Raising faith when you’re parenting children with additional needs
We understand that while life for any parent is pretty full-on, the extra challenges faced by families with additional needs can lead to extra exhaustion, stress, anxiety and burn-out.
All children are demanding in their need for their parents to do everything for them, but usually they grow up and become independent, learning to do things for themselves, and freeing up their parents’ time. Children with additional needs, however, may not reach these milestones of independence as quickly as their peers, or (in some cases) at all, leaving parents feeling trapped and often isolated.
What are the issues in raising faith when your child has additional needs?
Nurturing your child’s faith when they have additional needs may feel like just another job on a never-ending list. Or it may feel like it simply doesn’t take priority when there are so many essential care-giving tasks to carry out.
But even when you do want to commit to this, you may face a number of issues:
- Exhaustion from daily care-giving tasks can make it hard for you, as a parent/carer, to have your own time with God.
- Explaining abstract theological concepts to a child who struggles with metaphors and ideas they cannot easily ‘see’.
- Conversing about faith when a child’s communication skills are less sophisticated than their understanding.
- Lack of Christian resources specifically for people with additional needs and in particular neurodivergent people.
- Difficult for you to get your head around your child’s needs (which, of course, may change anyway over time) – let alone explain these to your church family.
- Exhaustion from daily care-giving tasks can make it hard to commit regularly to church or Christian groups.
- Accessibility of church groups – do the children’s team understand my child? Will they ‘cope’? Can the rest of the congregation cope with my child’s challenging behaviours?
- Assumptions of your child’s needs made on the basis of another known child with the same diagnosis – despite each child presenting differently.
But the good news is that raising faith in our children with additional needs or with neurodiversity isn’t another ‘task’ for us to do. Nurturing a child’s relationship with God is about the whole of their life, so it can be integrated into everything you’re doing naturally. God loves your child and wants them to get to know Him deeply, which they can do even if their cognitive or communicative abilities are limited in the world’s eyes.
Here are some ideas about how to start:
Bring God into all kinds of situations – especially the difficult ones. Pray for and with your children at every opportunity. You don’t need to be in a special place or have lots of time. Just a simple ‘Come, Lord Jesus’ can be very powerful, as your child learns to experience God’s presence and power in their life.
- Find a Bible your child enjoys. There are so many great children’s Bibles available, from Lego and Minecraft, to journalling and colouring and lots of others in between. Don’t be afraid to try a few different ones until you discover one which really speaks to your child.
- If prayer is a struggle for your child, watch the Parenting for Faith videos (see below) for different ideas to suggest and try out with them.
- Seek out open-ended resources for family devotion times. Devotional Dippers are particularly good as they’re short and can be accessed on different levels, sometimes leading to a long conversation, sometimes acting as a brief ‘thought for the day’.
- Chat with your church leader/s about how you can help educate the church on disability and accessibility. Perhaps the children’s and youth teams could undergo some training from Urban Saints? (see below)
- It makes a huge difference if your church leader is able to welcome and include from the front. They might be keen to do so but lacking in information – work with them on this.
- Ask whether a ‘buddy’ system could be established at church, where families can have practical and prayer support from another Christian – someone who can also advocate for them in church meetings.
- Join online support groups to reassure you that you’re definitely not alone.
Hope for the future
While you may go through times of despairing that your child will ever connect with God, having a child with additional needs can be a great blessing when it comes to raising faith. In working to find an approach, resource or explanation that your child can understand, you truly are opening the gate to the Father’s heart for them.
In fact, every child is unique and would benefit from this individualised approach – but because neurotypical children can more easily adapt to different styles of input, the need for a parent or carer to find a successful approach may not feel so obvious or urgent. Having a neurodiverse child can be exhausting and, at times, frustrating – but when you find a book which gets read cover to cover, an explanation which ‘clicks’, or a habit which unlocks a new level of understanding, it is the best feeling in the world!
Many parents of children with additional needs will tell you that their understanding of faith has been widened since having their children. There is no single way to commit your life to Jesus. Some do it through intellectual Bible story – others through music and art. Some children like to jump around and play silly games, whilst others like to close their eyes and pray silently.
Discovering how your child best understands the Bible and develops their relationship with God is not always easy, but it is a journey well worth undertaking.
- Care for the Family additional needs Facebook page – a helpful resource bank of articles and ideas.
- Additional Needs Alliance – helps churches to welcome, include and resource those with additional needs – there is also a supportive Facebook group.
- The Additional Needs Blogfather – honest and helpful blog written by a Christian dad about his experiences of parenting a child with complex needs.
- Urban Saints – offer training and consultancy to churches.
- Aslan – Sunday school resources for 5-19s with additional needs. Tonbridge Baptist Church has been running this programme since 2013, and offers its resources free of charge to others who would find them useful.
- Faithmummy on Facebook – she has autistic twins who are affected very differently by autism, and writes daily about the challenges, sometimes including her faith in her writing.
- BRF’s Parenting for Faith course – this is a series of eight free videos, each around half an hour in length. Whilst not aimed specifically at parents of neurodiverse children, the variety of approaches give plenty of ideas which can be helpful if your child needs different methods to those used in church or in your home with siblings.
Written for the Kitchen Table Project by Lucy Rycroft. Lucy writes Christian parenting blog, The Hope-Filled Family.