Behavior challenges and social skills issues can make it hard for some kids to sit through religious services. And that can make it hard for their families to fully participate. More and more faith communities are finding ways to reduce barriers. But if yours hasn’t yet, there are ways you can work within the community to find solutions.
Learn why religious services can be hard for kids with certain issues. And find out how you can advocate for your child in your faith community.
Why Religious Services Can Be Challenging for Kids
Religious services often have specific expectations around behavior. And that can be especially hard for kids with ADHD, social skills issues, autism and other issues.
For example, kids may need to sit still for a long time. They may need to stand in a line or group, and repeat motions over and over. And during some services, kids have to be silent or only speak, chant or sing at certain times.
A loud call to prayer or bells, or smells like incense, may also make kids with sensory processing issues feel anxious or stressed. On the flip side, if a place of worship is too quiet and lacks visuals, there may not be the right sensory input to keep kids focused.
The setting and environment can also be uncomfortable. Some places of worship have hard wooden chairs. In many faiths, kids have to kneel on the ground or on a kneeler. They may have to be very close to or touching other people.
Reading and listening are also a key part of many religious services. Kids may struggle with reading from a prayer or holy book, especially if it’s in a different language. They may be embarrassed if they can’t keep up or don’t know what to say. They may also not fully understand a faith leader’s sermon or talk, which may be directed to adults.
All of this can cause kids with behavior and social skills issues to act out. They may fidget and try to walk around. They may make inappropriate sounds or comments. What’s worse—their actions can be misinterpreted by other worshippers as disrespect toward the religion, when that’s not the case. They might simply be overwhelmed.
How Challenges With Religious Services Can Affect Families
According to experts, families of faith often feel ashamed of their kids’ behavior at religious activities. As a result, they may not ask their faith leader for help or accommodations for their child.
“If your faith leader says ‘no’ to your child, it’s like saying, ‘you aren’t part of the faith,’” says Beth Foraker of the National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion. “Just the risk of that happening can prevent parents from speaking up.”
A 2018 study using data from the National Survey of Children’s Health shed more light on this. It found that kids with behavior and social issues were less likely to attend religious activities than other kids.
Kids with ADHD have a 19 percent higher chance of never attending, compared to other kids. That number goes up for kids with anxiety (55 percent higher chance of never attending) and autism (84 percent).
Some families simply stop attending to avoid the challenges.
“When my daughter with autism was 5, I brought her to the mosque, but was told she wasn’t required to be there,” recalls Joohi Tahir, a Muslim mother of three. “I ended up staying away from worship for 10 years before returning.” (Tahir’s experience inspired her to work for MUHSEN, which stands for Muslims Understanding and Helping Special Education Needs.)
Other families choose to change their place of worship. According to the same study, 1 in 3 families changed where they worship because they felt their child was excluded.
How to Help Your Faith Community Include Your Child
Speaking up for your child in your faith community can be difficult. Keep in mind, though, that most faith leaders want to help. But they may need help understanding how to help.
“All faith traditions value the inclusion of kids with disabilities,” says Foraker. “But places of worship don’t always have the right skills or training. There’s a level of discomfort.”
She suggests starting a conversation by talking to your faith leader about what your child needs. You can suggest accommodations that have worked for other places of worship. These may include:
A quiet family room
An audio-video system so families can listen to or watch worship in the family room
Closed-captioning on videos
Frequent breaks from religious services for kids
Allowing children to join services partway through
The Americans With Disabilities Act doesn’t require accommodations in places of worship. The cost of accommodations can sometimes be a roadblock, too. But when faith leaders learn about ADA, many choose to follow it voluntarily.
According to Tahir, other supports and systems may also help. Here are some ideas:
Create an inclusion committee at your place of worship.
Have the youth in the community spend time with your child to get to know each other.
Train staff and volunteers on behavior and social issues, as well as other disabilities.
You can also ask that your place of worship consult with a clinical professional in your faith community. There are many organizations that work on inclusion:
Collaborative on Faith and Disabilities (all religions)
Inclusive Church (Christianity)
National Catholic Board on Full Inclusion (Catholicism)
Disabilities Inclusion Learning Center (Judaism)
“A professional can help your place of worship develop best practices for staff,” says Lisa Friedman, a Jewish disability inclusion expert. “It can also help with designing the right accommodations.”
According to all experts, the most important change is understanding and acceptance. When you speak with a faith leader about your child, you’re building that bridge. And that helps your faith reach all kids.
Get tips on attending a religious service with a child with ADHD. Read what an expert says about how to talk to your faith leader. You can also connect with other parents in the Understood Community to trade ideas on how to make your place of worship more inclusive.