Be Not Anxious…Small Groups, Retreats and Mission Trips

Welcome to our Summer Blog Series examining the impact of anxiety disorders on church participation and spiritual development in kids. Today, we’ll continue our look at challenges church participation poses for children and teens with anxiety disorders by looking at several potentially anxiety-inducing experiences…small groups, retreats and mission trips.

Small group participation will frequently trigger distress among children and teens with anxiety. They will have more difficulty perceiving the small group as a safe place for sharing and disclosure. The child’s expectation of being pressured to participate in groups can result in overwhelming anxiety. Group leaders need to be careful to avoid pressuring kids to participate or call attention to their lack of participation. Kids who are reluctant to contribute to a group can still benefit significantly from the comments and contributions of leaders and peers. Parents who observe their child becoming angry, irritable, argumentative or avoidant when encouraging them to participate in small groups should share their concerns with the child’s group leader or pastor so steps may be taken to make their child’s experience a positive one.

Ministry leaders need to reinforce the value of confidentiality if kids with anxiety are to effectively participate in small groups. Trust may be a significant concern…kids with anxiety may be more concerned than others that their comments and behaviors will be reported back to parents.

Retreats and mission trips are an additional challenge for kids with anxiety disorders. The combination of an unfamiliar location, new experiences and separation from caregivers can be a recipe for disaster for an anxious child. Their willingness to participate in such activities may be contingent upon knowing in advance who their roommate will be. Kids prone to panic attacks may experience great distress during long bus or plane trips. Children with insect or animal phobias will be reluctant to participate in trips to camp sites.  Those with social anxiety may be uncomfortable with mission or service trips involving unfamiliar kids from other churches. A surprising number of kids continue to experience separation anxiety into their teen years. A red flag that a child or teen might struggle on a mission trip is their inability to do sleepovers at friends’ homes or reluctance to do overnight camps during the summer.

Ministry leaders may help by showing sensitivity to parental requests to pair their child with a preferred roommate, putting a good friend in the child’s discussion groups, providing as much information as possible in advance about the site of the retreat and anticipated activities. Pictures and video may be very helpful…when kids can see where they will be staying and visualize the types of activities they’ll be engaged with, unrealistic fears are diminished.

One last comment…I’m aware of churches that place a very high value on the importance of kids doing mission trips in which parents of kids who stay home feel like second-class citizens. It’s important not to criticize parents reluctant to push their kids to participate in the trips. Just this week, I spoke with a parent who felt extremely uncomfortable as a result of the pressure their child was experiencing from church leaders to do a trip. This pressure can be especially acute for kids when their parent has a staff position at the church or serves on the church Board and children/youth ministry leaders have expectations that parents will “support the program.” As we’ll discuss in future posts, the role of parents in guiding the spiritual development of kids may be of even greater importance for children with anxiety…church leaders need to be careful in respecting the judgment of parents as to whether participation in specific ministry activities will be helpful.

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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2 Responses to Be Not Anxious…Small Groups, Retreats and Mission Trips

  1. Wanda says:

    How do you differentiate a child who is suffering from anxiety and one who is just wanting control?

    Having served in churches for years I am also aware of all too many parents who overprotect their children and thus hold them back. Thus again, how do we differentiate?

    As children’s ministry leaders we can at times feel caught in the middle so we do nothing – then all the children lose.


  2. drgrcevich says:

    Good questions, Wanda.

    In some ways, what you’re describing is a false dichotomy…it’s not an either-or question. In my mind, the ultimate challenge in living out a Christ-like life is overcoming the difficulty all of us have (because of our human nature) in relinquishing control. Children or adults with anxiety may struggle more than others with this issue and it can become a barrier to developing greater spiritual maturity. Let’s also remember that kids are sometimes anxious because they want a parent or responsible adult to be in control.

    I think it’s important for those serving in children’s and youth ministry to resist the temptation to come to premature conclusions about the causes of a child’s behavior based solely upon our observations and experiences of the child in our environments. As a physician, I often need several hours or more with a child and their parents to sift through the possible causes of anxiety. What if the kid was traumatized or abused at some point? Maybe the kid had been abandoned at some point in the past?

    One other consideration: The apple often doesn’t fall from the tree-kids with anxiety frequently have parents with anxiety. We don’t want to say or do things that might be misperceived by parents of kids with anxiety who (in my experience) are very sensitive to the perception that they’re being judged. If we blow the relationship with the parent, we lose our opportunity to influence the family. With that in mind, I think it’s best to err on the side of presuming the behavior is anxiety-related and let the parents (with the help of appropriately trained professionals, if necessary) deal with the behavior, or indicate to folks at church when they’re welcome to speak into the issue.


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