Seven reasons church attendance is difficult when kids have mental illness…

depressed teenWe as the church do a lousy job of welcoming and including families of children and teens with mental illness or trauma histories. I’d argue that a major reason why we struggle is the absence of an agreed-upon model for a mental health inclusion ministry for kids.

I’ve come to the conclusion that our team at Key Ministry needs to, at the very least, put forth a conceptual model for a mental health/trauma inclusion ministry that could be implemented by churches of all sizes, denominations and organizational styles. This model would be continually tested and refined through the experiences of ministry partners everywhere seeking to include kids and teens with ADHD, anxiety, attachment issues, mood disorders, post-traumatic stress and difficulties with social communication and interaction. Today, we’ll start by identifying seven reasons church attendance/participation is difficult for families of kids with mental illness.

Barrier #1. Social isolation

Families of kids with many of the common mental health conditions described above are less likely to have as many opportunities for interaction with other families/children that produce invitations to church.

Barrier #2. Social communication

Churches are intensely social places. Consider the challenges that a child or teen faces in an environment surrounded by same-age peers who has difficulty processing body language/body space, tone/inflection of speech, common rules of social behavior or  struggles to effectively use words to express thoughts or feelings in unfamiliar or stressful situations!

Barrier #3. The child/teen’s capacity for impulse control and emotional self-regulation

shutterstock_86980295_2Kids with common mental disorders frequently experience difficulties with impulse control, problem-solving, learning from experience, managing time, delaying gratification and self-regulating emotions…all of which are common expectations in the environments in which we do much of our children’s and youth ministry. See this post that further explains the importance of executive functioning.

Barrier #4. Sensory processing

Sensory processing differences are common among children with autism spectrum disorders, ADHD and anxiety disorders. Many respond differently to sound, light, touch and taste than their same-age peers, and ministry environments that some kids find engaging may be experienced as noxious by children with heightened sensitivity to sensory stimulation.

Barrier #5. Stigma in the church

As we discussed this past winter, many prominent pastors and church leaders have characterized common mental health conditions in children and teens as either an indication of sin or poor parenting. Others question whether commonly diagnosed conditions such as ADHD really exist.

Barrier #6. The fear of being singled out

shutterstock_15545299Kids and teens with the conditions we’re discussing often express their desperation at wanting to “belong.” Older children and teens are often very reluctant to accept any help that might result in their peers viewing them as “different” in any way. The vast majority of kids I serve in my practice would be horrified by the prospect of having to be part of a “special needs ministry.”

Barrier #7. Parents with mental illness

The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Many common mental illnesses are highly heritable. Kids generally don’t drive themselves to church. Any effective strategy to include kids with mental illness or trauma histories at church needs to take into consideration the barriers that have excluded their parents or caregivers from church.


KM Logo UpdatedKey Ministry has assembled resources to help churches more effectively minister to children and adults with ADHD, anxiety disorders, Asperger’s Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, depression and trauma. Please share our resources with any pastors, church staff, volunteers or families looking to learn more about the influence these conditions can exert upon spiritual development in kids, and what churches can do to help!

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.
This entry was posted in ADHD, Hidden Disabilities, Inclusion, Key Ministry, Mental Health and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Seven reasons church attendance is difficult when kids have mental illness…

  1. JustMeLeena says:

    Reblogged this on Just Me – Leena and commented:
    These are very real barriers for families – children and their parents/grandparents/(whoever might bring them to church), making it difficult to attend worship, classes and events. This wasy my family growing up, plus my parents were divorced and dad lived close enough for every other weekend visitation, those perfect attendance pins and rewards in Sunday school were constant reminders of the brokenness and difficulties in our lives. How do we not only include these families, allowing for safe spaces to return when they are feeling bold and able?


  2. Shame. My adopted daughter experienced neglect and sexual abuse. As a result she has deep feelings of shame and worthlessness. When she had a total melt-down about attending a [public] school that requires uniforms, she was eventually able to figure out in therapy that her fear was because she associates schools with uniforms as places where students are being judged on how “good” they are. That made me understand why she can’t go to church. How much more will she feel “bad” there. Obviously, that is precisely what people should NOT feel at church, but the church’s emphasis on “good behavior, chastity, purity” etc. surely must make her feel judged. And we haven’t even begun to work on her image of God!


  3. Sarah says:

    Wondering what the suggested solutions are! I’m a former kidmin leader turned guardian mom who is living with a 6 year old that struggles desperately many weeks with church, we add to the list, Sunday was the main day he ever interacted with his real mom, and it wasn’t at church. So all around Sunday’s are hard.


  4. Donna Fagan says:

    Barrier #8 Lack of education. Education for church leadership and members for understanding of mental disorders and the people they affect.


  5. cure4dmd says:

    My son does not have a mental disability but a physical one. He was looking at my computer yesterday when i pulled up this article to read it. He read it with me and said to me , mom I can relate in a few of those points! I know he struggles and for me the fact that he was able to identify with some of those feelings, situations ,has given me a little insight into why he struggles with going to public places, including church.


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