What the Church needs to know about invisible needs

Every Sunday, thousands of children go to church with complex additional needs that aren't as visible.

If a child who couldn't walk turned up at your church, chances are you'd know - and respond - instantly.

You'd also know what kind of help you could offer. Get the ramp out. Carrying up or down steps. Switching around the games played in the children's group so they could be accessed without the need to walk or run.

However, every Sunday, thousands of children go to church with complex additional needs that aren't as visible. They may be finding it difficult to access the activities laid on for them at church, and thus unable to engage with worshipping God.

Because of their history, many adopted and fostered children fall into this category.

Some will be suffering the effects of an unhealthy time in utero, while others may have a lower mental/emotional age because they weren't given important early nurture at the time they needed it. Many will be working through the losses they have experienced. There's more information about the ways in which adopted and fostered children (and their families) suffer in this article.

In addition, all adopted and fostered children carry with them some level of trauma, as all have been separated from birth mum (and possibly a number of foster parents too). You can read more about the effects of trauma here – suffice to say it can result in many 'invisible' needs, not least of which is poor, or confused, attachment to their primary carer.

So how can churches welcome children who have 'invisible' needs?

Don't assume a child is neurotypical, well-attached or able to engage.

Just because they can walk, see and hear perfectly, doesn't mean that things are so healthy on the inside. These vulnerable children have experienced more than many adults, so it's no wonder that their mental health is unstable. Don't be deceived by appearances.

It might be enjoyable to spend a lot of time with a child who frequently requests your attention and is easy to be around – but the reality might be that this child is insecurely attached and emotionally needy. Feeding the attention-seeking behaviour may increase the child's anxiety, as they become worried that you might leave, or stop noticing them, so they continue to do more and more to attract your attention – and the cycle never stops.

Don't assume that a child who behaves well hasn't been affected by their change in caregiver.

Many children who have been in care learn how to play the game. They learn the expectations of the adults around them, and become experts at meeting these expectations, not from a healthy understanding of boundaries, but from a fear of losing yet another adult, a need to control the environment (and people) around them, and/or a lack of trust that others are able to provide for their needs.

The problem here is that it takes so much energy for a child to 'perform' in this way, rather than truly relax into their environment, that they then can't sustain this when they go home. Children are much more likely to exhibit challenging behaviour with the people they trust the most, so it will often be the adults at home who bear the brunt of the tantrums, being hit, kicked, bitten or screamed at, as the child releases the energy he/she has been suppressing.

Compliance or good behaviour in vulnerable children often masks complex emotional needs such as anxiety, control or fear. When it comes to our children, appearances are very deceptive.

Listen and accept.

This goes for both parents and child. Don't view parents suspiciously if you think they're over-reacting – remember, you don't see what goes on at home. Accept their worries and concerns. Offer prayer. Ask whether there are practical things you can do to help.

And don't bat an eyelid at the child's behaviour or language. Accept them for who they are: a child fearfully and wonderfully made by God, loved beyond measure, and redeemed by Jesus. If you have any questions or concerns, ask the parents later (out of the child's earshot) – but always ask and listen – never impose your view or judgement on them.

Communicate with parents and carers.

They're the experts – treat them as such! If you're the children's or youth leader, make it your business to do this. Arrange a time to pop round for a meeting – away from church, preferably when the children are in bed – so that you have proper time to listen to what parents are telling you about their child.

If the child in question is a teenager, it may be helpful to talk to them too – either with or without parents – asking what you can do to make life easier for them at church.

Sadly, one adoptive mum told me that her eldest two boys (both with invisible needs) left the youth group one day and were never followed up. They're now adults and haven't returned to church. How the story might have been different, had they been listened to. There may have been just one or two small changes which would have made all the difference.

Allow children the option of non-participation.

Children may not want to go out to Sunday School one week – or any week – for a variety of reasons. Make that acceptable. But don't ignore them!

Let them know that they were missed. You could catch up with them at the end of church to have a conversation, or send them a postcard during the week. Speak with their parents about the future: do they feel it's important for their child to attend the children's group? If so, be willing to adapt and work together on some strategies to encourage participation over time.

If you're leading the children's work, each child is important – not just the ones who fit easily into your group.

Be willing to break taboos.

Like any mental health issue, we need to talk more about the things our children struggle with, whether fear, control, anxiety or insecure attachment. Don't make it awkward for parents to bring up these issues: talk openly about them in sermons and small groups. However, do be careful what you say when children are around – they hear everything!

Make it your job to understand.

If you're leading the children's or youth work in your church, your job is to help each child access church and learn more about Jesus: so spend some time researching whichever invisible needs your children have.

If parents have spoken of 'attachment', then look it up! (Reading this and this is a great start.) You don't need to read a stack of psychology books – even half an hour of Googling 'attachment', or 'anxiety in adopted children' or 'FASD' will you give lots of useful base information. Parents and carers can then help you with the specific strategies for their child – but they'll be so grateful that you understand the basics.

Be endlessly patient.

Adopting or fostering a child is not a 'solution', or a quick-fix to a bad early start in life. Adoption and long-term fostering are lifelong commitments to helping a child re-build their life, learning to make brain connections which should have been formed in early life, and learning to manage emotions which have only ever known a 'fight-or-flight' option.

A child will not 'settle down' overnight, or even in three, six or ten years, so please continue to love and accept this child, and his/her family, and be prepared to support them all long term.

Realise that the church plays an important role.

Emotional needs cannot just be met in the home. Sadly, children (or their family) can't choose when a negative emotion will be triggered, much as parents and carers will try to learn and predict their children's signals.

Churches need to be prepared for outbursts and tantrums just as much as family. Learn from parents and carers what your church can do to support their children. It might be as simple as providing ear protectors during worship times, or giving a child with low-attention span some jobs to do, in order to engage him during 'down' times of church services or children's groups.

None of us are perfect, and our churches certainly reflect this! But these wonderful verses from Ephesians remind us that, rooted in Christ's love, we can access His power to grasp the fullness of this love and share it with others, making our church families open and accessible places for all:

"I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God."
(Ephesians 3:17-19)

Written for Home for Good by Lucy Rycroft of The Hope-Filled Family

Written for Home for Good by Lucy Rycroft of thehopefilledfamily.com



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