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If they can

How understanding children’s mental health issues improves our ministry

By Mark Willems

When I was in grade school, I sat in the second row from the front every Sunday at church. My parents sang in the choir, and I was expected to sit quietly and listen to the music, prayers and sermon. My friend, Steven, sat next to me, and together we endured that dreadfully long hour. When the service ended, Steven and I were more than ready to dash out of the building using a door up front. As children will do, we fought over the aisle seat so one of us could be the actual first person to leave.

One morning the choir ended the service with a beautiful choral benediction and soft “Amen.” Steven hit the door one second after the song was over. The door banged loudly enough for all to hear, and I, the second one out, was in the doorway when the whole congregation looked over to see from whence the loud, irreverent noise had come. Steven ran down the sidewalk yelling “Charge!” as if leading soldiers up Bunker Hill (not cool in our pacifist church). Again, all eyes in the church building found me, including those of my parents in the choir loft. I hated being in trouble, but I was—again.

What does this story have to do with mental health? Understanding mental health in the church enables us to minister to children and their parents in the kingdom of God. We see many behaviors from children in the church body and in our communities. Ministry is more effective when we understand the children with these behaviors.


Children do well if they can
I was fortunate that I did not have a mental illness as a child and easily formed skills to prevent me from getting into serious trouble. That morning my parents talked to me sternly about my behavior and that of my friend, and I don’t remember having that problem again. Steven and I knew to wait a few more seconds before leaving, doing so in orderly fashion rather than fighting to be first.

Unfortunately, children with mental illness struggle with developing the necessary skills to effectively learn, socialize and accomplish tasks to contribute in a positive way to their communities of faith and networks of influence.

“Children do well if they can,” write Ross Greene and J. Stuart Ablon in their book, Treating Explosive Kids (Guilford Press, 2006). They ask: What is it we really believe about children? The usual philosophy is: “Children do well if they want to and adults need to make them want to with rewards and punishment.”

Greene’s and Ablon’s challenge is that although consequences can aid the learning process, it is better to assume the child wants to do well but lacks the skills to do so. They would agree with the philosophy that children do well if they can; if they can’t, we adults need to figure out why so we can help.


Welcoming kids to God’s family
Children really do want to succeed. They want to be competent. They want to feel a sense of healthy contribution to those around them. But this does not mean children can excuse their negative behaviors with “I have depression” or “I don’t know how to clean my room” or “I didn’t mean to interrupt the end of the worship service.”

A lack of skill or a mental health diagnosis helps to explain some behaviors of children, but it does not excuse them. While I might blame my friend for all the noise after the service ended, I too was part of the hurry to get out.

Understanding mental health issues in children helps us minister to “the least of these” (Matt. 25:40). When we give children who have a lack of skills extra time and space, then we are working at welcoming them into the family of God.


The gift of grace
Several years ago, I attended a school meeting in which the discussion surrounded the hyperactivity and inattention of “Derrick” (not his real name), a boy in grade school. The school had developed a special plan in coordination with parents and school staff that included the provision that recess not be taken away from Derrick. Not allowing Derrick to work off extra energy during recess would make his classroom behavior worse, so alternative consequences for not completing assignments would be implemented.

Unfortunately, his teacher decided that this intervention was not valid; she felt Derrick was just not complying with instructions and that it was “not fair to the other children.” The principal attended the meeting also and told the teacher directly that the recess accommodation needed to be followed. The teacher left the room and slammed the door.

This teacher missed an opportunity to show grace to Derrick who was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Working hard to stay in his seat, Derrick needed more time to complete his assignments. Derrick was trying to comply but did not have the attention skills to keep up with the other students, despite his obvious intellectual ability. True, it was not fair that the other children would lose their recess, but it was also not fair that the boy had ADHD. Some grace on the part of the teacher would have demonstrated a needed ministry moment.


Ministering to children who struggle
ADHD is one of the most common childhood disorders and can continue through adolescence and into adulthood. The average age of onset is seven years old. The disorder affects 9 percent of American youth ages 13 to 18. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, boys are four times more at risk than girls.

