Attending Church with Special Needs Children
Religion has a deep and valuable benefit for families and children. The community and support that comes from attending a local congregation is important, but especially important for families with special needs children. This is where we can find emotional and mental support, it gives children the opportunity to practice social skills outside of a school or home setting, and it give overwhelmed parents a chance to interact with adults for a few hours. All in all, it can be a great blessing. Except for when it isn’t. Not all congregations (or congregants) are places of support and care, even when that is one of their intended purposes. In those situations people can feel stuck, asking “Should we stop going? Do we find another congregation, even though it may be farther away? Do we just stick it out and be miserable?”
I've been through all of these situations! We have been in congregations (also known as “Wards” in my religion) that were loving and supportive, and we’ve been in wards where we had to face difficult decisions - both "toughing it out" in wards that had animosity to me and my family, and straight up changing congregations because it was what was best for my family (and I would change wards any day of the week!) I lived in an area where my siblings and I were bullied for YEARS, and it didn't get better. The only thing that improved it was moving away entirely. When I was pregnant with my youngest we ended up switching from our ward to a branch (a very small congregation, usually less than 150 people) that was over 30 minutes away.
Our ward was loud and over-stimulating for my family with our mix of Anxiety and ADHD. Every week we would come home from church, my oldest screaming because I took him away from all the kids who were winding him up, my (then youngest) middle boy screaming because he was so overwhelmed and overstimulated, my husband white knuckling the steering wheel staving off a panic attack. One Sunday after church I looked at my crying and panicking family and thought to myself "How am I going to manage all this PLUS a newborn?" I was barely able to make it through church as it was due to health complications from my pregnancy. After our baby was born I kept us all home a full 6 weeks (as I usually did after having a baby) and tried to figure out what to do. At 5 weeks I decided we would go to the smaller congregation, and move our records there as well. My in-laws were already attending that branch, so we had family there for support. At 7 weeks PP I got my family up and dressed for church. What normally took us all morning to do, seemed to only take about 20 minutes. We drove the 30+ minutes to the small chapel two towns over, and walked in. What a difference! Where our larger congregation was busy and scurrying around, talking and chatting, and finding seats, and generally a lot of hustle and bustle (which is fine, that happens in large wards), and it was a literal recipe for disaster for my family. The smaller branch literally had about 10 retiree couples, and two families with children. It was quiet. So very quiet. We sat next to my husband’s parents, gave the boys some crayons and coloring books, and for the first time in years we both felt at peace coming to church. We ended up going to that congregation for nine months, until my family moved so my husband and I could go to school. We’re now in a larger ward again (though not so large as the one we had to leave), but our boys are older, and the dynamics are different. There are still struggles that we go through trying to get everyone to church, but gone are the days of full-blown panic attacks and overstimulated meltdowns (thus far anyways!) We have developed some coping habits to keep everyone feeling safe and reverent, and it makes our experience attending church and worshipping God a peaceful event.
Habits we use to attend Church with special needs children: · Prepare for Church the day before you attend. Lay out any special clothes you may have, tidy up your home – especially bedrooms! – and set up anything you may bring with you. · Bring special activities and snacks that you only use during church. Special coloring books and crayons, a favorite snack to have after a certain period of good behavior, quiet toys to play with. Anything to help your child differentiate between regular play time and Church. · Play sacred music in your home as your family gets ready for church. This helps to set the mood in the home, and helps children to understand that the Sabbath is different from other days. · Find a quiet spot in your chapel and sit there consistently. This can take some trial and error, but even in the jolliest of congregations there are quiet areas. We try to get to Church about 20 minutes early so we can find a spot along one side of our chapel that we have discovered is fairly calm and quiet. If we can’t sit there, we have a backup spot that we choose to sit in. Finding a quiet spot is essential to keeping children from getting overstimulated.
Tips for a peaceful day at Church: There will be some days that your children – despite your best efforts – just don’t want to sit still or be reverent in church, so it’s important to have a backup plan for those days. If I know my kids are feeling particularly rambunctious, I will get to church earlier than usual so that I can have them run laps around the church building for 10 minutes or so. This gives them a chance to burn off some energy, and helps them sit still later on. If they are still struggling, then I will take the child out of the chapel area and walk the halls with them while I sing songs about being reverent. They HATE this, and it only takes one or two weeks of doing that before they give up and sit relatively quiet during our Sacrament meeting. We also make it a point to make friends with other families who have special needs children. That “backup spot” I talked about earlier? Well, it is sharing a long pew with a neighbor family who has some special needs kids as well. Our kids are friends with them, and each end of the pew has a set of parents sitting at it, preventing kids from escaping into the aisles. On days that we can’t attend church for some reason – usually a cold of some type because I don’t bring my kids to church if they are coughing or runny nosed – then we try to make sure that we show our kids that the Sabbath is still important. We play hymns on our speakers, we change the types of shows we may watch, we listen to recorded talks or sermons. Last Things to Know Attending church as families who have special needs can be difficult, even on a good day, but there are simple things we can do to make our church attendance more consistent and enjoyable. Don’t be afraid to reach out to members of your congregation for help either! There are often empty-nester couples, young women, or even similarly circumstanced families who may be willing to sit with your family and help out. Build relationships with people you trust, and develop a support system. As parents with special needs children, it is easy to feel alone and isolated – like nobody else understands the struggles your family faces. It’s not true. You can find a supportive congregation that will help you and your family attend and feel at peace.
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