When Kids Become Aggressive at Church

shutterstock_114356413This blog series, Beyond Zero Tolerance: When Kids Become Aggressive at Church was originally presented from September 2011 to January 2012 and examined issues and challenges that arise when kids demonstrate aggressive behavior at church. We’ll kick off the series by examining

Why is aggressive behavior so vexing for church staff, volunteers and parents?

Four years ago, when I was in Washington D.C. working on a project for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry I ventured out to McLean Bible Church to pick Jackie Mills-Fernald’s brain. Jackie heads up McLean’s remarkable Access Ministry, was very involved in the development of Jill’s House respite facility, and hosts the church’s enormously popular Accessibility Summit. I’d asked Jackie if there were specific topics or ministry concerns where our team could develop new training or address an unmet need for the Summit. She asked us to put together a workshop for the 2008 Accessibility Summit on the topic of serving kids with aggressive behavior at church. Katie Wetherbee (then a Key Ministry volunteer) and I led that first workshop. Based upon the turnout, we knew Jackie had truly touched on a significant concern among folks serving in children’s, youth and disability ministry.

Why is aggressive behavior such a hot topic? Here are a few thoughts…

Serving kids who become aggressive is messy. It’s not pleasant getting hit or bit. Kids who exhibit aggressive behavior probably aren’t going to say “Thank You” or give you a hug at the end of the morning. Working with a kid who regularly becomes aggressive doesn’t make for the most satisfying volunteer experience. And what church leader wants to run the risk of losing committed volunteers?

Kids with aggressive behavior don’t do what they’re supposed to. Their most troublesome behaviors can easily be conceptualized (sometimes, incorrectly) as sin. Their behavior doesn’t fit with our expectations for how kids are supposed to behave at church.

Kids who behave aggressively evoke fear…fear for your personal safety, fear for the safety of other kids in your ministry environments, fear of the reaction from parents of other kids exposed to disruptive behavior, fear of liability and fear of possible responses from church leaders.

Kids with aggressive behavior expose our judgmental nature. It’s hard for church staff and volunteers to work with kids with disruptive or aggressive behavior without at least occasionally making assumptions about the parents. Unfortunately, parents of kids with disabilities are exquisitely sensitive to the perception of being judged at church.

Kids who behave aggressively take us out of our comfort zone. They violate our sense of being in control…and I’ve met more than a few church leaders who really like being in control. They force church staff and volunteers to re-evaluate everything about what we’re doing…the content of our programming, the environments in which we do ministry, the way we train volunteers, and the outcomes we desire when working with families. They force us to think. A lot.

I’ve saved this topic until now because the challenges kids present when they routinely exhibit aggressive behavior can be extraordinarily complex. Kids with aggressive behavior are among the most challenging patients in my practice. Not all kids who behave aggressively necessarily have disabilities. But I don’t see anywhere in the Bible where Jesus gives us a pass on our responsibility to share His love or the Gospel with kids prone to act aggressively and their families. So let’s get to work in exploring how we can do a better job of including kids vulnerable to aggression into our ministry environments while maintaining the safety of those environments for all kids, staff and volunteers.

Here’s what we plan to cover…

What do we know about kids at risk for behaving aggressively?

Why kids might become aggressive at church

When are kids most at risk for aggressive behavior at church?

Strategies for maintaining safe environments

Tips for Sunday School teachers and youth leaders

Put yourself in the parents’ shoes

What can parents do to help?

Thinking outside the box…what if the risks are too great for a child to come to church?

What do we know about kids at risk for behaving aggressively?

Not all aggressive behavior is bad. Jesus was aggressive when He started flipping over the tables used by the merchants and the money changers at the temple in Jerusalem.

Maladaptive aggression is aggressive behavior that occurs outside an acceptable social context. Such aggression may be characterized by an intensity, frequency, duration and severity disproportionate to its causes. The behavior may occur in the absence of antecedent social cues and may not be terminated within the expected time frame, or in response to feedback. Because of the context in which the behavior occurs, aggressive behavior at church will almost always be viewed as maladaptive.

