Christian Faith Gifted & 2e Raising Gifted Children in the Christian Faith

Gifted and 2e Children at Church

Gifted and 2e Children at Church 2

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I know from reading conversations online that gifted and 2e children at church is often a big issue for Christian parents. And I’m going to say up front I do not have the answers for this. More than any other post in this series I’m going to raise the questions and I’m sincerely hoping others will jump in in the comments and leave their thoughts because I know this is a tough one.

Before we go any further, let’s recap. If you haven’t read the previous posts in the series, please do. Otherwise you’ll be missing the context of this post.

Gifted and 2e Children in Church

So what does it look like when a gifted or 2e child goes to church (or another church-related setting such as AWANA, youth group, etc.)?

Here are numerous scenarios that play out depending on the level of giftedness, the number and type of intensities, and the age of the child.

  • The child who asks deep theological questions some adults don’t even ask, but can’t seem to sit in a chair for more than twenty seconds and wanders around the Sunday School classroom.
  • The child who announces at AWANA that he’s not sure if God even exists because (insert some deep theological reason here) and also can’t memorize a short Bible verse to save his life.
  • The deeply compassionate girl who becomes overwhelmed by her intense emotions and has to abruptly shut down conversations who also can’t write a sentence.
  • The child who repeatedly draws away from the group during AWANA to talk one-on-one with his favorite adult rather than play the loud games.
  • The child who can tell you in amazing detail everything she has ever learned about (insert some significant topic here), but cannot keep up in a Sunday School class structured like a traditional classroom and feels humiliated when put on the spot and asked a basic question about the Bible lesson.
  • The child who sits in the pew with his hands tightly over his ears, head down, when everyone else stands up to sing.
  • The child who is traumatized by the meet and greet time during the service when everyone is talking loudly and trying to invade his personal space.

These are just a few examples of how gifted and 2e kids might act at church while trying to cope with their intensities. Unfortunately, if people aren’t familiar with the struggles of children who live with intensities, they may be quick to assume that the children are spoiled or undisciplined.

Parenting Guilt and Church Attendance

Nothing has caused me more parenting angst than the struggle to regularly attend worship services at church. I never in a million years would have pictured myself as a parent who would avoid attending church because it was just too hard, too draining and too discouraging.

It started early when we didn’t put Caroline in the nursery the first winter (because she was bottle fed and it was flu season) and we were accused of making her an idol. With a few exceptions, it pretty much went downhill from there.

Except for a brief period of time at one church where Caroline was able to leave part of the service for junior church, I haven’t had the opportunity to actually sit and worship in a focused way in almost nine years.

People approach worship in different ways. My primary way of worshiping is with my mind. I’m a thinker. I don’t just sing the hymn. I dissect the words while I’m doing it. I don’t just listen to the prayer. I’m latching onto certain words. I take notes during the sermon. It’s how I’m wired.

I don’t get to do any of that any longer. I’ve been in and out of services with a little girl who is overwhelmed by the music. I’ve been in and out of services with a little girl who can’t sit still. I can’t focus on singing the hymns when the little girl sitting next to me has her hands over her ears and her head down because it is just too loud. I have to bite my tongue every time someone insinuates (or states) that my child is shy or rude because she doesn’t want to get up and shake hands with people she doesn’t know.

It’s too exhausting to negotiate it all. In the past church would energize me to go forth for the week. Over the past nine years it has taken me a day just to recover and there was no energizing. For the most part, church has been something my child has endured.

The Questions We Ask about Church

Does some of this sound familiar? I’m sure it does. And I bet you are asking some of the same questions we’ve been asking ourselves the past several years. These are the questions we try to come to terms with as believers who want to raise our child in Christian community when the community doesn’t work for our kids.

  • Should church be painful? Should it be scary and overwhelming? When it is literally physically or emotionally painful for a child to be in church, what do you do?
  • Does God ask us to be miserable each week? Would you choose to go somewhere each week that literally made you ill? Should we ask that of our little ones?
  • Do we want our gifted/2e children to equate the love of Jesus and worship with pain? With a desire to flee a situation that is overwhelming in various ways?
  • What do you do when all the church options available to your family are either sensory overload or are so theologically divergent from your own beliefs that you feel you would have to compromise your conscience in order to attend?

