Day 5: Three Responses to Special Needs Children at Church

This is Day 5 in the series: 31 days on Living with ADHD, Autism and Sensory Processing Disorder: What We Have Tried, What Has Worked, What Hasn’t Worked, and Never Giving Up.

Today I want to talk about what a supportive, loving church looks like and what we have experienced in visiting over 15 churches and being member of 3 churches over the past few years.  While I will be writing about churches the same could be true of finding any other supportive community group as well.

Three Responses to Special Needs Children at Church

This morning was going so well.  Mr Rockstar had decided to go to Children’s Church with Miss Tomboy.  He had stayed the whole time without sneaking back into church about half way.  We actually got to hear the sermon (while giving Miss Princess lots of cuddles).  After the sermon, Miss Tomboy and Mr Rockstar returned to our pew uneventfully.  Then IT happened.  Hubby passed the collection plate past Mr Rockstar to me and I passed it on to one of the ushers.  This is how we do it every week.  But for some reason today Mr Rockstar felt he was somehow entitled to his turn in the chain of passing the plate (we briefly tried a period of him putting in a quarter each week and it was a D I S A S T E R so we have generally tried to just pass it by him with minimal attention since then).

He was mad.  First he kept repeating (softly …at least he has learned that much) “Mommy, but I wanted a turn.” or “Mommy when am I going to get my turn”.  I tried to calmly explain to him that I was sorry he didn’t get a turn, that I didn’t realize he wanted one, and that unfortunately the plate was gone now so he would just have to wait until next week.  This was not what he wanted to hear.  He started escalating the whining and behavior.  I told him if he could come up with a solution I would be happy to help him implement it.  At this point there was NOTHING I could do or say to convince him to calm down or let go of the subject.  As he got more agitated we transitioned from him sitting next to me, to me sitting on top of him (for a brief time during one of the hymns everyone was standing for…the deep pressure sometimes helps to calm him), to him sitting on my lap and me holding him in the parent death grip.

Are you familiar with the parent death grip?  You know when your kid is so out of control all you can do is hold them tightly until they calm down?  All the while they are agitated and getting more and more red in the face?  Mr Rockstar at 6 is getting too old for the parent death grip but the tight squeezing can sometimes help him calm down.  At some point while holding Mr Rockstar he started pulling on my necklace trying to rip it off.  Later he started whispering “I’m going to break this church” and “Where is my hammer?  I need to break this place.”.  I was all along trying to talk to him about positive thoughts.  “If you calm down you can still get your donut.”  “What fun thing are we going to do later?”  etc.

Of course as if all of this weren’t embarrassing enough, my phone alarm went off.  I had triple checked my phone was on silent.  It was on silent but it turns out the new alarms I set up for Mr Rockstars latest sticker reward system override the silent feature.  Sigh.

Fifteen minutes into this meltdown and it was our turn to walk up to the rail and get communion.  Halfway there Mr Rockstar made a bolt for it.  I am not sure what he was going to do but I don’t think it would have been good so I grabbed him.  He wouldn’t stand next to me and I was trying to take communion so in front of the whole church I pinned him between my legs (thank goodness I was wearing blue jeans!) and took communion.  After I hastily ate the bread and drank the wine I picked up Mr Rockstar and held him tightly like a baby until we walked back to our pew.  At this point I handed Mr Rockstar off to Hubby.  For some reason Mr Rockstar pinned all the blame of the plate passing fiasco on me (WHY ME?!? and not anyone else like the usher or Hubby?).  He calmed down to a degree but later came over and very pointedly tore up the church bulletin.

As we were singing the final hymn I was just silently crying.  Does it ever get easier?  Also, I was dreading any comments from people.  Our current congregation has been great (actually I got zero comments today and a few people came up and just talked normally to Mr Rockstar after church) but some past churches have been just awful.  What I want to write about today is the three types of churches (Discipline, Babysitter, and Grace) that we have experienced and why it is so important to find a loving and accepting community.  We have lived in 3 different states since Mr Rockstar was born and visited 15 or more churches across multiple denominations.  Maybe it is unfair to group these as 3 different types of churches…maybe they are three different types of church go-ers but I find most churches have enough members in one category or the other that the general vibe is one of the following 3 types:

Discipline: “Are You Spanking Him Hard Enough?”

I joke not….in one church, we had multiple people come up and ask us “Are you spanking him? and if so maybe you aren’t spanking hard enough?”.  Maybe it isn’t spanking at your church maybe it is some other form of discipline.  Still the general message conveyed is that your child and you are not welcome if they can not sit still and be quiet in church, and if they can’t do this and they are past the age of 2 you must not be trying hard enough as a parent.  I understand where these people are coming from.  I used to think the same way.  The assumption they make is that all kids are manageable given the correct discipline.  For these people, many times their only experience is with average or better than average kids.  Or maybe they did raise a difficult kid but none of this is the same as having a special needs child.  When Mr Rockstar has a meltdown it typically triggers a fight or flight response and there is almost nothing he or we can do to get him out of it.  Spanking him definitely doesn’t help.  The meltdown just has to run its course.  About all he and we can do is learn to manage his triggers to prevent fight or flight responses in the future.

