The sum of its parts
Faith leaders agree that clues to a child’s behavior are often found within the family
Try telling your best friend that her son’s behavior problems might be linked with her own emotional disconnect, and you could end up permanently crossed off her Christmas list. That’s why we rely on people in positions of neutral authority—like psychologists, teachers and faith leaders—to tell us what we so often don’t want to hear.
Yet even a pastor, certified by God to give loving counsel, may not be a welcome voice when it comes to doling out hard truth.
“You pretty much hide all your problems from your pastor,” said Scot Sorensen, paraphrasing author and humorist Garrison Keillor. And with anywhere from 200 to 2,000 families in a congregation, knowing how and when to help can be a formidable challenge for concerned clergy.
My son is a very sensitive, spiritual 6-year-old. He loves church and being at home, but he suffers from anxiety and sometimes behaves in ways that other kids think are strange. He talks to himself and is constantly making up stories, and often gets so anxious at school that he scratches his arms until they bleed. His teacher told me that other kids are grossed out by this and don’t want to sit next to him. It breaks my heart that he doesn’t have any friends. What can I do to help him fit in, without giving him the message that he’s not OK the way God made him?
“This might sound a little harsh,” prefaced Father Michael Kiernan, a return guest from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, “but this is the way he is, I’m not sure this is the way God made him.”
Father Kiernan, who works with a variety of inter-religious groups, particularly Jews, Muslims and Sikhs, was quick to recommend counseling—not just for the child, but for the entire family.
“Try to get some analysis of what’s leading him to all of these problems,” he said gently. “In one way, all you can do is be there for him as a family, and let him know that he’s loved and then try to get to the bottom of it. Telling him he’s OK won’t solve it.”
“God loves him, but desires him to be healthy,” agreed Pastor Scot Sorensen of St. John’s Lutheran Church. Quoting Christian author Max Lucado, he said, “‘God loves you just the way you are, but loves you too much to let you stay that way.’ The child needs to hear the message that he’s loved, period. But the bigger issue is: Why is this child the symptom-bearer for this family?”
Sorensen, who was born and raised in the Lutheran faith and has 23 years of ordained experience in the ministry, explained that the child is the weakest member of the family system.
“If this family is part of my community, I’d probably have access to the family and could help get them counseling—not for the child,” he clarified, “but for the parents … and my entree to them is that I can be a caring, compassionate truth-teller to say, ‘For a 6-year-old to carry this much anxiety, something else is going on here.’”
Sorensen suggested another possibility, that the problem could have its origins a generation above, in an unresolved relationship between the parent and one of their parents.
“Sometimes, as a pastor, we do have multiple generations attend the same parish,” said Sorensen, “and then we’re able to see things—not to solve them, but we can see patterns and go, ‘Hey, let’s see, Dad and his mom are really estranged, and now this son’s having problems. What would happen if Dad got his act together with his parents? Is that anxiety being carried into the relationship with the son?’”
Fortunately, “you only need to work with the most motivated person in the [family] system, and the whole system will change,” Sorensen continued. “If one person changes their behavior, it affects everything. If the parent starts functioning differently, however that is, it will have an effect on everyone else in the family.”
Sorensen then returned to the Lucado quote in how he would address the afflicted boy in question: “‘God loves you, and [he] loves you too much for you to be in this kind of pain, because clearly you are. And there needs to be a way out.’ And then I’m gonna turn to the parents and say, ‘What are you gonna do about this? It’s not the kid who needs to get fixed.’”
And when a message like this is delivered, how do parents typically receive it?
“Well, first of all, they’re pretty ticked off at me,” Sorensen admitted. “They go, ‘You’re crazy, what are you talking about?’ It’s OK,” he shrugged, smiling, “I’m not running for re-election.”
A pastor’s role, he reiterated, is to be a “truth-teller.”
And when all is said and done, some of the same families who initially told him he was “nuts” are the ones thanking him for being “dead on.”
Ananta McSweeney, pastor and founder of the Hindu-Christian Ananda Center of Sacramento, agreed that “the child needs to see that God didn’t make him wrong or something. You know, your tooth breaks, you go to the dentist to get it fixed. Well, it wasn’t God’s plan to break the tooth … things happen. You need repairs and you need help and people can help you, and you learn and grow from it.”
McSweeney, who has been with Ananda since 1975, also encouraged professional help: in this case, an excellent child psychologist in his own congregation.
“It’s also possible that the child has a karmic mix-up,” McSweeney said, meaning “he’s brought something from a past life.
“But like Scot said, start with the family.”
Of course, the first challenge is to know that there’s a problem in the first place.
“I realize that what you see from a family at church on Sunday is not so much a picture,” McSweeney said, adding that he gets much more insight about his congregants’ lives from hanging around the center’s primary school, from going over to a family’s house and from the network of the community.
“The more you see of the family, the more you can help them integrate their spiritual life and spiritual solutions.” Chuckling, McSweeney continued, “Everyone puts on their best shirt for Sunday, smiles and says ‘Yes, Father,’ ‘No, Father.’ The reality is, you go to their house and help them with a project around the home, and you see: Whoa! We got yellow lights, we got red lights, we got sirens.”
And even with this “global perspective” on families, pastors still have to sometimes accept that “some families just don’t want to hear,” said Sorensen. “They want to think their child’s the problem.”