We’re not the only one asking these questions. I’ve come across posts written by other moms with children who have significant struggles with church and Sunday School. The comments are even more eye opening. In some cases the children have very severe needs and in others they simply are children who don’t deal well with too much stimuli. But in each case, church is an ongoing struggle.

The Pat Answers People Give

And then there are the pat answers that people give. The ones that range from clueless to offensive to downright mean.

  • Church isn’t about you. It’s about God. Stop making it about you.
  • You aren’t supposed to forsake the assembling. You are sinning if you aren’t there every week.
  • Children need to learn to do things that are unpleasant. Even if they don’t like being in church, they have to be there because it is what God demands.
  • If you were a better parent, you would spank them into compliance so they would show up with a smile on their face and get over their selfish hangups.
  • You should be here every week, but don’t expect the church to do anything to help you. No one owes you childcare each week.

So What Do We Do?

As I said, I don’t have the answer to these questions. Our situation partially resolved itself when I developed health issues that made attending church even more challenging. Between Caroline and me it became so overwhelming that we have not been attending church the past several months. We pray regularly that God will guide us in this area. It grieves me deeply that my child is growing up without a community of believers and friends. We pray that God will open the door to something that will work for all of us. In the meantime, we try to find Christian encouragement and fellowship wherever we can.

How are you handling this with your own gifted or 2e child?

This post is part of my Raising Gifted Children in the Christian Faith series.

Gifted and 2e Children at Church

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22 Comments

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  • Like you, attending church has been a less than worshipful experience since our kids came along. Managing everyone’s ever-changing needs is exhausting. Thankfully, our kids enjoy the experience for the most part and haven’t had the painful experiences you described, so for us it’s still a better option to attend. Because Sunday mornings aren’t filling for me, I go to Bible Study Fellowship weekly during the school year. That’s where I get anchored for the week and the fellowship has really carried me through. It’s worldwide; I definitely recommend checking it out! Praying that you find your church family soon!

  • Nickole,

    I did BSF before Caroline was born. I had a mixed experience with it. I did attend a Bible study on Thursday mornings at our previous church, but struggled to get there consistently due to distance, illness, weather, etc. I agree a Bible study would really help me, but it doesn’t solve our family problem or our desire for Caroline to be in a worship community.

  • Hi, Sallie! Been waiting patiently for you to post your thoughts on his matter.

    We recently attended our first evening Saturday service. The Saturday crowd was smaller so it was quieter and less stimulating for us. We also had more space to spread out (we had an entire pew) so our personal space was not invaded 🙂

    Previously when we attended a regularly crowded Sunday service, I, too, would take a while to recover from all the idiosyncrasies of our family attending a church service. Everyone in my family has high sensory needs. The noise, lights, lack of personal space, clothes (touch) would cause so much stress on everyone. We would all be sensory overloaded by the time we piled up in the car to just get there. Can you imagine the thoughts in our heads on our after church rides back, not forgetting the grumpiness that accompanied the missed breakfast and near lunchtime hunger pangs that exacerbated the situation?

    Pray you find a solution to your situation soon. It is hard to be swimming against the current of religious judgments, but for my family, I felt I would be more authentic in my faith practice to maintain sanity in our home by waiting for the right time to attend church.

  • I know we’ve talked about this already, Sallie, but I feel so strongly about this topic. I struggle with my 2e son at mass. Sometimes, I take the kids and go for a walk. I feel closer to God in that moment than I do sometimes at church. It’s hard because I imagined attending every week and in some seasons it’s just not possible.

  • I don’t have any answers. I’m hoping my daughter outgrows the sensory problems that cause her to avoid wanting to attend church. I just have to come to the realization that my family is not like the average family, and we cannot do all the activities most families do. The last few Sundays, she and I went to a Sunday school room during church, and I read the Bible to her as she drew on a whiteboard. She was happy. I do want to nail down what specifically her difficulties are, so we are in the process of having her evaluated. Not knowing for sure has me always second guessing whether she’s just being stubborn although I know deep down, she’s not.

