Experts tell us that when children feel fear, they aren’t able to learn and absorb information normally. When a child feels unsafe, the “learning brain” begins to power down. Learning becomes difficult if not impossible. Clearly, a child suffering through the divorce of her parents does not feel safe. I’d like to explain how she processes the information you are trying to teach her– and how you can help when she has trouble comprehending.
Ever had something scare the daylights out of you? What were you feeling at the time? Most of us probably don’t think about what we were feeling when that car zipped through the stop light in front of us and we had to slam on our breaks. We reacted to the situation. Our brains did what they were supposed to do – they reacted and kept us safe by helping us to slam on our breaks.
Feeling safe is a basic instinct
Fear is a basic human emotion. From the time we are born our brains are equipped with the fight or flight capability. This fight or flight capacity is found in the lower level of the brain called the brain stem. Many times we can sense or feel when something is dangerous. Fear can be intense, mild or medium depending on the situation. Fear can be brief or long lasting.
From KidsHealth we read, “When we sense danger, the brain reacts instantly, sending signals that activate the nervous system. This causes physical responses, such as
- A faster heartbeat
- Rapid breathing
- An increase in blood pressure.
- Blood pumps to muscle groups to prepare the body for physical action (such as running or fighting).
- Skin sweats to keep the body cool.
- Some people might notice sensations in the stomach, head, chest, legs, or hands.
- These physical sensations of fear can be mild or strong.
When a child fears something he or she wants and expects the adults to protect them and keep them safe. In talking about feeling safe, John Indermark in “Turn Toward Promise” (Upper Room Books) explains safety in the following statement, “In order to feel safe, in order to experience security, you must be able to trust in something or someone greater than yourself, greater than your fears.”
Because children of divorce have lost a sense of trust in the very people who are supposed to keep them safe, many times they experience intense safety issues. When this happens the fight or flight part of the brain takes over. It is a reaction to the situation.
The kid with the hoodie
Ever have a child of divorce come into your group with the hoodie on and the hood pulled down over the eyes? Many of us will try and convince the child to remove the hood from the eyes by giving them reasons they can’t do this. We might try and kid them out of it or what I call “happy them up” in order to get them to remove the hood.
If the child is truly in the fight or flight part of the brain, they can’t
- Rationalize or
- Analyze any reason to remove the hood.
All they know is they don’t feel safe and hiding their eyes is a way to “flight” from the situation. All of our talking and kidding can send these children deeper into themselves or cause them to react with inappropriate responses. In the least it can isolate them from the entire class and maybe push them away from church completely.
The emotional train wreck
The adults in the child’s world have put them in the middle of an emotional train wreck and then as church leaders we expect them to walk into our classes and participate like other children. Memorizing scripture; answering questions about the bible story, joining in praise and worship or behaving appropriately may be almost impossible for the child of divorce as the body is physically preparing for the fear factor.
One of the best approaches to helping children full of fear is to assure them they are safe. Calming them and assuring them of their safety allows the fight or flight response to relax sending them to the upper levels of the brain.
- It slows down that racing heart
- Lowers the blood pressure
- Slows the breathing
- Stops the release of harmful chemicals and hormones
Helping children to breathe from the diaphragm can assist in calming them. Something as simple as saying, “Breathe! Breathe! Breathe with me” as you model deep breathing is helpful. You’ll know if they are breathing from the diaphragm by watching their shoulders. If their shoulders are moving up and down, then they are still breathing in the chest area.
Dr. Becky Bailey in her book “Conscious Discipline” has a great concept for helping children who feel unsafe in various situations. She has developed a concept called the “Safe Keeper”. It is a very simple and easy approach to use as you tell the child, “I am the Safe Keeper. It’s my job to keep things safe. And your job is to help me keep things safe.” This almost sounds too simple but I have used this concept for years and it works especially with the child of divorce. It doesn’t put any pressure on them and gives them a chance to actually feel safe in a no- threatening environment.
Only when the child feels safe can they be pulled into the group and their behavior come into focus. Only when they feel safe can they learn. Only when they feel safe can they connect with other children, with you and with our Savior, Jesus Christ. And the Savior is what these children desperately need in their lives.
A version of this post first appeared at divorceministry4kids.com 2/3/2012