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…
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
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
kids in crisis draw closer to Jesus during challenging times — take a look at Celebration
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 compass.
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.
Attention given is affection gained.
It’s been said, “The best gift I ever received in life was
another person who believed in me.” How true. A basic human need is
to be believed in by another. I experience this often with my kids.
They’re always bringing their latest art project to show me.
Suppose I brushed aside their masterpieces, saying, “Don’t bother
me with your poorly painted airplane!” or “Quit showing me your
To show my kids that I value them and believe in their
abilities, I kneel and give loving attention to their treasures. I
look deep into my children’s eyes and tell them how proud I am of
Build self-esteem. Troubled children, just like all children,
have an innate need to be believed in. They need someone to say,
“You matter.” Find something children do well and let them know
you’re proud of them. It may be something as simple as letting a
child know you noticed him or her sitting quietly during the
prayer. Or it might be an artistic or musical talent. Get on your
little friend’s eye level. Sit next to the child and look him or
her straight in the eye. Never hold back a genuine word of
approval. If a child has a hard time with eye contact, be patient.
You might first start by gently placing your hand under the child’s
chin and carefully raising his or her face until level eye contact
I’ve conducted child therapy with many kids with low
self-esteem. Many of these kids are used to constant scolding void
of any compliments, so they don’t know what positive approval is.
By encouraging a child, you could be helping that child gain
self-esteem. Self-esteem is the foundational building block of a
person’s self-identity — it’s how we view ourselves in relation
to the world around us. When kids have negative or no self-esteem,
they’re at risk for emotional, educational, and social problems
that can impact them for life.
Encourage moments of celebration. Talk about kids’ positive
actions. Listen actively — mirror what the child says to you.
Respond to the child’s words and actions. It’s true for adults and
children — to know we’ve been heard brings value to our soul.
Begin today — you’ll be amazed how the child responds.
Time spent equals self-worth.
My son, Daniel, wanted to play Monopoly at age 6. His 8-year-old
sister, Savannah, was old enough to understand the game but Daniel
wasn’t. Yet Daniel insisted that we play — so we did. At times,
I’d ask Daniel if he was bored and his immediate response was, “No,
I’m having fun.” Then he’d frequently add, “Can we play for several
more hours?” I pondered his words and thought, What’s Daniel
communicating to me? He looks bored and confused, but he wants to
torment himself for a couple more hours?
I realized that time spent with Daniel, regardless of the
activity, meant more to him than understanding the game. He found
pleasure and fulfillment spending time with his family. Our
presence — not Monopoly — gave him value as a person. Jesus
frequently expressed this sentiment by reassuring his disciples of
his constant presence; we can do the same for all children.
How does this work with troubled children? It’s simple — spend
time together. If a child is on the floor playing, sit beside him
or her. Listen to the lesson as if for the first time. Be
enthusiastic. Support the child in actions and words. Remember:
Kids never get enough love. They’re like sponges continually
soaking up praise. Never underestimate the value of the time you
give to a struggling child.
• • •
Many lives have been forever changed because someone like you
planted seeds of hope with your actions and God’s Word. If you
happen to meet a girl or boy like Elizabeth this Sunday, give that
child a big hug for me. Some of those troubled children will bring
you the greatest joy.
Children in crisis need you to share God’s love and support.
Here are ways you can build a foundation of trust, acceptance, and
- Enlist parent pairs. If a child is struggling and nothing
you’ve tried seems to work, contact the child’s parent or guardian
and ask for full participation. This means the parent may need to
be physically present with the child for the child to participate
- Structure to meet needs. You can meet hurting kids’ needs for
affection, love, joy, affirmation, acceptance, and more by
carefully structuring your classroom activities to nurture these
emotions and experiences. For instance, help kids experience
acceptance by using noncompetitive games and interactive learning
experiences where they work in groups to meet a common goal.
- Give consistent care. Make a consistent connection with the
child by following a routine of caring. Greeting a child, asking
how he or she is doing, asking specific follow-up questions about
the child’s life and experiences, and communicating an open and
nonjudgmental attitude on a daily basis are vital to building a
basic relationship with a struggling child.
- Read the signs. Although children are resilient, they have a
way of being brutally honest through actions and words —
especially when something is amiss. It’s critical that we are
students of our children. If a child exhibits signs of abuse
(injuries beyond common bruising, untreated wounds, sudden behavior
changes, and more), you’re mandated to report the crime. Ministries
must always think in terms of guarding children’s safety.
When to Refer
Occasionally a struggling child may need more help than you can
offer. Use these indicators to gauge whether it’s time to refer a
child for professional help.
- Significant negative behavior or personality changes occur over
a period of time. These can include anger, aggression, withdrawal,
sadness, over-sensitivity, clinginess, and more.
- A child no longer enjoys activities that he or she used
- A child talks about hurting him- or herself or others.
- You know or strongly suspect that the child has experienced
abuse, neglect, trauma, or other significant challenge.
One or more of these indicators may mean your child needs
professional assistance. Consult with your pastor or supervisor
about how to best connect the child and the child’s family with a
mental health professional in your area.
Donald Welch is a family therapist in San Diego, California.
Visit his Web site at www.enrichingrelationships.org. Please keep in
mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to