  • I just read this and am processing my thoughts, so I don’t have much coherent to add yet, but I wanted to tell you –

    This is the first time I have encountered this topic anywhere and although I have dealt with some of the challenges, it never occurred to me until this moment that it was common. *light bulb moment*. So obvious, but among all of the challenges of having gifted kids with various sensory issues, it just never popped in my brain. Or at least never stayed there! 🙂 Thank you for writing this, if for no other reason than reminding me that you are out there and that this is a meaningful conversation.

  • Vivien said:

    I felt I would be more authentic in my faith practice to maintain sanity in our home by waiting for the right time to attend church.

    Yes, I’ve thought about that too. I think this year in particular we’ve been biding our time, waiting for some issues to sort themselves out. And not just for Caroline, but for me as well.

    Sometimes we think about just being the body of Christ in practical ways outside of a formal church situation, but I don’t think that is ideal.

    I have no idea. I feel like we’re making this up on the fly. We pray about it and trust that God’s leading even when it isn’t obvious. He’s always done it in the past and I trust He’s doing it now even though it’s all a bit muddy.

  • Emma wrote:

    I don’t have any answers. I’m hoping my daughter outgrows the sensory problems that cause her to avoid wanting to attend church. I just have to come to the realization that my family is not like the average family, and we cannot do all the activities most families do. The last few Sundays, she and I went to a Sunday school room during church, and I read the Bible to her as she drew on a whiteboard. She was happy. I do want to nail down what specifically her difficulties are, so we are in the process of having her evaluated. Not knowing for sure has me always second guessing whether she’s just being stubborn although I know deep down, she’s not.

    I didn’t write about this in any of the posts, but we had an experience when Caroline was probably about 2.5 or 3 years old. There was a sound malfunction in church one morning. I’ve been in a lot of sound malfunctions over the years, but this one topped them all. It was seriously physical painful even to me. Unbelievably awful. Caroline was SO traumatized by it.

    At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate how bad it probably was to her even though I knew she was more sensitive. She would not go back to church for I think three weeks after that. She was clearly scared to death to go back in there after that happened and would cry and become upset any time we mentioned going to church. You wonder with these kids who remember everything how much that becomes a part of their psyche regarding attending church in general.

  • rene said:

    I just read this and am processing my thoughts, so I don’t have much coherent to add yet, but I wanted to tell you –

    This is the first time I have encountered this topic anywhere and although I have dealt with some of the challenges, it never occurred to me until this moment that it was common. *light bulb moment*. So obvious, but among all of the challenges of having gifted kids with various sensory issues, it just never popped in my brain. Or at least never stayed there! 🙂 Thank you for writing this, if for no other reason than reminding me that you are out there and that this is a meaningful conversation.

    You are welcome! Once you process your thoughts, come back and share! 🙂

  • I read this shortly before setting out on a 3 hour drive with my 3 crazy ( one 2e, one 3yo, one baby) kids. So basically tuned out the back seat and had a few hours to think about it. Mostly what I was thinking about is that church is working really well for us right now, and… why? Not that it will be generalizable to anyone outside our family. My jumbled thoughts, in no particular order:

    1) We are Catholic, and live in a fairly large metro area so have >100 churches with basically the same theology to find a home. We “should” go to the nearest, neighborhood parish church but don’t. We basically looked for a church for the first three years we lived here, and then moved into that neighborhood. We have now moved out but drive quite a ways back in from the suburbs every weekend.

    2) We found a place that really satisfies us as gifted adults with OEs of our own. It has a prominent intellectual flavor. The music isn’t overwhelming, the culture is to be very quiet before the service starts, and it’s pretty to look at.

    3) We have befriended the priests and know them well, as do our kids, which I think helps with their motivation to control their wiggles.

    4) It is a family friendly place–families of various sizes, but some are large and there are always people dealing with wiggly children. There are also a number of families with one or more special needs children (by birth or adoption).

