Be the one to prescribe God’s love to kids in
Imagine your Sunday school class — all the kids are engaged in
the lesson, intently focused on what Joseph’s father is going to do
to him after the way he’s behaved. Then suddenly, your
reverence-filled room disintegrates into chaos. Elizabeth — who’s
experiencing some challenges outside of class — slaps Pedro in the
back of the head and calls him stupid. Some kids giggle, but others
fidget uncomfortably — they wanted to find out what happened to
Joseph. A volunteer scrambles toward Elizabeth, hoping to stop yet
another out-of-control impulsive outburst. After the dust settles,
you see Elizabeth smiling and looking oh-so-proud of what she’s
I’ve encountered kids with a lot in common with Elizabeth in my
time in children’s ministry. In fact, an established “troublemaker”
was one of my first assignments when I signed on as a
As a marriage and family therapist and professor, I thought I knew
the necessary skills for working with troubled children. Why, I’ve
helped dozens of families work through issues in family therapy, I
thought. It’ll be a piece of cake.
But some of these lads frosted my personal experiences and
professional expertise. I had to dig deep into my pockets of
patience and creativity for skills that would work with troubled
children. From temper outbursts to overtly unbecoming behavior —
you name it, I experienced it. And I’ll tell you what, I now
express my respect and appreciation more openly to children’s
ministry volunteers — the unsung heroes of our churches.
What do you do when you know a child is hurting or doesn’t fit in
with the other kids? If a child is suffering because of a physical
or emotional challenge — or both — where do you turn? And how do
you know whether the challenges are beyond your resources?
You can make powerful connections in kids’ lives, even when
they’re burdened with emotional, physical, and social problems. You
don’t have to be a mental health professional to help troubled
children — you only need a deep commitment to Jesus and kids, and
a whole lot of empathy.
Here are three profound principles I’ve learned in my journey as a
children’s ministry volunteer and professional counselor:
Love is the language of relationship.
Attention given is affection gained.
Time spent equals self-worth.
Love is the language of relationship.
All children need to be loved, and hurting children especially
need to experience love. We shower our troubled children with love,
and it’s been key to their positive responses to us and other
children. When a child can’t sit still, I warmly place my arm
around him or her. It’s not unusual for a child to crawl into my
lap and relax.
As a professional, I know enough Attachment Theory to realize that
I’ll get nowhere with these children without first connecting with
them. So my mission is to foster friendships with them, and I do
everything in my power to draw these kids into a
Love, then discipline. Children who are suffering through crisis
or are otherwise hurting often process their feelings in ways that
give them a sense of control, even if the result is negative. So if
a troubled child acts out, withdraws, regresses, or displays
self-injuring behavior, display consistent, supportive love. For
example, I pat kids on the back as their behaviors improve. I hold
a hand, smile, sit nearby, encourage participation, and introduce
kids to other children. These children excel when they realize that
they’re genuinely cared for and valued, and this provides an
atmosphere conducive for all children.
It’s important to remember that struggling children who act unruly
intuitively feel the other children don’t approve of them. A
misbehaving child tends to reinforce this emotional distance by
doing things that increase the negativity. When a child disrupts,
our initial response is to get the child to behave because we have
other kids to consider. “Sit in your chair.” “Be quiet.” “Go to the
back of the line.”
Although adults are tempted to intervene with discipline when a
child disrupts, the quintessential tool is love. Avoid disciplining
a child until you’ve first extended love. Typically a child in this
situation needs something other than discipline. Creating ways for
the child to receive love and connect with others is a starting
Grow healthy relationships. Often as a defense mechanism, troubled
children will sabotage relationships because they already feel
others don’t like them. For a child experiencing this intense pain,
negative responses from others at least provide some form of
emotional connection. The saying goes, “Any emotion is better than
no emotion.” As broken individuals, we tend to go for the least
common denominator by attracting negative attention if we fail to
get positive interaction.
We all yearn for healthy connections with others. Relationships,
without a doubt, are our greatest need-God identified this while
reconciling himself to us on the Cross. This fundamental need may
be why some children in crisis continue to elicit negativity from
others-negative reactions provide the child with (as strange as it
may sound) a sense of normalcy. So if this child gets only negative
and inappropriate responses at home, then he or she will work hard
to get the same kind of response from others. Even though that’s
not normal, it feels normal to the child. That makes it vitally
important to connect with a troubled child’s parents. They’re our
greatest resource because they guide a child’s moral and emotional
Children under age 12 are highly impressionable; what you tell
them is what they believe. So choose your words carefully. I’ve
counseled hundreds of adults who, during childhood, were told they
were “stupid,” “dumb,” and would “never amount to much.” Many of
these children — now adults — find it extremely difficult to
exchange those negative impressions for positive ones.