The teacher looked on, as 4-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 usually a happy-go-lucky little girl, but the last couple of weeks she had become despondent, shy and unhappy. 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 inquire of any changes that might cause Elsa such distress. As Mom talked, the words tumbled out that the dad had moved out weeks ago and they were getting a divorce. 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.
As a 3 to 5-year-old child, it’s hard to understand what’s 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.
- She experienced separation anxiety and clung to her mom.
- She appeared to be fearful.
- She experienced nightmares.
More reactions preschool children may display:
- Sleeping problems
- Eating problems
- Stomach aches
- Whining, whimpering or crying (especially younger preschool-age children)
It’s important that we understand what’s 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, there’s no need to gather 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 an 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 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 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, a concept developed by Dr. Becky Bailey, 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 instruct her to ask God to not give her nightmares. This may cause nightmares, since it’s an idea that’s planted in the brain. Tell her to say something like, “Dear God, give me happy dreams.” Then, you can add a scripture that’s appropriate. Write out the prayers on a card or provide a picture the child can color and post above their 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 the child walk into the room and physically place the child’s hand in the teacher’s hand. It’s 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 that Mom 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, visit the child in the home periodically to reassure the child you care.
- Have the same teacher greet the child each week upon arrival. 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’s 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/her into the group.
- Offer the preschooler a glass of water. Stress causes dehydration and dehydrated brains can’t think. I’ve seen a child with out-of-control behavior calm down within 20 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 numerous issues. Use various animal family figures. (Rubber cat litter 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’re 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:
- 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/he is safe.
- Tell the child often that she/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 with whom they live but not with the parent who has left. To a child, he wants to make sure the other parent will still love him no matter what. The parent needs to constantly reassure the child they love him.
- For 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/she is just wondering where the other parent is at that moment.
You can be a 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, saying, ‘Permit the children to come to Me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these’” (Luke 18:16).