As parents and followers of Christ, two of our biggest callings are to meet with other believers and to do our best to meet our children’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. So, what can we do when these two missions seem to be at odds with one another? As the mother of a child who experienced significant separation anxiety at church, I know firsthand the emotional toll it can take on an entire family. My husband and I walked a very delicate path with our son that spanned more than a year, prayerfully and mindfully working to bridge the gap between our desire for weekly worship, and our son’s emotional needs.
The first time we checked our son, Samuel, into the nursery at our local church, he was about six months old. We had been attending for almost 10 years at the time, and we never missed a service. Samuel was our pride and joy and a mystery to us. My husband and I are both very social, but Sam, even as an infant, was showing a much more sensitive and introverted personality. A few minutes into worship that morning, we received the first of many, many similar messages we would field over the course of his infancy and toddlerhood: “Please come check on Samuel. He is very upset.”
My husband and I hurried back to our son. He was inconsolable. I took him in my arms and soothed him, and we all concluded that it was probably a fluke, and we would try again next week. As it turned out, it wasn’t a fluke, and it happened the next time, and the next, and the next. Over the course of nearly two years, Sam would continue to struggle with separation anxiety, and I would continue to wrestle with marrying these two massively important parts of my life.
I’ll admit this was a very difficult time. I felt fear. Will it always be this way? I felt guilt. Am I doing the right thing? I felt isolated. No other parents seem to understand what this is like. I felt embarrassed. I bet the volunteers are cringing when they see us walk in. I felt exhausted. Do I have it in me this week to try? I felt self-pity. No one else’s child is behaving this way. I felt weak. I am not equipped to handle this.
What I didn’t realize during this time was that the Lord was working on me in a powerful way. Over time, by the grace of God and many prayerful petitions, I came to view Sam’s sweet, sensitive, introverted personality as an intentional design by an adoring Creator, rather than a phase to get through, or an inconvenience to overcome. And as soon as the Lord opened my eyes to that truth, I was able to focus on how I could partner with my church to equip him for success, rather than trying to change him.
If your child is struggling at church, know that separation anxiety can happen to any child. It’s not a sign that you’re failing as a parent or that your child will always dislike church. It’s simply one season full of opportunities to get to know your child better.
I am so thankful that we chose to forge on and make a way for our children to experience church each week and that my church accommodated us in the process. It has made such a positive impact on our family.
Here Are 5 Tips I Learned to Help with Separation Anxiety at Church
1. Role-play at home. One thing we found to be very helpful was to role-play “church time” at home. This was as simple as grabbing a few action figures and walking through what happens at church. Act out driving to church, the drop off, and the reunion. You can even access the same videos and other content used in LifeKids classrooms. Be sure to demonstrate how the grown-up churchgoers are very nearby while the babies and kids are playing and learning about Jesus. This gives children a chance to process their emotions, and ask questions, in a safe environment.
2. Get acquainted. Make a point to memorize the names of the volunteers who are most often in your child’s room. Saying things like, “I wonder if Miss Linda will be playing blocks again today?” or, “I bet Mr. Caleb is excited to see you this morning!” creates a feeling of familiarity and safety for our anxious kiddos.
3. Adjust expectations. As a parent, and also as a kids ministry volunteer, I can confidently say that children’s reactions to being checked into their room at church can vary significantly—from the bubbly child who bounds in without a backward glance, to the ones you have to pry from their parent’s body in fits of terror. Remember that your expectations of your child’s entrance into children’s church should fit their unique temperament. Restructure what success looks like for your family, and be accepting of your child’s best efforts.
4. Don’t linger. To this day, if we take too long standing at Sam’s classroom door, I can see his anxiety beginning to skyrocket. The more brief we can make the actual separation, the better. If possible, have one person go to the classroom door, fill out the sign-in sheet, and hand over any bags and jackets while another person takes your child on a stroll through the lobby. When all the formalities are finished, you can walk your child to the door and drop-off will be quick and unencumbered!
5. Advocate for your child. Church staff members are often eager to work with families. Take some time to visit the children’s leadership team and make them aware of your child. I remember sharing Sam’s name, a few things that helped console him at home, and how much he loved trucks. I was so touched to see that the following week, the staff had collected a few of the trucks from the other classrooms and put them in Sam’s room during our service time. Equip the leaders and volunteers to be able to provide little moments of connection that will help your child feel less alone and afraid. If you think your child could benefit from some additional support, don’t be afraid to ask your leadership staff about it!