Help Your Children Manage Mass (and Life) with Discipleship Discipline

Heaven is no doubt filled with parents whose many virtues included taking their squirmy little kids to Mass—a comforting thought for any parent dealing with a mid-Mass meltdown.

But is it possible to avoid that meltdown in the first place?

Yes, it is, says Jacob Francisco, LMHC, a pastoral counselor at the Pastoral Solutions Institute who has many years of helping families and children as a family therapist.

“I promise you can do this even with a toddler,” Francisco said in a recent interview. “A two-year-old can learn to sit in the pew and be relatively well-behaved for the length of one Mass.”

Better yet, the same parenting skills that you use to help your kids get through Mass can be used in other settings as your kids get older.

Master Your Parenting Mindset: Connection, Not Control

Before we get down to brass tacks, take a moment to reflect on what comes to mind when you think of the word discipline. Your ideas about what that word means can profoundly shape the approach you take.

In the Discipleship Discipline approach promoted by the Pastoral Solutions Institute, the whole point of discipline is to help kids become the people God made them to be—healthy, loving, virtuous, and capable of realizing their full potential.

Most parents tend to be either too tough and rigid or much too gentle in their discipline, Francisco said. Striking a balance between these two approaches is crucial. Being overly harsh can damage the parent-child relationship, while being too lenient can lead to a lack of discipline and structure.

“We’re trying to hit that beautiful sweet spot in the middle,” he said.

And what does that “sweet spot” look like? Effective discipline isn’t about “controlling” kids, Francisco said, as much as it is about having a strong connection with kids so that they turn to you for help and guidance.

“Discipline is about building that trust and connection so they want to listen and follow you because they know you have their best interests at heart,” he said. “What you’re teaching your kid is that, really, true obedience comes from love. If we really love someone, we’re going to want to obey them. We’re going to want to follow them, which is ultimately the relationship we’re trying to have our children have with God.”

Once we understand discipline as connecting with our kids in order to teach them how to become who God made them to be, a lot of other things fall into place.

For now, though, let’s get back to the specific question of helping kids self-regulate their behavior during Mass.

Set the Conditions for Success

As you think about how to help your children self-regulate during Mass, the first step is to set them up for success. Just as a track coach might advise his team to hydrate and eat before a race, make sure young ones have a snack and use the bathroom (if they are toilet trained) before Mass to avoid hunger-related meltdowns, Francisco said.

We also want to be engaging with our children throughout the Mass, not only offering snacks or toys to “keep them quiet.” Instead we want to keep them connected. 

“They can get through an hour reading books or just being held or sitting on your lap, or you can be quietly whispering about things you see in the church,” he said.

Having a regular quiet time at home helps, too—it’s like practicing for a race before the real event.

“If the only time your kid is expected to be quiet is at Mass, it’s going to be a lot harder to get them to be quiet,” Francisco said. “But if they’re used to having to be quiet for a period of time, then Mass is going to be a piece of cake.”

Designate a period each day where your child engages in quiet activities like reading or drawing. This practice helps them learn to manage their behavior in a controlled, peaceful environment, making it easier to apply these skills in church.

Managing Mass Meltdowns

Even with all of these preparations, most parents have to deal with a loud, melting-down child sooner or later. What then?

Many parents pick up their child and head to the cry room, Francisco said—and then, when the child is all cried out, they stay there because it’s just easier.

“But if you want to teach your kid to be quiet and behave throughout the whole of the Mass, that’s not going to work,” he said. “All you’re doing is teaching them that we can go to the cry room and then I can play.”

Instead, when you remove a disruptive child from Mass, don’t put them down.

“Hold them the whole time,” Francisco said. “Once they’re calm, then you can go back to the pew. This helps them learn that Mass is not playtime.”

Francisco emphasizes that negotiating with a child during a meltdown often backfires. Instead of negotiating, empathize with their situation—while also providing clear and consistent boundaries.

For example, if a child is throwing a tantrum in the back of church, you might say, “I know you want to sit with Mom, but it’s Matthew’s turn to sit with Mom. You can sit with Mom after Matthew is done.”

An Approach for Every Age

You’ll need to adapt this approach to fit your particular circumstances, but the key elements should stay the same in almost any situation:

  • Stay connected. Show your child that you’re on her side, ready to help her get through her tough spot.
  • Set clear boundaries. Set clear and consistent boundaries and stick to them. Avoid harsh punishments while not permitting misbehavior.
  • Focus on coaching/teaching. Remember that your primary goal is to help your child learn how to be the person God made her to be.

In a way, then, helping a disruptive child at Mass is good practice for helping that same child through any number of other small crises during their childhood, adolescence, and young adult years.

Ultimately, it’s all about modeling for our kids the sort of relationship we want them to have with God, Francisco said. And there’s no better place to start than at Mass.

If you’d like more personalized help from Jacob Francisco or another Pastoral Counselor, reach out at Also check out our community and resources for Discipleship Discipline while receiving personalized advice/support at or the CatholicHOM app in the App Store or Google Play!

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