The term special needs covers a wide variety of potential issues a child might have that separates him or her from the norm. Technically, those differences can be above or below the norm in a number of areas. Some children are born with special needs, while others develop them after an illness or accident. A child can have special needs that impact him or her in movement, sight, hearing, cognition, behavior or a combination of these.
What we rarely discuss in Christianity is the impact a child’s special needs might have on his or her faith journey. Every child is different, but these are some things to consider as you help your child with special needs build a strong faith foundation and grow to his or her godly potential.
Most young people with special needs will eventually reach the age of accountability. Assuming the average twelve year old is about the age of accountability, estimates are that as many as 80% of people with special needs will eventually be able to reach the age of accountability. They will be able to make an informed decision about being baptized for the forgiveness of their sins and to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Assuming your child will reach that milestone will help you make better choices to help him or her grow spiritually.
Spiritual growth milestones may be reached later, sometimes years later than for the average young person. Some young people with severe cognitive impairment may not reach the age of accountability until they are in their 20’s or even 30’s. Others may struggle with maintaining spiritual disciplines or exhibiting Christian character traits like self control until they are older than average. That’s okay. Your child – every child – has a unique timetable and your goal is to help your child reach those spiritual goals at the correct time for him or her. Just don’t underestimate your child’s potential.
No matter how severe your child’s special needs may be, he or she has been given potential and at least one gift from God to use to serve Him. Over the years, I have heard so many stories of people who were non-verbal and wheelchair bound who still impacted people’s lives and ministries in amazing ways….often because of their personalities that shown through. You may have to be creative to help your child find and use those gifts to serve God, but it is possible.
Your child may need special strategies to help him or her obey God and do the things God wants him or her to do. Children born with fetal alcohol syndrome, for example, have erratic memories. They need visual cues to help them remember things on those difficult days. Adding visual cues for spiritual things like scripture reading or prayer can help. In general, the special strategies your child needs to navigate life may also need to be adapted to help him or her navigate the spiritual aspects of life.
Your child will need your advocacy at church, especially in Bible classes. Unfortunately, many churches do not have people who are trained in how to minister to kids and teens with special needs. Some children with special needs can participate fully in Bible classes and activities. Others will need special strategies or extra help to be able to learn and grow. You may have to guide ministry leaders and Bible class teachers or suggest resources to help them minister to your child in ways that are spiritually productive. Don’t be afraid to intervene if you see your child is being placed in a corner and ignored. Ask that your child be taught using strategies that will help him or her best learn what God wants them to know.
The way your child worships, serves, and learns about God may look different from other children, but it is just as important and impactful. Depending on your child’s special needs, he or she may never “look” like the average Christian. Maybe your child sees the world a bit differently or interacts with it in a unique way. Those differences can actually make your child’s light shine brighter than that of the average child. That brightness can mean your child may end up having an amazing positive impact on God’s Kingdom…if he or she is given the teaching, opportunities and guidance needed to reach that potential.
Your child may have questions or doubts that stem in part from their special needs. Children with special needs may wonder why God made them different from others. It is important you help them understand the concept of God’s original perfect plan and how sin brought a lot of issues…including illness and genetic imperfections into the world. They need to understand more than anyone how much God truly loves them…especially when they are lonely, frustrated or discouraged. They need to hear Bible stories of people God used in spite of their frailties. They need to know God can and will use them to serve others and share their faith, just like all of His people. They need to appreciate that their special needs may actually give them special opportunities to minister to others in ways an average person may not be able to do as effectively. They need to understand the reality of Heaven and the hope for the future it can give.
They will need Christian friends and mentors who can see past their special needs. A mother of a child with special needs said she found there were three basic ways people tended to interact with her son. Either they avoided him entirely, they wanted to interact but were very uncomfortable (although willing to learn), or they treated her son like any other person in their lives. Those, she said, were the people who founded it easiest to be a great friend or mentor to her child. Look for those people. Seek them out. Make them a part of your child’s life. It will take intentionality on your part, but the results can be beautiful and lifelong.
Understanding how your child’s special needs can impact his or her faith is crucial if you want to help him or her build a strong spiritual foundation and grow it his or her godly potential. As with many things in parenting, it will take extra time and effort on your part. The rewards in this case are eternal, however, making it more than worth the extra effort.
“You just shouldn’t treat people that way,” the clerk muttered as I stepped up to the desk. I asked if the previous customer had been rude to her. “No,” she replied, “It was a co-worker who chose to assume the worst about me and never considered it might not be true. Not to mention, she was really ugly to me in the process. My feelings were of no concern to her.”
