Ministering to Parents of Special Needs Children

Ministry to Families with Special Needs Children

No doubt caregivers in our residential centers deal with the extreme. For over 20 years Jo Ann and I have dealt with children who have faced the traumatic impact of the loss of parents because of death, abandonment, abuse and neglect. We have seen first hand the horrendous effect that this has on the emotional development of a child. This breakdown along with the degradation of family, community, and educational systems has created a horribly dysfunctional environment. These children come from a lonely, frightening world where their valued as a commodity. They are for sale.

Whatever a child should get in those first formative years, most of the children we work with are desperately missing. However, there are lessons we have learned from working with children that can provide help for parents and children’s ministry workers as they care for children who may not fit into the standard environment of a church youth or children’s group. One family with a child diagnosed with ADHD stated regarding church attendance, “People in the church feel they can judge when disability ends and bad parenting begins.” The families of children with emotional and/or behavioral problems often simply stop going to church. How can pastors and youth workers more effectively minister and care for these hurting families?

There are two vital aspects in dealing with a troubled child:

  1. Relationship – there will be no quick-fix. It will take someone who is unconditionally committed to the child and family for as long as it takes.
  2. The right Attitude -- There are several elements to the attitude:
  • First, you must be able to communicate that you believe the child is God’s creation, fearfully and wonderfully made; and the child can accomplish all that God created him/her to be.
  • Secondly, the child and family need to believe that you are genuinely excited about being in his/her life. Without reservation you must celebrate their presence.

TWO TIMELINE APPROACHES (Crisis Interventions and General Discipleship):

  1. When a child is in a crisis? How do you as a pastor, youth or children’s worker or parent care for a child that is in crisis? What should you consider?
  2. Ministry to the family a long-term model for seeing a hurting child develop and grow emotionally and spiritually?

Here are some basic things to consider anytime you are working with a troubled child:

  • Be nonthreatening, receptive, respecting the child and their space.
  • Facial expression – smiling, pleasant, relaxed.
  • Body language – relaxed (not tense), non threatening;
  • Tone, Voice, Cadence – How you say what you say!! (A soft answer turns away wrath, but grievous words stir up anger. Proverbs 15:1)

From your facial expression, body language, the tone and intensity of your voice you are all sending a message. How you say what you say is as important as what you say!!

Ministers can begin to understand the child by examining the factors that may precipitate behavior episodes. (Things like crowds, being single out in a group, a certain subject). THE BEHAVIOR MAKES SENSE WHEN YOU UNDERSTAND THE STORY!!

You can learn how to deal with a child who is escalating verbally. The above things are skills that can be learned and practiced.

We should also consider the overarching theme of General Discipleship. The caregivers relationship and attitude should send a message of HOPE to a child/youth who may feel hopeless!! Imagine a troubled child who does not truly understand the things going on around them. They know something is not right. When they lay down at night just before they go to sleep the memories of yesterday and fear of tomorrow play a rolodex of anxiety and uncertainty.

Here are the 5 steps we have used successfully for several years to minister to troubled youth and their families.

  1. Identify the ROOT CAUSES of the behavior. Every behavior has a purpose and a root cause. Every behavior is telling something. There are two very real enemies of humanity and especially children:
    1. FEAR – From that first moment Adam hid from the presence of God in the Garden, FEAR has been humanities greatest enemy. Fear of the unknown, the future, failure, death, illness, and many other issues cause children and youth to lock-up emotionally.
    2. ANGER – Many children have experienced some type of developmental insult. There has been some kind of wound to their soul/mind area. The injury has blocked normal emotional development (abuse, neglect, abandonment, death, serious illness, family issues, generational issues).
  2. Respond according to the scriptures:
    1. FEAR – The child will need loving parental instruction and guidance. Reproof in the original language was concerned as much as about providing the right direction as it was about pointing out the wrong. Too many adults only respond with pointing out the wrong.
    2. ANGER – For the wounded child the first response must always be comfort and encouragement. “Parakaleo” is the original word for exhort or encourage. It is a miracle word. It speaks of brining into existence something that was previously not there. It calls something from another world into this present world inside the child. You can literally see courage rise in in their eyes (en-courage).
  3. Teach and disciple the child in the principles of the scripture. Look for those precious teachable moments. We are teaching them a better way to live in everything we say and do. Teach them how to release things in their past that may have traumatized them. It will be a new way of thinking and behaving. Teach them how to forgive those who have hurt them. Amazingly, there is a great deal of instruction that deals with forgiveness, but precious little that will provide a model or formula for forgiveness.
  4. Practice -- give the child a chance to be successful. Look for and create ways for the child to succeed. Give them a chance to try out their new behaviors and skills in an environment where there is a high probability of success. Look for easy wins and then repeat the process. Encourage, assist, and become the child’s biggest cheerleader. Remember, it will take multiple opportunities for good habits to be established. Just like a HOUSE with a shifting foundation; these kids lack a solid foundation. With each repetition of a new skill or principle you are laying bricks in their foundation. Every word of encouragement is a seed sown. From the moment a child gets up until they go to bed, they need multiple opportunities for success.
  5. Praise -- REMEMBER, we are attacking hopelessness. Hope is the fuel that drives success. We need to celebrate the very fact they walked into the room. Plan a celebration for goals accomplished. When the child sees that you believe in them it will change them dramatically. Create the moments for trophies, pictures, great moments, get that scrapbook of success started. God has new mercies for every morning! Today does not have to be like yesterday.

We can change the Rolodex that a child plays in their mind at night. From fear and hurt to a future filled with hope. At the end of the day we must believe that God can use our words and actions to heal a child. It is a spiritual decision.

John Sweet

john.sweet@hofyr.org