When a Pastor’s Family Member Has Mental Health Issues

Many moms and dads face the challenge of parenting a child with a mental health diagnosis. Due to the history of mental health stigma, especially in the church, it may be hard for pastors and church staff to vocalize when mental health issues are occurring in their own homes. Self-blame or embarrassment may keep church leaders from seeking appropriate help for their children and family.

Where are these parents to start? How do they help their child? And what resources are available to them? 

The challenging journey begins with perspective.

Perspective is Key

Christian parents strive to view children and parenting through the lens of correct theology. Children are often new believers or have yet to put faith in Christ. Their brain and language skills are also not fully developed. Having this understanding can help set right expectations of your child. Given these standards, childhood disobedience and your child’s lack of understanding should not be surprising. Disobedience, temper tantrums, forgetfulness, etc. do not necessarily constitute a mental health diagnosis.

When issues can’t be explained by normal development, poor choices, or lack of spiritual engagement, a mental health condition can then be considered. For some parents, the potential of having a child with a mental health diagnosis may feel overwhelming or embarrassing. Let’s talk briefly about how a parent can view mental health through the lens of theology.

An intricate and creative God designed the human body in great complexity. We are not simply spiritual beings, but relational and developing humans comprised of biology, emotion, and spirituality. The result of Original Sin (Genesis 3) is corruption in every good area of our beings. The Fall negatively affects development, biology, society, emotion, spirituality, and relationships. These areas intertwine and impact overall functioning. Disruption in these areas can result in mental health issues. While some mental health issues lean more towards biological underpinnings (i.e. Tourette’s Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Learning Disability), other mental health issues are more directly influenced by relationships and emotion. Mental health issues are complex.

How To Help 

If your child is struggling, I want to give you some resources. Knowing warning signs, the right questions to ask, and where to seek help, are important tools in helping your child. Let’s begin with warning signs. 

1. What are some warning signs?

    • Insufficient or delayed development
    • Significant change in appetite or weight
    • Extreme irritability, outbursts, or meltdowns
    • Inattentiveness or hyperactivity
    • Loss of interest in activities or friends
    • Poor academic performance
    • Sudden changes in sleep habits
    • Persistent sadness or frequent crying
    • Reckless or harmful behaviors
    • Excessive fears or worries
    • Behavioral problems across settings
    • Persistent nightmares
    • Withdrawn from family and friends
    • Enuresis or encopresis
    • School refusal
    • Developmentally inappropriate sexualized behaviors or advanced sexual knowledge

If you find your child exhibits some of these signs, it may be time to look for a professional. If you are not sure, try gathering information from other key adults who are involved in your child’s life. For example, you may want to ask your child’s teacher, “Compared to other same-age and same-gender peers, is my child more or less attentive at school?”

2. Questions to Ask

When considering your child’s behaviors and struggles, here are some key questions to help gauge the severity of the issues.

    • How long has the behavior occurred?
    • Is it a significant change from your child’s formal disposition?
    • Does the behavior occur across settings?
    • Does it impact your child’s functioning?
    • How often is the behavior occurring?
    • What are the current stressors in your child’s life?
    • Does the behavior occur in relation to a stressor or stimuli?
    • Any known history of trauma?
    • Why are you seeking help for the problem now?

Negative behaviors that are persistent, occur across settings, impact a child’s functioning, and are not related to a specific stimuli or current stressor, are more likely to indicate the presence of a mental health issue. If there are current stressors in your child’s life that seem to exacerbate their functioning, talk with your child, try to alleviate unnecessary stressors (i.e. making all A’s in school), and develop tools to help your child cope. Take your child through Scripture, helping them grasp God’s love for them and His sovereignty, even in the midst of difficult circumstances. Pray for them and pray with them. 

3. Build Community 

One risk factor for developing or maintaining a mental health condition is a lack of social support. Another way to state that is, having social support is a resiliency factor for a good prognosis. Research and Scripture show that community with others is vital. As a parent, seek to provide ample opportunities for your child to make and keep friendships. Sports, school, extracurricular activities, youth groups, church, and neighborhoods, are all potential avenues for social involvement. Additionally, seek out other Christian families to regularly live life together. Children and other believing adults can be invaluable support for your child. 

4. Quality and Quantity Time With Your Child

God has placed a wonderful and enormous task on parents. He has called parents to steward the children He provided them. Part of stewardship is being present in the lives of those children. Research has repeatedly shown that a lack of parents’ physical or emotional presence has devastating effects on children. Parents, don’t underestimate the influence you have on your child. Spend time with your child. Listen to your child. Be present. 