    5) Didn’t notice this at first, but there’s an amazing quiet room–truly soundproof, with a good view, where you can hear. Kids can move or have a meltdown, but the adults behave themselves and model appropriate behavior.

    6) Apples and trees, you know–the kids seem to like this place as much as we adults do.

    7) Our oldest (SPD/ADHD/anxiety) is allowed special privileges if she can keep her observations and wiggles to a minimum. She is also allowed to ask the priest (a friend–see #3) any theological question she wants after Mass is over, unless there has been misbehavior and then we book it out of there.

    We definitely struggle when we visit other parishes, so I think it’s this place/community that is working for us more than anything else. It’s not overstimulating, the families value children–even, or maybe especially, children with special needs, and it has a “safe” place to go where we can still participate without worrying about meltdowns affecting the entire congregation. That said–if my husband is at work I usually skip. We have good weeks and bad weeks. Our deacon, a father and retired surgeon, has discussed with us many times that at this season of life we as parents are not likely to have a deeply spiritual experience at Mass, but that isn’t really the point right now. There’s a lot of Catholic theology thrown in there too, but that’s the basic point.

    So this isn’t really an answer to any of your questions, especially the last one. I really wish everyone could find a faith community that works for them as well as this one works for us. 🙁

  • Just to encourage you, it does get easier as they get older. hang in there! But even now that they are in college, we have had to train them to go out and create the groups they need. So my daughter is starting a group on campus about the interplay between science and faith. (she is a math/science double major). This was a suggestion made by an elder at our church and I think it was a good one. You learn to play church politics just to navigate the waters there. Honestly, you would play politics anywhere else, and being that we are saved by grace, it’s not gracious of me to not accept other believers where they are when I would anyone else anywhere else. Still I had to apologize to the youth pastor for not having my kids in youth group (for many of the reasons you stated above) and explain that it wasn’t personal, it was just that his needs are different. He doesn’t need fun games to be assured of his faith. He needs a christian cosmologist. Anyway, if I may be so bold to a complete stranger, prayers and hugs from someone who “gets it”.

  • Thank you so much for this post! My 2e daughter is 15 and can sit through a service now but we had to keep looking for what she needed. We have kept praying and do “church at home” when we can’t all make it to service. There are sermons on iTunes podcasts and reading and discussing Bible passages is always an option. I feel like almost no one understands. My son is now struggling with anxiety & panic disorders so we are still working on attending as a family. But I’m comforted by the story of Hagar in Genesis, who referred to God as The God Who Sees. He knows how our family is made and sees every struggle.

  • About the noise thing, maybe some Bose type headphones would work. My son loves music and we sit in the balcony at our church so it isn’t quite as loud, but recently we went to a rodeo and he took his “headphones” (more like the ear protection you wear at a gun range) that we got at Harbor Freight Tools for $3. He LOVED it! He said he could still hear but it wasn’t SO loud and scary! Maybe the headphones would tone down the volume enough for her to not be miserable. As for the greeting time, maybe if you were towards the back and just slipped out for a minute right before that happened it wouldn’t be noticeable and you both would be happier. I hope you are able to find a solution.

    • Thank you for the suggestion, Janna, about the headphones. I can see how that would work for lots of kids. Caroline’s not a fan of anything on her head like that. 🙂

      • That does present a challenge. If she can stand them on her ears but not on top of her head, it may work to put the top band down so it goes behind her. If not, maybe just some of those soft silicone swimming earplugs would work. They do the same thing for me – cut out a great deal of the noise but I can still hear things – just muted.

