In the fifth segment of our Winter 2014 blog series Including Kids and Teens With Mental Illness at Church, we’ll explore the challenges involved in helping families of kids and teens attend regularly when church staff, volunteers, parents and even the kids themselves may not be aware of the presence of conditions that interfere with their ability to thrive in our ministry environments.
Our existing disability ministries typically do a very good job of meeting the needs of families of children easily identifiable physical disabilities, or obvious weaknesses weaknesses in intellectual capacity or adaptive functioning. But what happens when the disability isn’t so obvious? What we came to describe early in our ministry as “hidden disabilities?”
It’s not unusual in our practice for us to see kids who struggled for many years in school with specific learning or processing disorders despite being in the daily presence of trained professionals. The vast preponderance of children’s ministry and youth ministry staff and volunteers are serving kids at church without any specialized education or training. After 28 years in my current gig, I’ll read or observe things when I meet a kid that raise red flags for dyslexia, sensory processing difficulties or struggles with social communication. It’s not reasonable to expect folks who volunteer for a few hours a week at church to recognize issues that trained professionals regularly miss.
I’ll share three hypotheses for why kids with hidden disabilities, including mental illnesses and learning disorders don’t get readily available supports to enhance participation at church…
Parents of kids with mental illness or learning disorders may not be aware that their child has a disability. Consider this…based upon readily available statistics (8-12% prevalence of youth of anxiety disorders, less than 20% receive any treatment), we have more kids and teens in the U.S. with clinically significant anxiety disorders that go untreated than we do kids with disabilities involving vision, hearing, cognitive, ambulatory and self-care difficulties added together! Parents with untreated anxiety may not recognize that the struggles their children experience are atypical or treatable.
Parents, pastors, church staff and volunteers may fail to recognize that children may benefit from simple, non-intrusive accommodations or supports at church. They may not recognize that their child’s defiance around attending Sunday School may stem from their fear of being called upon to read in front of their peers resulting from dyslexia or social anxiety. They may not be aware that minor environmental modifications involving color, lighting and sound may enhance the experience of kids who struggle with sensory processing, or kids who struggle with self-regulation when overstimulated. They may simply fail to follow up or inquire when kids disappear from children’s or youth ministry programming without explanation.
Parents may be reluctant to disclose their child’s condition to church staff/volunteers. I’ve heard rumors that some churches can be hotbeds of gossip. That couldn’t possibly be true! Unfortunately, churches all too frequently remain bastions of stigma around mental illness. While we’re making progress on that front thanks to the efforts of many determined church leaders, we need to recognize that many families won’t disclose information about significant mental health conditions because of the attitudes regarding mental illness they’ve encountered at church. Church leaders need to be sensitive when commenting (especially during worship services and in social media) about mental illness because of the way families impacted may perceive such comments.
Here are links to resource pages we developed on the topics of including kids with ADHD, anxiety disorders, Asperger’s Disorder, depression, bipolar disorder, trauma and aggressive behavior at church.
Coming Sunday: Barrier #6. The desire of kids to not be seen as “different”