Seven reasons church attendance is difficult when kids have mental illness

We 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

Kids 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 parentingOthers question whether commonly diagnosed conditions such as ADHD really exist.

Barrier #6. The fear of being singled out

Kids 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.

Key Ministry shares 10 strategies for promoting mental health inclusion in the church