I could feel her pain. I had been through a similar experience recently. Why do people always seem to assign the worst possible motives to others – even if there is no evidence that was indeed their motive? Why do they believe they don’t need the full story before rushing to judgment? Why do they feel justified in whatever they choose to say or do if someone has made them unhappy in some way?
The truth lies in empathy, love and forgiveness – three character traits modeled perfectly by Jesus during his life on earth. Unfortunately, we don’t always model Jesus as closely as we could in those attributes. Let’s be honest, it can feel a little good to unload all of your frustrations about life onto someone who you believe has wronged you. They become symbolic of everyone who has ever hurt you.
Sadly, we pass our poor attitudes and behaviors on to our children We may not actively tell them to forget about empathy, love and forgiveness. If they see us do it frequently, however, they learn that lesson well.
How can we teach our kids to be more like Jesus? In many ways it starts with empathy – the ability to understand how others feel in a situation. It’s what Jesus modeled in the feeding of the 4000 and many other times in his ministry. Teaching your kids to be empathetic begins with all of you remembering and practicing some empathy basics.
Empathy takes intentionality. To be empathetic, you have to be able to consistently take a breath before speaking, acting or judging and try to understand what the other person may be thinking and feeling and why. That doesn’t happen by accident. You and your kids will have to be intentional about making this pausing and reflection a habit.
Empathy can mean asking respectful questions. Sometimes the situation is so complex, we can’t begin to easily put ourselves “in their shoes”. Asking respectful questions can help. “Can you help me understand what happened to help you come to that conclusion?” is usually more productive than just assuming the worst.
Empathy isn’t about judgment. Just because I can understand and have empathy for the brokenness that has encouraged someone to become an addict, doesn’t mean I approve of their choices. It does, however, remind me of the love God wants me to have for them and the passion I should have for helping them be who God wants them to be.
Empathy and sympathy are different. Sympathy can be a bit condescending. It can give others the impression that we have the attitude we are somehow better than the other person. Empathy is trying to understand the other person as well as we possibly can. This understanding can build bridges between people who might be enemies under other circumstances.
Empathy acts in loving ways. Yes, at times that may be “tough love”, but that can also be done in ways that are kind, patient, self-controlled, and all of those attributes found in I Corinthians 13 and the Fruit of the Spirit.
Empathy starts by assuming the best. Most people don’t wake up in the morning plotting ways to ruin your day. People are tired, overwhelmed and make poor choices. That doesn’t mean they are at heart hateful, heartless or anything else your mind wants to immediately label them. Teach your kids to start by assuming the best and see what happens. If you give most people a chance, you will see the good in them. Make it a family habit to look for the good in everyone, rather than acting like professional critics.
Empathy is forgiving – as often as it takes. Forgiveness is not saying you agree with those choices. It is giving them the chance to start fresh with you. How many times? The Bible says 70 times 7…indicating that we just need to start with forgiveness and not wait to be begged into it by the “guilty” party.
Empathy isn’t easy at times. In the next post, I will share some fun things you can do to help your kids become more empathetic.
As a child, one of my favorite stories in the Bible was Mephibosheth. There was something fascinating to me about the idea of David honoring a promise to his friend Jonathan. In a time when David would have been considered justified to have killed Mephibosheth as a member of his “opposition”, he basically made Mephibosheth a member of his family. Oh, there were a few hiccups later, but they had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that Mephibosheth had special needs.
Full confession here. I have not parented a child with special needs. In my training as an educator and over the years, I have worked with quite a few children with a variety of special needs from mild to profound. The other day, I was talking with a friend of mine who is an expert in special needs education. She has helped children with profound special needs accomplish amazing things for years.
We were talking about an opportunity I have in a few months to work with orphans who have special needs at an orphanage in another country. As we talked about the best way to share the Bible with these young men who have some very serious mental and physical disabilities, I noticed the things we were discussing could also be done by a parent at home.
Please don’t take this as a lecture meant to induce some sort of guilt. I know you are probably overwhelmed with the care, therapies and education of your child. The idea of adding something else may be too much and I believe God knows your situation and your heart.
Ever watched two toddlers play “together”? If you have, you have probably seen a child come and basically grab another child’s toy without asking. What happens next is rarely pretty! The child who took the toy needs to learn more about sharing, but that same child also lacked empathy.
We don’t realize it, but empathy is a skill that must be taught. Your children will eventually pick up some empathy training from watching you (If you are consistently empathetic.). To raise children who are the Christians that defend and serve others while effectively sharing their faith though, they need to be empathetic more than the average person. That amount of skill requires some intentional teaching.
There is a fun game you can play with young children to help develop these skills. All you need are things you may already have around the house. First print or draw simple faces expressing emotions. For young children, you want to stick to the basics – happy, sad, mad, excited, scared, loved and possibly confused.