse entering a possible confrontation, go to him and help him walk through the situation in a positive manner.
After you have developed a relationship with Jesse, give him verses (Eph. 6:1–3; Col. 3:20; Gal. 5:22–23) that will help him understand what Jesus expects of those in His family.
Iris, irritating and ignored
The behavior: Iris has every electronic device imaginable. At her mom’s house she has a beautifully decorated bedroom that houses her own TV. At her dad’s home she has so many toys that she rarely has a chance to play with most of them, and she has a closet full of clothes that most kids can only dream about. But Iris is always irritated and grouchy.
What’s the issue? At mom’s she has to compete with mom’s work. Mom is always emailing her co-workers, working on a project from work, or doing research on the Internet for work. At dad’s she has to compete with dad texting his new girlfriend all the time. What Iris really yearns for from her parents is their attention. She wants only a few minutes of undivided attention, just a few minutes!
Solutions: Children in many modern homes simply need more attention from the parent or guardian. While a child such as Iris may be given every electronic device and toy imaginable, what she really craves is attention from the adult. We live in a fast-paced world, and many adults get caught up in surviving or moving forward in their careers.
When I hear, “They are doing that only to get attention!” my response is always, “Then give them the attention they need.” Children are born needing attention. They continue to need attention all through childhood.
Help the parent or parents understand the importance of spending family time together. It is especially important in single-parent homes to make time for family time. It can be done in a short morning devotion time; eating a meal together at the table without electronic devices; or even going out for a special breakfast on the weekends the child is there.
The reasons kids misbehave …
As you can see, some children react poorly to being placed in difficult situations.
When you encounter a child like that, don’t buy into simplistic explanations of the behavior. That keeps you from thinking deeply about how to care for the child and in some cases his parents. Here are some questions to find answers to when faced with a challenging child and misbehaving child.
- Is this a foster child or an adopted child?
- Is this a child living in a single-parent home?
- How much time do the parents spend with this child?
- Has the child experienced an early life trauma?
- Is the child possibly experiencing a loss or grief of some sort?
- Does the child have a disability or mental health diagnosis?
While these are not excuses for kids to misbehave, sometimes they contribute significantly to a child’s misbehavior. Once you figure out the reason, you’re prepared to address that particular child’s behavior wisely. Helping the child may also entail bringing.
So the next time you hear a Sunday school teacher or youth worker say “That kid is out of control,” resist the urge to accept that as the final word on the child. Find out whether the child is responding poorly to challenging circumstances. Then come up with a response that addresses his behavior and his situation.