The saddest thing about a Discipline church type is not only do they make you feel like a failure as a parent but they make the child feel unwelcome.  If that child continues to grow up in that church environment, what will make them want to keep coming back when they reach high school and older?  They see the frowning faces.  They hear the comments people make.  A time or two we have even had adults confront Mr Rockstar.  These kids know they aren’t welcome because they don’t fit the perfect mold and so they won’t stick around once they are grown.  I know I wouldn’t if I was them.

Babysitter: “Did You Know We Have Children’s Church?”

Let me start by saying I have nothing against children’s church.  Before having children, I would have arrogantly said my kids would never go to children’s church (my husband and I both were raised to sit through church at a young age) but it has been a long time since I thought that way.  If children’s church makes it a more positive experience for kids and they get more out of church then I think it can be of benefit.

My problem with children’s church is when the church community believes it is a requirement and if the children’s church consumes the entire service so their is no worshipping or communing together as a family.  Let me talk first about when children’s church is a requirement.  We have all visited a church that when you walk in the door they say “We have Children’s Church.  Would you like me to show you where it is?”, and when you sit down “Hey you must have missed Children’s Church.  Would you like me to show you where it is?” or my personal favorite as your child is in the middle of a meltdown either in church or in the lobby and the “helpful” person comes up to tell you “Did you know we do have Children’s Church?”.  At those moments I always have to restrain myself from some snarky reply such as “No really I missed the 8 other announcements so far.  Thanks for letting me know.  I will go drop off my child who is clearly an emotional mess right now so I can go enjoy the rest of the service only to be beeped to come pick them back up within 5 minutes of sitting down.”.  In these churches, some church members use children’s church (and nursery) as a reason why they should never hear a sound from a child in church.  I have been asked a time or two “Why do you not send your kids to Children’s Church or Nursery?”.  Honestly half the time I can’t hardly get Mr Rockstar to go to preschool or his therapy without a huge battle so why would I have any better success at Children’s Church?  Just like with the Discipline church, people in the Babysitter mentality assume they understand the entire situation and don’t realize, since Mr Rockstar won’t go to children’s church most Sundays, that if a requirement for that church is for your child to attend Children’s Church then it means Mr Rockstar is not welcome at that church.

While the immediate solution is different for these Babysitter churches the unstated message is ultimately the same as the Discipline church.  The message sent to parents and children is “Your children are not welcome in church if they aren’t perfect” or “Children should be seen not heard”.  While the Discipline church believes all children should be capable of sitting through church quietly by age 2 the Babysitter church assumes virtually no child is capable of sitting through church until age 10.  Again I think churches need to be careful not to send the message to children that they are not welcome or that “church” is only for grown ups.

Our current church has Children’s Church but it is primarily during the sermon.  We give our children the option to go.  Miss Princess is terrified of it.  Also she has decided church is her personal mommy cuddle time.  Miss Tomboy LOVES it.  Mr Rockstar goes half the time and not the other.  Usually he appears back in church before it is over.

One last note on Children’s Church, there are these magical moments in church when your children get it.  When Miss Tomboy starts trying to sing loudly.  Or Mr Rockstar picks up on a verse or something said by the pastor.  I would say they are moments that the Holy Spirit is working in their lives even if we think they are too young to understand.  I would hate to lose those moments if Children’s Church consumed the entire service.

Grace: “I’m Glad to See You Here”

What we all need is grace.  We all struggle.  We all fall down.  We need someone to pick us up and hold our hand.  This is the message of Jesus.  That he walks with us and is there to carry us when we fall.  We need churches that do this.  Today after service was over and Mr Rockstar had calmed down somewhat, Mr Rockstar told pastor he ripped up the bulletin.  Pastor looked Mr Rockstar in the eye and said “That is ok.  I am just glad you are here.”  Later an elder scuffed up Mr Rockstar’s hair and said “How’s it going Mr Rockstar?” and one of the ladies that sits behind us in church said “Hi Mr Rockstar.  How are you?”.

Today wasn’t unique.  Most days at church Mr Rockstar doesn’t makes eye contact and he ignores people talking to him.  On bad days he might acknowledge them with some negative gesture such as “air punching” them.  On good days he talks about something he is excited about and they listen.  No matter what his mood it always shocks me that there is a group of people at church that don’t give up on him.  That continue to look him in the eye and say “Hi Mr Rockstar.  How’s it going?” and “Mr Rockstar, Jesus loves you.”

Even though he rarely acknowledges these gestures I know he hears them.  I can’t help thinking that as he grows up, years of people loving him and accepting him at church whether he was having a bad day or good day, can’t help but make a difference in his life.

