When Mood Dysregulation Heightens Risk for Aggression at Church

In Part Five of our series on including kids with aggressive behavior at church, we’ll look at ministry activities and environments posing the greatest risk of aggression for kids with mood dysregulation or sensory processing issues.

Kids who demonstrate irritability as their predominant mood state will often experience severe temper outbursts in response to common, everyday stressors. When such behavior is accompanied by cyclical changes in speech (talking more, talking louder, talking faster), impulse control (less), difficulty maintaining a train of thought, diminished attention span and increased distractibility, all of the difficulties we discussed on Sunday associated with executive functioning deficits come into play. Click here for the beginning of a series from the Summer of 2010 on the impact of Bipolar Disorder on spiritual development in kids.

The larger group of kids with mood dysregulation will also experience executive functioning weaknesses, but lack the cyclical changes in mood observed in the kids described above. Their mood and patterns of behavior will vary less from week to week, but they remain very much at risk for verbal rages or physical aggression toward people or property. The risk for rages may be heightened when…

Transitions occur that violate their locus of control. Aggressive behavior often occurs when the child or teen is asked to stop doing something they enjoy. Parents will typically encounter such behavior when they’re trying to get their child to stop playing their video games to get ready for church. Visual timers may help kids to prepare for the need to transition from activity to activity.

When they encounter too many choices. Kids with this type of mood dysregulation often experience difficulty coming to a resolution when making decisions, because they think too much and question their own decisions. Their outbursts are more likely when they get “stuck.” Something as innocuous as picking out of a prize box after successfully answering a series of Bible questions cal lead to frustration.

They don’t do well with “down time.” Busy tends to be better…kids who tend to become frustrated and experience a “slow build” until experiencing a crescendo of aggressive behavior can often de-escalate relatively early in the cycle if they’re distracted by something more interesting before becoming too frustrated. An astute Sunday School teacher or group leader upon recognizing the pattern will have enough material or activities prepared to engage the child prone to aggression when their irritability starts to escalate.

Here’s a general rule of thumb…When a child or teen is demonstrating aggressive behavior that appears to be predominantly impulsive in nature, decreasing the sensory stimulation in the environment is generally helpful. When a child or teen demonstrates aggressive behavior resulting primarily from perseveration on a perceived hurt or frustration, distracting the child as early as possible in the cycle is generally helpful.


KM_ForFamilies_Logo_Color_RGBKey Ministry helps connect churches and families of kids with disabilities for the purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ. In order to provide the free training, consultation, resources and support we offer every day to church leaders and family members, we depend upon the prayers and generous financial support of readers like you. Please pray for the work of our ministry and consider, if able, to support us financially!

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, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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