Studies from South America, Europe and Asia also demonstrate these figures so as to rule out popular myths that factors like excessive sugar intake, food additives, excessive viewing of television and poor child management by parents are causes. Simply giving you these facts about ADHD fails to communicate the hopelessness and despair that a young child experiences when he struggles with this debilitating mental illness.

Mark 9:33 records Jesus arriving at Capernaum with his disciples. His followers have been arguing about who is the greatest. Jesus illustrates his understanding of greatness by taking a child in his arms, saying, “Whoever welcomes a child in my name, welcomes me.” Jesus encourages his disciples to accept last place instead of pushing to be first, to choose to be servants and, in humility, to accept the lordship of God in their lives.

“Compliance with external pressure means a child has been squeezed into a mold; it is being conformed from the outside/in. Obedience is about learning to live consistent on the outside with what God is doing on the inside,” writes Jeff VanVonderen in his book, Families Where Grace Is in Place (Bethany House, 2010).

Perhaps the difficult work of parenting and teaching children means fewer demands and threats to get compliance quickly and more patience and understanding so the child obeys from the heart.

As you meet children, be graceful. Practice humility by being open to new ways to consider the bad behaviors of the child, and quiet your criticisms of the parents. We can all blame and judge less while working at being more graceful with those most vulnerable in the kingdom of God.

Mark Willems is the clinical director of Turning Point, a psychiatric treatment center for adolescents at Prairie View in Newton, Kan. Willems grew up in California, attended MB Biblical Seminary in Fresno, Calif., and later was on the pastoral staff at First MB Church in Wichita, Kan.


FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions

by Mark Willems

I teach children in church. What can I do when I have a child with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) in my class?

Just as ADHD children struggle in school, they also have difficulty with traditional learning activities in church. As with many situations in life, it is not so much the particular intervention but how one intervenes. It is more helpful to be graceful with the child than precise with the intervention.

Here are a few ways to help children who struggle with hyperactivity, inattention and impulsivity:

  1. When providing instructions, be clear and brief. The child will not be able to tolerate long lectures. Encourage him to look at you or ask him to repeat what he heard you say. Give instructions one step at a time.
  2. Use positive statements. Tell children what you want them to do rather than what you don’t want them to do. Instead of saying, “Don’t run down the halls,” tell the children, “Walk beside me to the next activity.”
  3. Most children will do better with consistent structure. This may mean sitting in the same seat near the teacher each week or taking short breaks at the same time.
  4. Emphasize quality rather than quantity. If you have children look up verses on God’s love, for example, be okay if the ADHD child finds two verses instead of the five you gave for everyone to find. She will understand about God’s love from those verses and will also see it modeled because you cared enough to adjust your expectation for what she could do.
  5. Give frequent feedback regarding behavior. Offer redirections and notice positive behaviors often. If the feedback is done with grace, this models kindness and patience to the other children, and they will be more apt to demonstrate this toward the child who struggles. This provides opportunities for inclusion rather than exclusion.

How can my church better serve families whose children have lower IQs or autistic symptoms?

Consider starting a special needs Sunday school class, like the one at the church I attend. Members who were child special needs professionals set up the class and trained others who were interested. Parents appreciate those teachers who provide them the opportunity to attend worship services and adult learning groups.

Where can I get help for my child with mental/behavioral issues?

Many pastors are trained to find local mental health providers and can counsel church members. Some states have community mental health centers with competent clinicians; these centers can help those with financial need to pay for services. It is important to seek assistance from those who are trained to provide help and who are accountable to others for their therapeutic decisions.

ADHD resources

Russell A. Barkley, Taking Charge of ADHD: The Complete, Authoritative Guide for Parents (Guilford Press, 1997, 2013)

Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey, Driven to Distraction: Recognizing and Coping with Attention Deficit Disorder (Anchor Books, 1994, 2011)

Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. See

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. See

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