Research has suggested that kids at risk of behaving aggressively

  • Have more school adjustment problems than anticipated
  • Have higher rates of peer rejection and victimization
  • Experience difficulty in ambiguous interpersonal situations, struggle in reading emotion in the facial expressions of others and are more likely to read neutral facial expressions negatively
  • Often experience poor peer relationships and deficits in problem solving by the age of four
  • 21% of children with impulsive aggression are reported to have been victims of physical abuse 

We also know that maladaptive aggression is commonly seen among kids with significant mental health disorders. Among those disorders are…

ADHD: Kids with ADHD frequently experience difficulties with impulse control and/or emotional self-regulation, resulting in aggressive behavior.

Bipolar Disorder: The vast preponderance of kids with bipolar disorder will also have ADHD. During mood episodes, their experience of irritability and capacity for self-control may be markedly worse than their typical day-to-day functioning.

Autism Spectrum Disorders: Kids with spectrum disorders frequently exhibit difficulties similar to those seen in ADHD. They also frequently experience cognitive rigidity, inflexibility and perseveration that can lead to internal distress and aggressive behavior, especially during times of transition.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Kids who have been victims of aggressive behavior are more likely to demonstrate aggression toward others.

Anxiety Disorders: Kids with anxiety may behave aggressively as a result of their predisposition to misinterpret the level of threat or danger in their immediate environment.

Iatrogenic Causes: Not infrequently, the medication used to treat one condition may exacerbate a child’s propensity for aggressive behavior. We occasionally see this in kids with anxiety or autism spectrum disorders being treated with stimulants. Certain anxiety medications can result in disinhibited behavior.

Aggression often co-occurs with specific disorders, but may not be ameliorated by medications used to treat those disorders.

Our job as church isn’t to diagnose, but it’s important to note that many different conditions may predispose kids to aggressive behavior. If church staff/volunteers are aware of a diagnosis (assuming the diagnosis is accurate) or observe patterns of behavior consistent with a diagnosis, one might begin to anticipate situations when the risk of aggressive behavior may be heightened and strategize ways of pre-empting the behavior.

The most important take home point is that there’s a pretty good chance kids who struggle with aggressive behavior at church have some condition that predisposes them to act that way or have been victims of such behavior themselves.

They sound like kids who could certainly benefit from the opportunity to experience the love of Christ through a local church, don’t they?

We do disruptive kids

I was at the church that my daughters attend for a middle school ministry parent orientation. At one point in the meeting the ministry director made a plea for more male volunteers. Apparently, a group of seven boys in one grade were struggling greatly with self-control during Sunday evening programming and small groups. As the discussion progressed, one of the adult leaders suggested that we kids who “didn’t have a heart for the Lord” as evidenced by their behavior at church might be advised to stay home for a few weeks.

The meeting bothered me for a variety of reasons. Before I get into this, let me first state that the church my daughters attend has an excellent middle school ministry and I was present at the meeting because I strongly support the participation of our youngest daughter, who had recently started seventh grade.

I was familiar with the circumstances of a couple of kids in question and their behavior at church had absolutely nothing to do with their “heart for the Lord.” I’m very troubled by the propensity of so many in the church to assume kids with challenges in self-regulation and their parents have spiritual problems. And even if they did, aren’t those the folks the church is supposed to be helping?

After the meeting, I went up to one of our middle school small group leaders and explained that this is exactly the type of situation our Key Ministry team helps churches to address and volunteered a few ideas. Maybe the environment when they first arrive on Sunday night was overstimulating? Maybe the music was too loud? Maybe that group of boys is more wired for serving as opposed to talking? They might do better having their group discussion loading boxes on a truck at the food bank as opposed to sitting around a circle in stackable chairs. Maybe they’re better able to process for briefer periods of time in more mentoring-type relationships? The light bulb went on and the group leader totally “got it.”

Since the inception of Key Ministry, we’ve struggled to come up with the right words to describe to churches how we’re able to help. We’ve used the term “hidden disabilities” to describe the conditions the kids experience. Having the right language really matters.

