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Reaching Kids at Risk

Jennifer Hooks

How Will I Know?

Children at risk gain our attention for a variety of reasons. Here are the most common.

  • Atypical Behavior. An at-risk child habitually displays atypical behavior, ranging from angry, disruptive, hateful, and violent to withdrawn, sad, reticent, and fearful. A child may constantly seek attention for any reason -- whether appropriate or inappropriate. Some children at risk disappear; others act out. The key point is that the child's behavior is atypical over an extended period of time. If a child consistently displays disturbing or abnormal behavior, pay attention. Talk with the parents, talk with the child, and dig deeper to find the root of the behavior.
  • Known History. Jill was diagnosed with fetal alcohol syndrome at birth, and later with attention deficit disorder, attachment disorder, and mental issues. Jill's uncle adopted her when her mother was deemed unfit, but his own drug use, addiction to sex, and transient lifestyle denied her any kind of stability or values system. By age 6, she'd been kicked out of every school she attended because she attacked other children. Her history was well-known in her small town, and her uncle willingly talked about her challenges. You may already be aware of a child like Jill when he or she enters your ministry.
  • Notification. You may be notified that a child in your ministry is in foster care or living with relatives due to domestic issues. There are legal and confidentiality issues related to these children, so check with your pastor or ministry leader if this is your situation.

Relationships and Responsibility

At-risk kids are often threatened and inexperienced when it comes to relationships and responsibility.

Understand resistance. Children at risk have typically experienced a great deal of loss in their lifetimes -- losing their parents and even siblings, losing loving relationships to neglect or abuse, losing predictability and routine. And many of these children have experienced these catastrophic losses repeatedly. It's no wonder that some react by becoming resistant to relationships -- no matter how warm and well-intended. For a child in this circumstance, be consistently kind, warm, gentle, genuine, caring, and interested.

Require responsibility. Adults tend to coddle struggling kids and attempt to shield them from further distress by not holding them accountable. Yet one of the most effective ways to help children build self-esteem and learn coping skills is to intentionally create roles of responsibility.

Give kids purpose. Children at risk, who often feel invisible and unimportant, will flourish -- like any child will -- when given a sense of purpose. Create opportunities for kids to be accountable to you, their peers, and themselves. Give kids responsibilities that'll lead to personal and public successes.

Be a relational teacher. Relationship-building is like running a marathon. It takes commitment and time. Often a child at risk has experienced a succession of broken relationships. You can't make up for a lifetime of heartbreak, but you can be a consistent, loving, predictable presence in the child's life.

Don't wait for a child who's at risk to "warm up" to you. A child who's been routinely hurt and let down isn't likely to be compelled to initiate a relationship with you. The child who causes the most problems and elicits the least amount of nurturing from you is the child most likely to need your love, compassion, and care. Above all, remember that "relationship is an action, not a feeling."

Help at-risk kids help others. One of the most beneficial things you can do for a child is to give him or her a chance to serve someone in need. Caring for another nurtures a sense of importance, responsibility, and love in the giver. It allows a sense of control in a child who otherwise may not feel control. It helps children see that they have something to give.

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