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Thursday, April 28, 2011

Ask the Matriarch -

Our question this week deals with a specific issue that may have broad application in many of our contexts. At one time or another, most of us have attempted to minister to a person or family who was causing disruption or other problems in the church. What do you do when that person is a child? What do you do when the parents seem to be part of the problem? Read on:

We have a ticklish issue relating to a family in our children's program. The family has two young sons whose behavior causes problems in school, church, daycare, and at home. These boys shove and hit other children at church, and act in wildly inappropriate ways at church functions. The boys have been diagnosed with ADHD but the parents have refused treatment. The parents believe their children are just being boys, and that they will grow out of this "phase."

We have lost children's teachers because they can't handle the stress of dealing with these boys. The other children are beginning to avoid playing with these boys. Other parents are growing weary of the situation. We are concerned about losing new families who have bad experiences with these children.

The church leadership group has tasked the pastors with working out a gentle but fair solution. We are a small congregation and want to help this family, but we don't know what to do. What are our options?

Muthah+ responds:
I had this problem in my last parish.  I did not handle it well because I depended upon my Christian Ed. person to do this. What I didn't realize was that my C. Ed. leader had had a child with ADD and didn't know what to do either.

This will take the concerted effort of the ministry team in your congregation.  First of all, you must call the parents in for a conference.  They need to know that hitting and violence is NOT allowed or tolerated.  They have to know that their children are acting out in ways that are injurious to other children and possibly the elders in you church.  You must be willing to 'lose' this family if they are unwilling to address the problems but make it clear that you want to work with the family in helping the children become happier in the congregation. 

Kids and adults with ADD need to have good structure for them to function well.  If the parents won't provide it, you will have to.  As pastor, you, with your team, will need to set clear boundaries of what is acceptable and not acceptable behavior and be absolutely consistent in providing consequences for bad behavior. If you are not the pastor, you will need his/her agreement on this or it will not work. I would suggest the following:

                One parent must be with the children at all times.  Must attend Sunday school classes and be responsible for their behavior at other functions such as coffee hr. church dinners, etc. 
                Various alternatives for the children must be provided if they act out--clear outlines about behavior outlines for the removal of the children from an activity when they become obstreperous.
                Just as children are socialized by being in classes with other children, parents need to know that other children do not behave like their own.  Parents need to know how their children are acting in Sunday School classes.  It might help them recognize that their children need professional help.
I must say that after a very uncomfortable scene in my own parish, we were able to work out a way of dealing with my little ADD guy and the parents did work with us rather than leave the parish.  And finally both the parents and the kid got the help they needed.  The most important thing is not to become exasperated by the situation.  Know that the children are not happy acting out.  And what you want for them is to become happy and integrated into the community of Christ.  This is not a faith issue--it is a social /mental health issue  and with a bit of education on what causes ADD and how to deal with it, you, your staff and your pastoral team will be happier too.  Most of all pray for this family.

Jennifer writes:
Sounds like you’ve been put in a tough position and that the parents are undoubtedly having a rough time, too. What kinds of guidance and help can the parents provide and what kind of help would they like from you?

Recognizing that such a meeting might not result in everything going swimmingly, I’d suggest that one of the teachers who has witnessed some of the difficult behavior attend the meeting with the pastors and parents as well. Do share your concerns, but perhaps begin with some positive comments.  What are the things that teachers and others are saying are positive about these boys? Couple those comments with stating that “you want to help this family” and lead with those positive statements. Invite the parents to tell you what works well at home and to strategize with you about the behaviors you’re seeing. Ask for what you need from them—do you need the parents to be more present to their children at church functions?  Do you need their permission to help support better behaviors? 

I wonder what you’ve noticed about when there are problems—some children with ADHD have trouble being in large rooms with lots of activity and become overwhelmed and overstimulated.

Offer resources, if they seem willing to accept help. Are there other parents in the life of the congregation with kids with ADHD? Could they be of help and support?

At best, try to have as one of your goals concluding the meeting with information shared by all and strategizing shared by all. It’s a sensitive and important opportunity to model what it means to be pastoral, supportive, with everyone’s best interests at heart.

