Reaching Kids at Risk


How Will I Know?

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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    hateful, and violent to withdrawn, sad, reticent, and fearful.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

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

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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

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

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


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