Push vs. Pull : Working with Kids from Hard Places


When doing any kind of Outreach Ministry to children, one thing that you typically experience is interactions with children that are “unchurched.” It’s the very reason we DO outreach. However, working with kids that come from traumatic backgrounds, as many of the children have had, can prove to be a challenge. There are some children who are in such a desperate need of love and attention that they soak up every single thing you have to offer. Then there are other children, who are the complete opposite. They will be belligerent, defiant, disrespectful, rude, etc. Your first instinct may be to expel them from the program as a form of “discipline.” This is where I am going to spend my time today, examining a little closer, this behavior of a child that makes your program hard to administer.

There are two schools of thought in this area. The first one we will examine is the typical punitive response. Usually, this is something like time out, exclusion, etc. For people that have little experience with “hard” children, this is typically the response we see. Now these people may genuinely love kids, have a lot of experience with kids, and not have any bad intentions. For children that have grown up in a loving, stable home, this type of discipline can be used as one of the tools in the “discipline” tool box. However, for kids that have not necessarily grown up in the most stable of homes, this type of discipline can prove to be detrimental.

To a child who has experienced rejection, it speaks rejection. To a child who has experienced abandonment, it speaks of abandon. To a child who has experienced chaos, it speaks confusion.

If a child has come to church, or to your Outreach site, then usually that is a result of being compelled to come to a ministry or event that has the goal of reaching out in love. But if that child is then rejected from that very thing held the promise of love, what is that child going to think? Pushing a child away communicates that their behavior determines your emotion towards them.

Children that come from hard places are often dealing with a heart that has been damaged somehow. They have learned that it is easier to start off with aggression and sometimes even ridiculous behaviors to push you away. Especially if you have somehow communicated love or acceptance to them. It scares them, they almost don’t know what to do with it. In their mind, it is easier to push you away then for them to risk letting you in and being hurt by you later. We see this in kids that have experienced loss. Kids in foster care, kids that have lost a parent, or kids that have learned to live without the presensce of a stable parent, will often act out this way.

However, if a child is acting this way in the middle of your service or event, it obviously can derail the event. Are you supposed to ignore the behavior and hope it goes away?

I would like to suggest an alternative. This is the second school of thought that I personally use when dealing with kids from hard places. Instead of pushing a hard kid away, I draw them closer. Instead of a “time out” use a “time in.” For that disruptive child, I will often take them aside, sit with them, spend time with them, and then visit or connect with them throughout the week. This one on one time does not necessarily have to be long. However, intentionally seeking out a relationship with a child does two things:
1. It teaches them that you sincerely care about them. This is something that many street kids don’t understand: the legitimate concern of an adult that wants nothing from them other than to help them and love them. Current research shows that 1 out of every 5 children are sexually abused. 1 out of 5! That means that if you have 20 kids sitting in front of you, 4 of them are sexually abused. And as is often the case with Outreach sites, many of these kids are sibling sets which means that it is probably higher than that. This has an impact on how kids understand and receive information. They have been taught that adults are not safe. They have learned to put up walls. Walls mean defiance.
2. It creates the foundation for relationship. Relationships are how you minister to the heart of a child. Rules without relationships often lead to rebellion. Relationships with kids, quickly, become the motivating factor for them to behave. Respect is earned only after trust is earned. Trust takes time.

The great thing about kids, even hurt and hard kids, is they don’t take a long time to come around. Once they realize you aren’t going anywhere, you are sincere, then you will see the real needs come out. The needs for love and acceptance and nurturing. When they realize they can get that from you, you will see an entirely different side of them. Things will not be perfect. This is a process. There will be days where you feel like you have made great strides, and other days where you will feel like your moving backwards. That’s ok. Press on. Your consistency, not just in showing up, but in loving and responding in love, will communicate to the child that their behavior DOES NOT determine your emotions towards them.

As ministers of the gospel of Jesus, it should be our highest priority, at all times, to communicate to children that they are loved beyond measure, regardless of what they do or who they are. On paper we may agree with that, but do our actions agree with that?

This morning I read these words from scripture that spoke to this very thing:

  1 Corinthians 4:20-21 For the Kingdom of God is not just a lot of talk; it is living by   God’s power. 21 Which do you choose? Should I come with a rod to punish you, or should I come with love and a gentle spirit?

There have been times in my life where I have been walking in rebellion. Maybe it looked different than yours. But how would you like to have been approached? Which one would have been more effective at getting to the root of the behavior or issue?

It is my sincere prayer that as you step out to minister to God’s kids, that you are empowered with the tools you need to be successful. Take some time this week to think about that “one kid” that we all have that could use some extra time and attention this week. Start by praying for that kid and look for an opportunity to have a “time in.” I will be praying for you as you do.


Be Blessed,


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