Are Difficult Children Worth the Effort?
Several years ago I worked as a children’s trauma therapist with a local nonprofit organization. I was part of a team whose job it was to meet with children who had experienced trauma, and their current caregivers, to complete an in-depth assessment to gauge how this trauma had affected the child mentally, emotionally, physically, and in their education. Some kids were quiet, some loud, some sweet and kind, some challenging. Some were “easy”, and some had me sweating at the end of a long day of chasing them up and down halls, trying to redirect them to the tasks that needed to be completed. All of them were so very different, but all of them had experienced trauma on a substantial level.
During one such assessment, I was working with a little girl around the age of 5 who had experienced significant trauma in her short life. She was “difficult” and challenged my therapeutic skills. She didn’t listen to much I said, she didn’t answer many questions, and she didn’t take redirection very well.
Near the end of the assessment, I felt tired and a bit defeated as I tried to wrap up the tasks. I let her take a break in the toy room while I put together the items for the last piece of the assessment. At the end of the break, I went to find my little companion, and as I entered the room, I heard a tiny voice singing “Jesus loves me.” Curious, I asked her if I could play with her for a few minutes and sat down beside her. Within a few moments, she had moved on to another Bible School song. Sitting there on the floor, the challenges of the day began to fade as she continued to sing.
Attending several churches as I grew up and having foster siblings, I was familiar with many “difficult” children over the years. Children who hit, kicked, yelled, cursed, ignored authority, and politely or maybe impolitely did their own thing regardless of what you wanted. But sitting on the floor with this little girl, I was encouraged. I learned from the little girl that she had attended Sunday School for a short time at some point in her life and had learned these songs there. I can imagine this child’s teacher was exhausted week after week, maybe not knowing how to handle this child, not knowing how to connect, and feeling as if the child hadn’t learned anything the entire time she attended. But sitting here in this safe space, I knew what that teacher didn’t. I knew that the little girl had heard and retained the message that Jesus loved her, and that’s what was on her mind in the middle of a hard day. A child that had experienced very little genuine love in her life had a Sunday School teacher that continued to invest, even on the hard days.
So, what do we do with “difficult” kids in our churches and communities? First, we must remember that many times those we perceive as “difficult” have been hurt and are reacting to this, whether this is internal or unintentional. Knowing this, we love them unconditionally so they can see a picture of Jesus in us. We remain consistent, even on the days we want to give up. We lovingly set boundaries, knowing that boundaries are healthy and necessary. We continue to invest. Knowing that nearly half of all children in America have been exposed to some form of violence, we educate ourselves on trauma and how it impacts kids. We look for ways we can care for those hurting around us, and then we strive to be the safe person in their life. We pray that the seeds of Jesus’ hope and love that have been planted are watered across their lifetime. Lastly, we must remember that we may never see the return on our investment. I don’t know if the Sunday School teacher in my story ever did. I don’t know what happened to that little girl after the last day I worked with her, but I hope somewhere there is a little girl who still remembers that Sunday School teacher who took the time to invest in her life. I hope she has found another church that will lovingly continue to water the seeds planted at a young age. And most importantly, I hope she still remembers that Jesus loves her.