  • Hi Sallie,
    I was thinking about this post recently and thought I’d post a comment now that almost a year has passed and my daughter is almost one year older. Last year, she literally refused to sit in church once the sermon began. My husband insisted it was just a phase, so I would take her out to another room and read the Bible to her during that time. I don’t think I sat through a sermon myself for about a year. Caroline has matured a lot in that time (she’s now 9) and recently, she told me she would sit through a whole service. Afterwards, she said, “you’re welcome.” It sounds rude, but I knew she didn’t mean it like that. I thanked her and wondered what was going on. The next week, no complaints; she sat through. And so on. After it became regular, I asked her about it. She said that it did not bother her as much as it had and that she knows how much I miss being in church and is willing to do it for me. I could’ve cried. Later, she shared that she struggles with assurance and “hears” condemnation when she’s listening to the sermon. “All I hear is the law! Doesn’t he know we can’t do it?” Of course, she isn’t listening to the whole thing and misses the grace and mercy and love of God! I realized that the emotional intensities drove the behavior that looked rebellious. I can’t tell you how glad I am that we did not force her to stay in church. I’m also glad to understand her issues with assurance; I get it as I have struggled in the past with that myself.

    • Emma,

      Thank you for sharing the update to your story. It’s amazing to hear both how your daughter has grown to show empathy to you, but also how you and your husband were tuned into her needs. I’m sure this will encourage many people who read this post and comments. Thank you!

  • Just saw this post. I wished I had seen it sooner. We, too, have had difficulty with church for our youngest child, since about age 5. And the clincher is — my husband was the pastor. So … yeah, she was expected to be perfect, still, and smile on cue. She has sensory issues where the slightest touch feels rough to her and auditory issues where the music is painful for her. You can imagine how this went over with members who wanted to shake her hand or expected her to be as enamored with their attendance as we were 🙂 This left me very frustrated, overwhelmed, guilty and ready to quit. But … did I mention my husband is the pastor?
    We have survived nine long years of misunderstandings, over-compensating, and correction imposed on her that we should not have administered all in the name of pleasing those around us. I blamed all those around me and judged them as unloving. But let me be very clear on my feelings … it is not anyone else’s responsibility to understand my child, it is mine. On the days I felt guilty and shamed it was because I understood their concerns more than hers. By the same token, while it is not their responsibility to make concessions and format changes to align with her needs, understanding needs to be extended by them without condemnation and backbiting. Sadly, that’s not always the case and I understand why someone would seek an alternative to attendance. If that’s you, there is no condemnation here from me in any way, shape or form.
    But the Lord loves you and the devil would love for you to have just cause to seek refuge anywhere else but in the Lord. Again, rather sadly, too often the church has given just cause. But we need to model the behaviors we are asking others to have. Forgive, be patient and try again. There are pastors and families out there, like mine, who know your child’s needs and are living it daily. I pray you’ll find them. In the meantime, I can educate people on how my daughter is divinely wired differently by God to be more than an average church-goer. That always evokes a raised eyebrow or two. And I can model love for those who sometimes try our very last nerve (both the members and my daughter – ha). I can reassure her that there is nothing wrong with her and that someday church may very well be geared more to her style of worship than that of current tradition as more and more is being learned of spatial learners and gifted children. And I see both things changing: gradually she is learning to understand others’ expectations and they are learning to question their own. It’s still a challenge, but we’re getting there.
    So be encouraged and persevere in understanding your child and forgiving & loving those who are often unloving to you and your family. God has promised good things to me and His Word my hope secures! God bless!

    • The days when my kids can’t or won’t go to church (I’m the Pastor, I have to go), we either do “church at home”–a short service when I’m home that honors God–or I assign the sermon reading to them and when I get back, I ask them to share a thought about it and a question about it. Then we discuss it. On a good day, the kids read beyond the assigned passage because they’re fascinated by it. I was inspired to do “church at home” when they couldn’t go to church by Laura Ingall Wilder’s memories of her Sundays; the Ingalls would spend time being quiet and reading/listening to Scripture and only go to Church on Xmas and Easter because they lived so far from the church.

      There is grace all around, and you don’t just meet God at church. When we do church at home, we model this truth for our families.

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Sallie-Schaaf-Borrink-060313-B-250x250I'm Sallie, teacher by training and now homeschooling mom of Caroline. My passion is to provide products, encouragement, and information that helps others discover and do what works with their children. I also write about living a cozy life as a highly introverted person. Welcome! ♥

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