And Sharon, who blogs at Tidings of Comfort and Joy,  offers:
The question in this situation is, for me, not "how can we make the kids behave at church?" or even "how to we get the 'injured' parties to understand?"  The question is really, "How will we be the church in this very challenging situation?"  Unlike any other community or organization, we claim that God gathers the church together, not us.  So sometimes we get to respond to God's gift to the church of the person or family who doesn't seem like a gift.

This is a special needs situation.  Are those in church leadership, along with the other parents and teachers, willing to be part of a care plan rather than delegating the response completely to the pastors?  A group of two or three could go with a pastor to visit with the family -- at a park or playground -- to hear the parents' stories.  Pick lay people who are relatively mature in their faith, intense listeners and deeply compassionate.  "What can we do for you?" might be the approach rather than "how can we solve this today?"  If there truly are safety issues, then let the parents help come with ways to address that.  Perhaps this could be the beginning of a "care circle" for this family, meeting with them monthly to listen to them and to offer support and care.

Parishioners seem to have a high expectation that things in church will run smoothly, that everyone can be advised how to behave "appropriately," and that the pastors have super-powers to clean up messes and solve dilemmas.  When something very confounding shows up in church, we can be too quick to give up on each other and on the church.  I think this could be named as a faith building moment for this family and for the congregation.  It was through "problem people" who came to Jesus that the signs of God's realm were made visible.  May it be so for you and your congregation!

What wonderful responses from our matriarchs! What about the rest of you? What wisdom would you share? Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section. And, as always, if you have a question you'd like the matriarchs to discuss, send us an email at askthematriarch[at]gmail[dot]com.


  1. We've certainly had to deal with this in our church, a couple of times over. I think the matriarchs have excellent advice, especially with regard to asking one of the parents to be present with the child in Sunday school or other group settings. I'd also imagine that asking the parents what works well for them at home might provide some useful info. However, I'd be cautious about offering help, using that term, because it doesn't sound like the parents think they or their boys need help; from their perspective, it's just normal and fine. Offering help when there's no perception of need might shut down all communication. It is a tough situation, and challenging to figure out how to be the church at such times.

  2. When I was growing up, I was the problem child. Granted, it wasn't in the church, but in school that I had trouble controlling my emotions to the point that it disrupted other students and stressed out the teachers. My biggest concern in this situation is that the children's agency be recognized. Yes, it would be a good idea to have a conference with the parents, yes I think doing so with a ministry team with the approach of "what can we do to help?" However, I think it's important to think theologically about this. This family, ADHD boys and all are people created in the image of God, and feel called to be part of the body of Christ. How can the children and parents think of good behavior as part of their vocation? No good answers here, just suggestions and questions to frame your approach.

  3. Some very good advice has been given. I agree with what has been said - especially the importance of routine.

    When I was a CE director, our problem family had two boys, the older one had Aspergers and the younger was mildly austic. (They also had a middle school girl with other issues, including some inappropriate sexual acting out, but that's another story.) The parents were unable to control these boys and typically would leave both boys in the nursery during church - even though the boys were far beyond nursery age (3 or under in our congregation).

    Of course, this caused all kinds of problems with the nursery workers, the other parents. Visiting families would take one look at these big boys in the nursery and walk out.

    Fortunately, most of our SS volunteers were school teachers and had some idea of how to deal with special needs children. And we actually had a member whose speciality was teaching special needs classes. So we started by talking to people who were trained in how to best handle such children.

    Then we clarified our policies - nursery age limits, how to handle behavorial issues in Sunday School and such.

    These parents were struggling and fairly new in faith as well. They needed to be able to worship and attend adult education classes. They also needed the respite from their children they got in worship. So we decided to do what we could to allow the parents the room for spiritual growth that they needed.

