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.