5. Resources to Read

I encourage parents to read about parenting, mental health issues, and normal childhood development. It’s hard to understand abnormal behavior if you don’t have a good grasp of normal behavior. Here are some resources for recommended reading: 

    • How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber & Elaine Mazlish
    • Full Circle Parenting by Jimmy and Kristin Scroggins
    • Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family by Paul David Trip
    • Yardsticks: Child and Adolescent Development Ages 4-14 by Chip Wood
    • Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys by Stephen James
    • National Eating Disorders Association: www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
    • Anxiety and Depression Association of America: www.adaa.org

6. Referrals

One of the best places to start when seeking counseling or treatment for your child is your child’s pediatrician. Neurological and medical issues can sometimes mimic mental health issues. Rule out medical issues first. To find counselors, evaluators, or therapists, you may want to check with your insurance plan. Other resources for finding a counselor or therapist:

Saying, “I need help for my child,” may feel humbling.  Remember, as God works in the life of your child, He is also working on you. May you lean into Him, and steward well His child.

Posted on May 21, 2021

Sarah has her masters and doctorate degrees in Clinical Psychology. She specializes in child and adolescent mental health and development. Sarah is also the co-host of the Parenting & Pennies podcast (Jan 2022) on the Christian Parenting podcast network. Sarah serves in leadership at her church for women’s discipleship, and enjoys discipling other women. She also enjoys being a guest writer, speaker, and podcaster for different organizations.
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  • I’ve been sitting with this for a couple days and I still haven’t been able to reconcile my discomfort. Thus, a couple observations and/or criticisms.

    1. The issue is not a “Pastor’s Family” issue. Most people with children share in these same issues. The thing that makes it more difficult for a Pastor is the added stigma inflicted on them. As a helper, the pastor does not want to ask for assistance nor be a burden. Yet the Pastor is willing to minister to someone else in need.

    2. A mental health crisis has a huge impact at any point of life, not just in childhood. I’d almost argue a mental health crisis is more devastating in adulthood because things change from the “normal” to something new. There are more than a few adults that I work with who have a crisis of faith which is generated by some traumatic event or other mental health issues, and not just the disorder de jour, but real mental health issues.

    3. While I understand the premise of Original Sin (the fall) being the root cause of all bad things in the world. As you so aptly point out, mental health issues are complex at best and complicated at worse. The difficulty I have is by intimating mental health as caused by sin (because most people will not hear that as Original Sin – the fall from where we were at creation) it is likely that someone will not seek out their pastor for spiritual assistance in coping with their mental health issues.

    Mental health issues are not a sin. While esoterically they are tied to our fallen nature they do not separate us from the love of God.

    • Sarah Rainer says on

      Thank you for your reply. Let me make sure I target each concern you have.

      1. Your are correct; mental health issues affect people of all backgrounds. The advice I give is good for both a pastor’s family and a lay person. The exception is that those in ministerial leadership may feel more ashamed due to stigma that has existed in religious circles. This article is to encourage those families.

      2. Mental health issues are struggles at any point in our development. I don’t believe I implied otherwise. The article is simply targeting childhood mental health issues, as mental health issues do present differently in children. However, I also wrote a separate article geared at pastors that are struggling with their mental health issues.

      3. Mental health issues are complex, which is stated in the article. All diseases and disorders are the result of the Fall (Original sin). Original sin and personal sin are different. I was not implying all mental health issues are the result of personal sin. Mental health issues do not separate us from Christ. Nothing can separate us from Christ, with the exception of not accepting Him as Lord and Savior.

      Hope this clarifies your concerns.

      • Sarah, Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I think we are on the same page in the first two points.

        Because of my pre-ordination training (I have only been a pastor/priest for just over 10 years), I tend to ask myself the question “what could possibly go wrong” or “how might this statement be misconstrued.” Personally and as a pastor, I agree that the disorders of life are attributable to Original Sin. However, in a time of crisis it is my experience that people are less receptive of higher-level thinking. Quite frequently, people do not hear “Original” when someone tells them about Original Sin.

        While I think a good pastor should be capable of remedying the difficulty if the pastor can devote their energy into mental health as opposed to trying to clarify the potential misunderstanding they would be better served. Since some of those reading this article will be in a position of pastoring a pastor that would be worth identifying.

        Regardless, I do thank you for your comments and reply. Blessings to you.