It never dawned on anyone in our middle school ministry to seek the help of any of the folks from our disability ministry because they didn’t conceptualize kids who were exhibiting disruptive behavior as having a disability. Nor did anyone in the middle school ministry think of calling us because they wouldn’t have thought of those kids as having a “special need.” My guess is that when staff and volunteers look at seventh grade boys who lack self-control in a church setting, the mental model with which they’re most likely to approach them is the thought that they “lack a heart for the Lord.”

Why do kids become aggressive?

There’s been an ongoing debate in child mental health research circles for at least fifteen years about the nature of aggressive behavior and the best way to treat kids who exhibit such behavior.

The research suggests that two distinct subtypes of aggressive behaviors occur…impulsive aggression and planned (or predatory) aggression. See the summary slide below for a comparison of the two patterns of aggressive behavior seen in kids:

Allow me to make some observations…

Kids with maladaptive, impulsive aggression are very likely to have some brain-based condition that contributes to their difficulties with behavioral inhibition and emotional self-regulation. They tend to experience high levels of physiologic arousal. Kids with planned aggression have been demonstrated to experience decreased levels of physiologic arousal and have been hypothesized to respond preferentially to behavioral interventions.

There’s not one single underlying cause for aggressive behavior in kids. While aggressive behavior is far more frequent in kids with specific emotional and behavioral disorders than in the general population (ADHD, autism, bipolar disorder, intellectual disabilities, anxiety, depression, some anxiety disorders), aggression is not a defining feature of any specific disorder. The determinants of aggressive behavior in any individual child are likely to involve the expression of hundreds of specific genes, the child’s lifetime of experiences, the child’s subjective interpretations of their experiences and the qualities of the environment they’re in at any given point in time.

Kids with impulsive aggression are more likely to struggle with behavioral inhibition and emotional self-regulation. Their high levels of arousal are known to negatively impact upon their cognitive functioning. Experiences that induce arousal…loud noises, bright lights, aggressive play, etc. may not cause aggressive behavior, but may impede their ability to demonstrate age-appropriate self-control if their capacity for self-control is compromised by some other condition.

Kids who lack the capacity for emotional self-regulation and behavioral inhibition are going to be more susceptible to negative influences in their environment…peers, adults who make poor decisions, media, availability of substances.

We’ll continue to examine the topic of aggressive behavior in great depth over the course of this series, but here are two take home points for church leaders and volunteers to ponder:

Kids with an identified “special need” or hidden disability are at greater risk of experiencing aggressive behavior at church, but this problem is not confined to kids with known conditions. You probably won’t know in most instances whether the child has an identified condition contributing to their risk of aggressive behavior because of the reluctance of parents to self-report, and what you do to address the risk won’t be contingent upon having to know the child’s specific condition. The challenge is not confined to kids served by your special needs or disability ministry.

The one contributing factor to aggressive behavior you can influence as a ministry leader is the environment in which your kids worship, learn and serve at church. You want to consider how you can create environments that help all kids to maximize their capacity to use all of their cognitive resources for the best possible experience at church.

When are kids most at risk of aggressive behavior at church?

Most kids who display aggressive behavior serious enough in frequency and/or severity to be of concern to church staff and volunteers will meet the criteria for one or more mental health or developmental disorders. Nevertheless, children’s and youth ministry staff and volunteers need to take steps to minimize antecedents to aggressive behavior without specific information about a child’s diagnosis or treatment.  Many kids who are prone to aggressive behavior have never been evaluated or treated. Some who have been evaluated professionally may not have been correctly diagnosed. Many parents will be reluctant to share detailed information with church staff about their child’s diagnosis or treatment because of fear of stigmatization, or because they don’t trust that information they share will remain confidential.

With that said, we may still be able to make educated guesses for individual kids as to what church activities or environments carry the greatest risk of aggressive behavior based upon general observations that can be made by staff or volunteers with little formal training in serving kids with disabilities.

