Maudlin and Associates ™
Karen Maudlin
Psy.D., CPCC
Kenneth Davison
Cindy Takiguchi
Manette Galván Turner
Robert Gregory
Daniel Doebler
Trevor Simpson

A definition of “at-risk” children can be difficult to pin down. It’s safe to say that in this fallen world, all children are at risk. Every child will be faced with navigating situations that can build him up—or break him down. Some children suffer distinct disadvantages during their development—issues that impact relationships, vocations, self-identity, and spiritual formation.

Children’s Needs: The Basics

The most important and most basic emotional needs all children have are to feel safe and to feel secure. These two basic human needs are best met by providing for other essential needs—that is, clear structure, unconditional love, consistent affirmation in who they are, a healthy balance of grace and justice, positive modeling of conflict resolution, respite in the arms of a parent or caregiver, healthy touch (hugs and kisses), receiving gifts, empathy from elders, clear expectations and consequences, and social success, to name a few.

Unmet Needs

Children become at-risk or in crisis when their needs for safety and security aren’t met. When a child’s foundation is shaken, he or she feels alone, angry, confused, misunderstood, unworthy, ugly, and unlovable. How a child navigates these deficits is a watershed moment because kids are establishing behavior patterns and interpretive skills that’ll profoundly impact their adolescence and adulthood.

The Challenges

Children concretely process their thoughts and feelings. They’re typically not self-aware to report on what they feel and experience. So a child in crisis carries burdens which usually manifest through observable interaction with parents, siblings, peers, teachers, and elders. Signs include tantrums, withdrawal, defiance, poor academic performance, seeking negative attention, and poor social skills.

Over time, an at-risk child internalizes what he or she feels and interprets these events in black-and-white terms. For example, Those kids won’t play with me. I’m a bad kid. Or They all laughed at me, and I hate feeling like a loser. I’ll make sure they never laugh at me again, as the child becomes an aggressive bully. As a result, kids enter survival mode as they attempt to gain the support, safety, and security (their basic emotional needs) they need in specific situations.

Faith Impact

As with their life experiences, children’s faith experiences are concrete and experiential. A child in crisis interprets and experiences faith in the same survival mode that protects him or her every day. It wouldn’t be uncommon for a struggling child to fully think and believe, God doesn’t love me or God hates me and I’ll validate his hate by acting out because I’m unworthy of love. So while kids typically embrace God as fact, they’ll experientially recall their life experiences when interpreting God’s relevance and significance in their lives.

The Ministry Imperative

This puts you in an exciting place. You can give struggling kids many opportunities to experience God’s love for them in your ministry. Your ministry is an extension of Jesus, displaying patience, grace, justice, and unconditional love that the child may not experience in other settings. And these consistent experiences over time can transform a child’s life, eventually resulting in the concrete, life-impacting understanding: “God loves me as I am, and he is proud of me.”

Trevor Simpson is a youth and family therapist in Wheaton, Illinois. He is a contributing author of Emergency Response Handbook (Group).