Ten ideas for promoting spiritual growth when kids have ADHD or anxiety

shutterstock_132972143Several years ago, we compiled a summary of the available data on what helps kids to grow spiritually. Our team isn’t aware of any research looking specifically at spiritual growth strategies in kids with mental disorders, but I’m aware of MANY obstacles parents and church leaders encounter when seeking to help their kids grow spiritually.

Today, we’ll look at the catalysts to spiritual growth discussed in Reggie Joiner’s book Think Orange, and propose ten strategies that could be useful when kids have ADHD, anxiety, or social communication disorders.

In the Orange model, five main avenues of spiritual growth are considered:

  • Life-changing truth
  • Spiritual disciplines
  • Personal ministry
  • Significant relationships
  • Pivotal circumstances

A key component of the Orange strategy involves intentional involvement of leaders from outside the family in the lives of our kids and teens who partner with parents in validating the values and principles the parents are instilling at home. Churches can serve an invaluable role by offering trusted adults to help kids interpret life situations. To quote Reggie Joiner,

“Children have a better chance of understanding and interpreting life-changing truth when multiple influencers in their lives are all saying the same thing.”

In the Orange strategy, the availability of mature and consistent leaders who walk with kids and parents for multiple years, staying connected through life transitions, is a high value.

Faith skills taught in the context of these relationships with leaders include the ability to:

  • Navigate the Bible
  • Personalize Scripture
  • Dialogue with God
  • Articulate Your faith
  • Worship with your life

So far, so good. All of these faith skills are consistent with what was shown to be effective in the research on spiritual development in kids. But what if a kid has a significant emotional, behavioral or developmental disorder that presents challenges for participating in the program or sticking with the program? Here are ten suggestions…some are demonstrably effective, some are working hypotheses based upon 28 years of experience as a clinician and lots of time spent at church. All of these ideas are applicable to any kid or family at your church, but may be especially relevant when kids have issues with ADHD and/or anxiety.

  • Churches can help kids and parents prioritize what to study in the Bible, using technology to push the content to the parents. Kids with conditions such as ADHD (and their parents with ADHD) have difficulty setting priorities. Because church is not a part of the daily routine and may be noisy and chaotic at transition times, kids have more trouble remembering to bring home content you want them to share with parents. You can’t depend upon kids to get the content home or to share it with parents. Instead, you need to have a system of getting parents the resources they need that doesn’t depend upon their child. Posting copies of handouts on your church website…or better yet, sending a weekly e-mail to parents with links to handouts they can discuss during the week can be a helpful strategy. It’s also helpful for kids who miss church because of custody/visitation arrangements or youth sports commitments.
  • Churches can help provide reminders to kids and parents to practice spiritual disciplines. Kids with many HDs need lots of reminders. So do their parents. My office might be empty if our medical records system didn’t send reminder texts 48 hours before appointments. Texts may be more helpful than e-mails because texts are more likely to be read.
  • Churches can help parents initiate spiritual conversations with their kids. One advantage of having a “hidden disability” is that kids with common mental health conditions may have more time available for conversations with parents. Difficulties with gross or fine motor coordination, emotional self-regulation or social interaction are frequently impediments to participation in time-consuming extracurricular activities (sports, clubs at school) that compete for time with family. Parents of kids with conditions like ADHD, anxiety and autism spectrum disorders may have more 1:1 time with their kids going to and from professional appointments.
  • Churches can be intentional about building into relationships with parents of kids with mental illness, trauma or developmental disabilities. One very large, multisite church where we trained hypothesized that kids with “hidden disabilities” were more likely to be inconsistent attenders. Kids who struggle with self-discipline frequently have parents who struggle with self-discipline. Could leaders call parents if a child in their small group hasn’t come for to church for two or three weeks in a row? If your church uses small groups as a strategy for helping parents to be accountable to one another, would a divorced parent feel welcome, or are your groups “couples only?”
  • Kids with anxiety frequently struggle with transitions from one age group to the next at church. They’re prone to fall away from church during the handoffs from elementary to middle school ministry and middle school to high school ministry. Younger kids who are shy or anxious can feel intimidated moving to larger environments when older kids have already formed relationships with one another. Could small group leaders transition with the kids as they enter into new age-grouped ministry environments?
  • Social media may be a tool to draw kids into relationships at church. Up to 10% of school age kids experience anxiety disorders. Getting kids with anxiety disorders together to do groups is like herding cats. My epiphany on this topic occurred when I saw that a high school kid I’d enrolled in a social anxiety study had 609 “friends” on Facebook. What if you streamed (or rebroadcast) your middle school and high school ministry content and made available leaders to facilitate small group discussion online, with the ultimate goal of getting kids comfortable enough with one another to meet at church?
  • Be intentional about helping parents of kids with common disabilities to identify their child’s gifts and talents and give them opportunities to use them. When kids have disabilities, schools tend to focus resources on addressing weaknesses. Church can be a place where kids can feel good about developing strengths while participating in the expansion of God’s Kingdom.
  • Create opportunities for families to serve together with their kids with HDs. Respite events as outreach to families of kids in the surrounding community with disabilities are a great way for kids of middle or high school age to serve together with their parents.
  • Give kids and youth opportunities for meaningful service at church. Many kids with ADHD are “doers.” If you’re looking for a successful model of inclusion in meaningful service activities, look no further than Cincinnati Vineyard’s Summer of Service experience.
  • Finally, develop inclusive environments for families of kids with common disabilities and have supports in place that allow parents and siblings of kids with disabilities to fully participate. Make sure families can access appropriately trained child care if you expect them to participate in your weekend worship, small group, large group, teaching and serving environments.

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Anxious kidKey Ministry has assembled a helpful resource page for church leaders and parents addressing the topic of Anxiety and Spiritual Development. This page includes our blog series on the topic, Dr. Grcevich’s presentation at the 2013 McLean Accessibility Summit and links to lots of helpful resources.  Click here to access the page!

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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