We’ll examine higher-risk situations for kids with:

  • Executive functioning deficits: Difficulties inhibiting behavior, regulating emotions, sustaining attention/focus, following directions
  • Mood dysregulation: Irritability, frequent tantrums, meltdowns
  • Sensory issues: excessive reactivity to light, sound, touch, smells, taste
  • Anxiety
  • Social relatedness

Today, we’ll look at higher risk ministry environments for kids with executive functioning deficits, and address kids with mood dysregulation, sensory issues, anxiety and social relatedness during the upcoming week.

As a general rule of thumb, kids who struggle with executive functioning are capable of controlling their behavior and managing the ways in which they express emotions-it just requires much more mental effort for them to do so than it would for another child of the same age. You’ll hear parents and teachers throw around the concept that kids  who become aggressive need “structure.” I’d define “structure” as clear and predictable rules, expectations and routines for task completion and interpersonal relationships. What “structure” does for kids who struggle with self-control is that it allows them to devote cognitive resources and energy to the task at hand as opposed to expending those resources navigating the immediate demands of their environment.

Let’s apply this concept to ministry environments…For kids with executive functioning weaknesses, their risk for becoming aggressive will be reduced during predictable and familiar routines. As their environment becomes more chaotic, noisy, disorganized and unpredictable, their resources for maintaining self-control become more limited. Your staff and volunteers will want to address:

Transition times before, during and after scheduled children’s or youth ministry activities. If kids who struggle with executive functioning walk into a room where peers are yelling, jumping, wrestling or becoming physical with one another, their ability to maintain self-control will become more limited. These are the kids who “don’t know when to stop.” Having adults in ministry environments well in advance of the scheduled start times for scheduled activities to maintain fun with order will help reduce risk of aggressive behavior. This supervision is especially important at drop-off and pick-up times. Another high-risk environment can be transition times between large group worship and small group breakouts or activities. Dismissing kids to their assigned area of the church building in as organized a manner as possible helps kids with self-control deficits to maintain appropriate behavior.

shutterstock_46864729 Participation in high-energy activities: Most kids experience multisensory, high-energy worship and ministry activities as engaging and fun, and learn well in those ministry environments. Such environments are more of a challenge for kids with executive weaknesses because they can deplete the child’s cognitive resources for maintaining control. Having kids predisposed to aggressive behavior doesn’t necessarily mean you have to change the environment for everyone. But you might consider alternate activities for kids who struggle with self-regulation during specific activities in your programming. One of my patients became a highly valued member of his church’s parking team. When he was finished directing traffic, the light and sound show with worship was completed, and he’d return to church for his large group teaching and small group discussion.

Evening activities: Because kids with executive functioning weaknesses expend more cognitive resources to maintain self-control, they may experience mental fatigue more quickly than their peers. As a result, kids who do OK during the day at church or school in managing their behavior and emotions might have a more difficult time doing so under similar circumstances later in the day. A kid who does OK on Sunday morning in age-appropriate programming may need more individualized support in order to maintain self-control in the evening.

When are kids with mood and/or sensory issues most at risk of aggressive behavior at church?

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.

shutterstock_59859379They 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 the frustration becomes too overwhelming. An astute Sunday School teacher or group leader will, upon recognizing the pattern, have enough material or activities prepared to engage the child prone to aggression when irritability begins 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.

Other contributing factors to aggressive behavior at church

shutterstock_173700593Kids with excessive sensitivity to sensory stimulation (light, sound, touch) often experience distress in environments with loud (or many different) noises, bright lights and physical contact. Their capacity for self-control in situations where they experience overwhelming sensory stimulation is frequently diminished.

Some churches have attempted to accommodate families of kids with sensory processing issues by establishing alternative entrances to the building where less noise and fewer people will be present. Pick-up and drop-off times are often periods of heightened risk for loss of self-control. Harmony Hensley (an interior designer by training) will expand upon environmental interventions for reducing risk of aggressive behavior in this series.

Kids are more prone to aggressive behavior as their level of anxiety increases. The initial visit to a new church, transitions to a new group or new activity at church, drop-off times associated with separation from parents, situations in which a child experiences the sense of being singled out or embarrassed in front of their peers, or times when a child with obsessive-compulsive anxiety is asked to shift tasks or transition away from an activity they feel compelled to complete represent situations when the risk of aggressive behavior may be heightened.