    We offered an aid for the older boy for Sunday School. That way, if he had an outburst, the aid, not one of the teachers, could take him aside or out of the room as necessary. The younger child was not able to participate in age appropriate classes at all, and needed to remain in preschool level classes, so we found someone to work with him during Sunday school and someone else to provide supervision for him during worship in a separate nursery. This was also the time we started our children's church - children went to worship until the children's sermon and then left for a special lesson and came back before communion. We also began to offer 'blessing bags' - small backpacks with crayons, quiet toys and a snack for children to use during worship.

    We talked with the parents each day to let them know what issues, if any we had with their children. And we enforced the behavioral boundaries we set. Sometimes, one of the parents did have to leave worship/SS to come and help us manage an outburst.

    It was hard work. Ours is a larger congregation with 2 services on Sunday, so we were able to recruit the needed volunteers, and often I did the special nursery for the austic child. But it paid off in many ways. The older boy's behavior improved somewhat and he was able to transition out of children's church at 5th grade. It became easier to deal with the younger child as we learned what his triggers were. And having the policy in place and talking about how to minister to special needs families equipped us to better minister to the other children in our congregaiton with PSTD, ADHA, CP and other mental/emotional illnesses. In our congregation, I knew of 12 children in a program of about 50 who had some form of these issues.

    I think this is an important area of ministry. The parents of children with emotional/behavioral/mental issues often feel alone and under siege. They need the support of the church - not berating for not making their children behave. And the children need to know that God loves them unconditionally. We demonstrate that love best when we change our focus from how to get the child to behave, to finding ways to equip the child (and parents) to participate as fully as they can.

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  6. I'm very much enjoying these responses, and Food-E, I can relate especially to what you said.

    I too was the problem child in Sunday School. I heard teachers talking about dreading having me in their classes when promotions happened. I was very intelligent, but not very world wise. My home life was challenging (to say the least) and I also thought the teachers didn't know what they were talking about because they couldn't answer my questions, or help me to even understand the question. In God's great sense of humor laced with much grace -- surprise! -- I'm a pastor! If they could see me now ...!

    So, even though sometimes the challenges are great and try our very souls, I find myself having a great affinity with the "problem" kids at church because you never know what God is up to with them!

  7. Ramona,
    I am so glad you were able to call upon the greater body of the your church to find trained personel. In my small parish, I didn't have those resources and the 'trained' person was the mother.

    It is also good to hear from those who had to deal with AD or various attention issues. I was one long before they had such pigeon holes into which you could be put. But I ended up a teacher, went on for my doctorate and became a pastor.

    I think that as long as the child's welfare and the welfare of the children in the classes are kept in mind, and we are clear that we want the best for the child, such difficult issues can be met in the commuinity of faith.

  8. We have had some such kids in our church, and I particularly appreciate Sharon's comment about how we are church in such situations.

    There are always such kids, for whom regular worship services and our regular SS curriculum just doesn't work. There are always parishioners who cannot stop themselves from giving such kids the stink-eye when the kids start to act up. "Be still and know that I am God" is different for each of us, whether we are ADD kids or old people who cannot resist leaning over and whispering to our neighbor during the service.

    This is why we are creating a new Christian Ed program for kids on the autism spectrum, those with add/adhd, those with learning or intellectual disabilities, and others for whom the norm does not work.We see this as an act of hospitality. We accommodate our beloved guests rather than insisting that they fit into our box. It's on Saturdays, so it doesn't get cramped by regular worship times. A very simple worship service, which wraps around a lesson using Godly Play, a Montessori-based curriculum that is highly kinesthetic. Parents worship with their kids, "shepherds" assist with the work (craft) component, and it takes just about an hour, because we think that is the max time these kids will be comfortable.

    Say a prayer for us as we start this in June...if the soft launch this summer works, we will open it to children from other churches in the area.

  9. Yes and yes! If we can't model kindness and acceptance in our faith communities, where will families like these find it? I like the balance of caring for the children AND the community.

  10. P.S. to mibi52 -- The phrase "stink eye" speaks volumes... as someone who has to work on my benign (aka Poker face) expressions...

  11. I am so impressed with your church's program Mibi52. You go girl!

  12. Wonderful, wonderful conversation, y'all. Thank you for the many different responses - so helpful.


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