If you are in children's ministry...you have been there.
A child walks through the doors and clearly that child has been having a difficult time, and it is quite evident in his/her emotions and behaviors. As leaders, we can struggle with what to do. It is not our job to discipline the children who walk through our doors. It is our job to love on them, show them that they are accepted and cared about and to encourage them. So how can we balance the two?
Here are some practical tips on how to help children through their emotions and behavior within ministry.
1. Learn to respond & reflect rather than react.
Children want to be heard so we really need to listen to them. Feelings drive behavior and children most often behave a specific way (good or bad) because they either have a need/want or are trying to avoid something. It is important for us to listen, acknowledge and validate children’s emotions. When we do so, we need to listen without judgment. As a result, we build trust and respect with that child. We show that they are accepted just the way that they are. When we truly listen, we can help bring awareness to that child about their feelings. And, yes, what that child is doing may very well be upsetting to us, however, it is not about us. It is about the child. Most of the time, simply reflecting a child’s emotions can diffuse a difficult situation. And when listening, be sure to physically be on that child’s level whether you are sitting down with them or kneeling on the floor. There is nothing more intimidating that an adult bigger than you hovering above.
2. Consider what that child’s life is like.
Enter that child’s world- imagine what it is like to be that child. We don’t know what that child woke up to that morning. What has happened in that child’s life?
- Has that child been through a traumatic experience, been through abuse or neglect?
- Did that child sleep in a bed last night or on a cold floor?
- Does that child have food to eat, clean clothing to wear?
- Has that child experienced something going on in their family?
- Is there a lot of stress and tension at home?
- Is that child depressed or anxious, have attention difficulties or sensory processing difficulties?
3. Provide guidance and redirection
It’s important to redirect children and provide them with guidance in a loving and accepting manner. Children seek out limits by testing the boundaries and so as leaders it is important to set limits for them. Additionally, some children may be triggered by something going on in the room (whether it is a loud noise, too many children or something that reminds them of a bad experience they have had) and may need to take a step out of the room with you for a few minutes to regroup and to calm down. What’s most important here is that it is never okay to shame a child or to call a child out in front of everyone. Simply pull that child aside and talk with them privately and help them to calm down and redirect their behavior.
4. Engage with the child and the family.
It is so important to make a connection with the family and ask the child’s caregiver if there is anything about that child’s morning that is important for you to know. As leaders we need to come alongside of parents. Ask questions like, “Is there anything I can do to help support your child this morning, to set him/her up for success? What have you found to be helpful at home?, etc”. If the family is okay with it, you connect with the child’s teacher or therapist (if they have one) or request a copy of any plans that are being implemented in school or at home to address their emotions and behavior. Just be sure to keep this information confidential and share only with those whom the family is comfortable with you sharing with.
Be sure to note positive attributes about the child to his/her caregiver. Identify the child’s strengths and verbalize them to the parent and as much as possible, and whenever possible in front of the child.
One thing to consider is, do you have a special needs ministry or a plan for addressing children’s special needs? If not, you can connect with other churches that do and learn how they address children’s needs.
There may be some difficulties a child may be having that cannot be resolved immediately and may warrant some further discussion, research and/or planning. In these cases it is always best to consult with your children’s director and/or family pastor to discuss the situation about the best way to proceed and always include the family in your planning.
Remember, that hour you spend with that child could be the one and only hour that child feels loved, accepted, encouraged and filled with hope. As leaders we are called to provide that for the children who walk through our doors.