When possible, making available a quiet place in the church for kids who are experiencing acute distress so they can process and de-escalate is helpful. The child’s awareness of other people watching them during periods of distress often exacerbates the risk of aggressive behavior. The child needs to have a parent or volunteer immediately available during that time, consistent with your church’s safety policies and procedures. Making available pictures of your facility or videos of the activities kids are likely to experience on your website is helpful to families of children with anxiety prior to their initial visit. Multiple prompts prior to transitions between activities or visual timers demonstrating the remaining time for a given activity may help kids who get “stuck” on completing tasks they’re engaged in.

The suggestions described above are also applicable to reducing risk of aggressive behavior in kids with difficulty processing social cues or maintaining appropriate social interactions (as would be characteristic of kids identified with autism spectrum disorders). Changes in the routine at church or the presence of unfamiliar church staff or volunteers may heighten the risk of aggression. Some churches address this challenge by assigning two “buddies” to the child to diminish the likelihood of the child being served by an unfamiliar person.

Church…A Hostile Environment? Harmony Hensley

Key Ministry teammate and Inclusion Fusion Speaker Harmony Hensley contributed unique insights from her life experience as an interior designer prior to entering ministry.

Harmony formerly served as Pastor and Director of Outreach and Inclusion Ministries at Vineyard Cincinnati. The Vineyard has been ranked as one of the 50 most influential churches in America and is known for a strong outward focus and servant culture. Harmony has a Bachelor of Arts Degree from Cincinnati Christian University with a double major in Ministry Leadership and Biblical Studies. She is currently pursuing her Graduate degree majoring in Church Growth and Planting.

I imagine the title of this blog alone may ruffle some feathers.  How could someone say that church is a “hostile” environment?  The nerve!

Stay with me for a few paragraphs and I’ll explain what I mean.  The dictionary defines hostile as “not friendly, warm or generous; not hospitable.”

For families and children impacted by disability church is all too often viewed as a “hostile” environment in which they feel judged or unwelcome.  Sadly, I’ve met a number of families who would summarize their church experience this way.

Often this is a result of words unspoken, and the very environment we create to reach people for Christ.  The encouraging news is that many of the things that make the church experience difficult for these families are easily remedied.

Think of your ministry environment in terms of the sensory and social experience that visitors (both adults and children) will encounter.

Let’s take a “virtual” walk through your campus.  Close your eyes and imagine your campus (well, first read this article and THEN close your eyes and do a virtual walk through- you get the idea).

When families pull into your parking lot what do they see?  Is there clear signage or staffing to direct them where to park?  Can they quickly identify your children’s ministry entrance?

When they enter into your children’s ministry entrance what does that experience look like?  Is the environment loud?  Over-stimulating?  How is the lighting?  Who is staffing the entrance?  What is their hospitality approach?  What signage is present in your facility?  What signage is missing?

These may seem like odd questions but I assure you these are the things that the families we serve are thinking about.  As my Key Ministry teammates can tell you, many of the kids we serve have a number of questions that are scrolling through their mind as they think about the church experience –

▪               Where are we going?

▪               Who is going to be there?

▪               What will it be like?

▪               What if it’s cold?

▪               What if they make me sit in an uncomfortable chair?

▪               What if they make me sit?  (I don’t like to sit; I like to walk around)

▪               Where will Mom and Dad be?

▪               What if they make me read aloud?

▪               What if they ask me a question and I don’t know the answer?

▪               What if it smells funny?

▪               What if it’s too dark?  What if it’s too bright?

▪               What if it’s too loud?

▪               How will I know what is coming next?

▪               What if there are too many people?

▪               What if…..(insert countless  anxieties here)?

There are a number of easy fixes we can look at to make sure that our ministry environment is inclusive.  In my posts from last year (which you can see here and here) I go over a number of tips that can dramatically impact the way in which children with ADHD will interact with your space.