Those church members probably don’t think it is a big deal to say “Hi” to a 6 year old boy each week.  But it is.  It gives me hope when weary.

Grace churches/people don’t ignore the inappropriate behavior and they don’t condone it.  They acknowledge it and they show grace.  They communicate “We all mess up.  It is ok.” and  “Keep trying.  We are here for you.  We won’t give up on you.” and “No matter what you are welcome here.”  Don’t we all need this?

So What Type Are You?

I used to be of a Discipline mindset before having Mr Rockstar.  Thankfully having him has opened my eyes.  When you see someone struggling in church with young (or older) children just remember you don’t know the full situation.  What they need is love and acceptance not law preached to them.

In the 6 years of having Mr Rockstar I don’t think we ever got any truly “helpful advice” from people at church regarding how to help him stay quiet, etc.  A few people with similar situations provided some useful tips but the vast majority of advice was unhelpful, things we had already tried, and made me just feel defeated.  Many Sunday mornings we have already had multiple melt downs before even getting to church.  If you feel like you are giving it EVERYTHING to get your kids there and sit through church the last thing you need is someone coming up saying “What you really need to do is …..  and then everything would be fine.”  or “Have you tried ….?”.  It just crushes you as a parent.  Your ALL is not good enough.  Why did you even bother coming?

But when people see your flaws and your children’s short comings at church and yet they can still look you in the eye (not ignoring the situation) and say “God loves you”  and “Parenting is tough but keep it up.” and say “Hi” to your child each week….church suddenly becomes the most encouraging part of the week.  You start to believe this church stuff might actually be true.  Maybe Jesus really does love us and hasn’t forgotten about our situation.  Maybe God really does hear my cries of lamentation.  Maybe someday (if not in this life then the next) it will all be made right.

“I called on your name, O Lord,

from the depths of the pit;

you heard my plea, ‘Do not close

your ear to my cry for help!’

You came near when I called on you;

you said, ‘Do not fear!’

“You have taken up my cause, O Lord;

you have redeemed my life.”

Lamentations 3:55-57 ESV

5 thoughts on “Day 5: Three Responses to Special Needs Children at Church”

  1. That was really well written and from the heart. I agree with what you said about how kids perceive church now will make an impact on them later. I’m glad you found a good one!

  2. Thanks for putting this out there. It takes a TON of courage to talk about this subject! I know my wife has thought the VERY same things in church. What’s worse is that because I’m always in the chancel doing the service, she has to go about this stuff alone. It’s really hard to sometimes manage our kids in ANY setting — let alone one that is supposed to be “quiet” or “reverent.”

    We’ve had well meaning people who have said some pretty hurtful things thinking they were being “helpful.” Their hearts are in as right of a place as we sinners ever are but their words are like nuclear weapons that just explode devastating hurt. I know my wife just wants to scream, “Yes, I’m trying the best I can to love my daughter. Do you know that we once went in huge amounts of debt trying to get care for her? We don’t just let her roam around church. We don’t think that other people need to care of her. We’d like to! She just escapes! I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” I know they don’t mean it. But, they still said it. It’s still so horrified.

    I like your comments on “children’s church.” I want our congregation to be a place where children are ALWAYS welcome. I tell mom’s and dad’s not to worry that their kids squeak. My voice should be loud enough to go over kid-sounds.

    You know what’s worse than kid-sounds? The icky quiet of a place where there are no kids. When we left our former parish, one of the members told me, “Pastor, it’s not that we don’t miss you, we do. We really miss the sounds that your daughter used to make. We got used to them and now they are gone.”

    Thank you for this article!

    1. Thanks for the encouragement! At some point I just got frustrated feeling alone so I started this blog. 🙂 About 6 months ago a grumpy old lady heckled us for not putting our kids in the nursery. At the time Mr Rockstar was 5 and of course refused to go to Children’s Church and our twins were 2.5 so they were too young. If we put them in the nursery they would miss out completely on the service and they actually liked coming to church plus of course they would miss hearing the word read and worshipping together as a family. It was such a discouraging encounter it made me want to change churches but I knew it would just happen again at another church. There are always those people that think they know better than you the parent. Thankfully our pastor got wind of the encounter and told us to come sit by him up front. It has been great. I have to swallow my pride at what some other people think but my children actually like going to church. My girls dance in front of our pew during the hymns, they talk to pastor every week, they sing, they see what is going on. If Mr Rockstar has a bad day people see it but for the most part we get encouragement instead of castigation. I can’t imagine your wife having to handle a special needs child (or pastor wives just having to handle a bunch of children) all by herself during service! Thanks for sharing. I believe I will get to meet you soon since we will be in IL for the holidays while we transition from WA to IN. Looking forward to it.

  3. Don’t you just hate typos? That should be “moms and dads” and “to take care of our daughter.” LOL. Have a blessed day!

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