Kids Don’t Want to Be Seen As "Different"
Today's segment of our series, Including Kids and Teens With Mental Illness at Church, examines the challenge presented by the propensity of kids and teens to reject help that (in their minds) increases the risk they’ll be perceived differently by their peers.
Stigma is a very real concern for children and teens diagnosed with mental illness. Research demonstrates that kids between the ages of 8-18 are more likely to distance themselves socially from a peer with either depression or ADHD and perceive peers with those conditions as more likely to engage in antisocial or violent behavior. Kids are more likely to attribute depression or ADHD in peers to a lack of effort, poor parenting or substance use. We also know that kids who are perceived as different by their peers are more likely to be victims of bullying, especially kids with more subtle signs of disability.
In my practice, this concern often plays out when kids are in need of special education services or accommodations related to a learning disorder or mental health condition. It’s very common for kids who might benefit from small group instruction or testing accommodations to refuse potentially helpful supports because of their concern for the opinions of their peers.
What do we have to offer kids with significant mental health conditions and their families who could benefit from disability inclusion when they come to church? We have BUDDIES. We have stand-alone classrooms and programming for kids with significant developmental disabilities. We have Young Life Capernaum for teens and young adults with intellectual disabilities. I can’t think of many things that make a child with anxiety more uncomfortable than being singled out for special attention or treatment. Our standard disability ministry programming is likely to reinforce the propensity of kids with mental illness to self-stigmatize…if their families see any benefit from disability ministry programming in general.
The best possible solutions for including kids with mental illness at church would include those offering potential benefits to all children and families without drawing attention to any particular child, those that help kids to prepare privately for participation in church activities outside the scrutiny of peers and solutions that offer necessary supports without requiring children or families to self-identify in order to receive help.
Dr. Steve Grcevich is a physician specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry who serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry. He blogs at church4everychild.org and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.