 There is also a “human” component to your ministry environments.  This can certainly be the trickiest part to assess and impact, but it’s not impossible.  I’ve often said ministry would be easy if we didn’t have people involved.  (If you’ve ever worked with people you can probably identify with that statement).

I would encourage you to take a two-pronged approach to making your church a more welcoming environment for families and kids impacted by disability.

First, do an honest walk through and assessment of your facility.  I certainly understand that ministry dollars are always tight but many of these solutions are free to inexpensive and often invite opportunities for creativity.  Create a checklist of improvements or enhancements that you and your team would like to tackle and complete them one at a time.  Before you know it you will have created a very sensory friendly space for the children you serve!

Second, invest in your volunteers.  Serving children with special needs, particularly hidden disabilities such as Aggressive Behavior Disorders, Bipolar, Autism, ADHD, and other mental health issues is intimidating.  The “people” are just as important as the paint, lights, and textures that children interact with.  (I know – I’m preaching to the choir here!  WE ALL LOVE VOLUNTEERS!!!!)  Most volunteers will feel ill-equipped to serve and reach these families.  But the good news is that there are a number of FREE resources and teachings available to you as a ministry leader to further empower your team.  Be intentional about training your volunteers (all of them in kidmin; not just your inclusion volunteers) to better understand aggressive behaviors.

Kids With Aggressive Behavior…What’s it Like For Their Parents?

The demands of raising a child who experiences repeated episodes of maladaptive aggression are often overwhelming. It’s important to keep in mind that the level of vigilance such parents need to demonstrate to maintain their homes as safe places frequently limits the time and energy they have available to attend to their own spiritual growth, much less attend to the spiritual needs of their children. Your ministry experiences a win every time the parents or siblings of the child with aggressive behavior are able to attend worship, go to a class or Sunday School or participate in a small group.

Imagine the anxiety parents experience in bringing a child prone to aggressive behavior to church! After all, one of the most troublesome aspects of their child’s disability is behavior that in many instances can be characterized as sin. There’s the discomfort that results from the sense of being judged by others. As a parent from my practice put it, “People in the church believe they can tell when a disability ends and bad parenting begins.”

Having a child with severe aggression is very socially isolating. Parents have to carefully consider where they can take their child in public…daily activities like trips to the grocery store, to a sibling’s athletic event, or attending family events often require careful planning…one parent may have to stay home. Marital strain is common. Parents can’t ask any teenager on their street to babysit. While the data on divorce rates among families of kids with autism spectrum disorders is mixed, divorce rates among families of kids with ADHD under the age of eight (when they are most likely to exhibit aggressive behavior as a component of the clinical presentation) are double the rates seen in similar families. For more information on special needs and divorce, click here.

High-quality treatment for kids with maladaptive aggression may be difficult to find. I received an e-mail in the past week from a pediatrician seeking advice after a mother of a young child on five different medications for aggressive behavior called her looking for help because of concerns about all the medication her child had been prescribed. The parent wasn’t able to get an appointment with a new child psychiatrist for another two months. Another challenge parents face is weighing the risks of antipsychotic medication commonly used to treat severe aggression (marked weight gain, increased lipid and cholesterol levels, elevation of prolactin levels with some medication, long-term risk of movement disorders) against the potential benefits. Medications for impulsive aggression frequently wear off in the late afternoon or early evening, creating difficulties for families who would like their children to participate in evening programming.

Bottom line…families of kids with maladaptive aggression have lots of needs. They need a welcoming church where they can grow spiritually so that they can fulfill their responsibilities as the primary faith trainers to their other children. They have relational needs. They need Christian community, but they also need time to build their relationships with one another. They also need a place where they feel accepted.

Kids With Aggressive Behavior at Church…How Can Parents Help?

Last winter, we spent two months discussing the importance of family-based ministry approaches with families of kids who have hidden disabilities, emphasizing the importance of partnerships between church staff, volunteers and parents. The need for partnership is especially important in serving kids with a history of frequent and/or severe maladaptive aggression.

Partnerships usually involve mutual goals, rights and responsibilities. Parents of kids at risk for aggressive behavior have responsibilities they should meet in order for everyone (their child, other children, volunteers and church staff) to have a God-honoring experience at church that promotes Kingdom building and spiritual growth. Here are four steps parents can take to help improve the likelihood their child will be safely and successfully included in church programming and activities…

Do share information with ministry team about techniques shown to help prevent/reduce aggression at home and school. Knowledge of specific antecedents associated with aggressive behavior, early signs of behavior escalation and strategies found helpful in diffusing anger or irritability at home are invaluable to church staff and volunteers.

Do administer medication shown to help reduce the frequency and severity of aggressive behavior during church activitieswith the approval of the child’s treating physician. Many kids at risk of maladaptive aggression attend schools staffed by teachers with additional training and experience in special education. If a child needs medication to be successful in a learning environment staffed by trained professionals, why would parents think they would do well without medication in a church environment staffed by (mostly) untrained staff and volunteers?

Do be aware of the concern that aggressive behavior presents in church settings with largely untrained volunteers. See above.

Do consider (for the sake of other kids and volunteers) keeping your child at home when he/she exhibits aggression that you can’t successfully manage at home. To borrow from language used in the schools, church may not be the “least restrictive educational environment” for every single child. We need to remember what the goal is. Isn’t our directive from Jesus to “make disciples?” Where does it say in the Bible that the process of becoming a disciple has to occur inside the walls of the church for every single kid every single week?

Is it Ever OK for a Church to Say No?

Where in the Great Commission or the New Testament does it say anything about a requirement that all followers of Christ keep the Sabbath by being physically present inside an identified church building for worship or instruction?

In my humble opinion, no children’s ministry or youth ministry is going to be able to successfully include 100% of kids with disabilities 100% of the time. Our team at Key Ministry would certainly encourage churches to attempt to include as many kids and teens with as broad a range of disabilities as possible into as much of their age and developmentally appropriate worship and church programming as they possibly can. But there will be kids who will have times when participation in activities at church doesn’t represent the “least restrictive environment” for that child to grow as a follower of Christ. Kids with a history of severe aggressive behavior may fall into this category.

So when should kids at risk for severe aggression be asked to stay home? Schools have guidelines for parents about when they should keep children home to prevent other kids from getting sick. When are other kids, church staff and volunteers at risk of being harmed by kids prone to aggression?

When the parent(s) can’t manage the child’s behavior safely at home.

When a foreseeable event has transpired at home (changes/lapses in medication used to control aggressive behavior, marked escalation of behavior while transitioning/preparing to leave for church) or at church (changes from the norm in environment/availability of appropriately trained staff or volunteers familiar to the child) increasing the child’s risk of aggressive behavior.

The church isn’t off the hook for its’ responsibility to help the child and their family to come to faith or grow in faith. What can (and should) the congregation do to support the rest of the family in attending church and participating in activities vital to spiritual growth?

Could the church provide relational respite in the child’s home to allow the adults in the family to attend worship or participate in other activities? If the child’s needs are severe enough, what about paying for specially trained, in-home child care providers? 

Could the church schedule activities (small groups, Bible studies, service opportunities) during times of day/seasons of the year when the needs of the child at risk of severe aggression are being met through the educational system? 

Can the church arrange for transportation for the other children in the home to attend age-appropriate programming on Sunday…and during the week?

Can the church become a resource provider to parents of tools to support them in their role as primary faith trainer of their children…with and without special needs?

Can the church be intentional about creating ministry environments that support the child at risk of aggressive behavior in participating in as many activities as possible as often as possible?

Here’s a presentation from the 2011 Bioethics Conference/Through The Roof Summit on the topic…Children and Youth Who Demonstrate Aggressive Behavior at Church…What To Do?

2 Responses to When Kids Become Aggressive at Church

  1. Alice says:

    When teens get the reputation of being a troublemaker in school, parents know how hard it is to change that reputation. Fighting or using other negative physical and verbal behavior is a bad coping skill. Teens cope with stress differently, and most of their coping skills are learned from home.


  2. Pingback: Teachers Share The One Thing A Student Said That Made Them Think 'There Is No Hope For You' - Humaverse

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