How to Survive Sunday Mass with an ADHD 6-Year-Old

Your child’s busy brain is a gift from God — to your child, and to you.

Juliaan De Vriendt (1842–1935), “Suffer the Little Children Come to Me”
Juliaan De Vriendt (1842–1935), “Suffer the Little Children Come to Me” (photo: Public Domain)

A mom on a discussion forum posed an age-old question: How do I get through Mass despite my ADHD 6-year-old’s superpowers for creating catastrophic chaos?

Six is tough for energetic kids. They need to be at Mass, the brain is just on the cusp of the age of reason and experiencing all kinds of big feelings that come with budding-but-not-blossomed reasoning skills, and the stakes feel so, so high. How is this kid gonna make it to First Communion when we can’t sit five minutes without thumping the kneeler up and down and up and down and up and down, thump thump THUMP?

If you haven’t lived with this kid, you probably have old standby remedies like “color Bible pictures.” Bless your heart, but that is not the child we are talking about. We’re talking about a kid who needs next-level spiritual parenting. Here is the method that worked for our family — and by “worked” I mean not only “no homicides” but an approach that eventually led to a young adult who exhibits a healthy attitude toward all things church and continues to practice the faith, independently of the parents.


Step One: Build Your Skill Sets

The No. 1 thing you are going to need to do is cultivate your whispering skills. You and your child need to be able to communicate during Mass, even the silent parts, without being too loud. You will also need to learn how to make an exit from church without anyone noticing, even though you are going to sit up front. Pretend you’re spies or something. It’s a life skill, so have fun with it.

The other No. 1 thing? Outside of Mass, help you child learn as much as possible about the faith. This should be fun, interesting stuff — things you enjoy teaching and that your child enjoys learning. Formal lessons are not the way, but if your wiggler enjoys doing acrobatics on the floor while you read aloud, story time is great. So are impromptu discussions, videos you child enjoys, play-acting with or without you — whatever you’ve got.


Step Two: Work the Mass Experience

Your supercharged child is not going to melt into the pew for an hour of silent contemplation. It’s not happening. Time to deploy those spy skills.

First of all, sit where you have a view, but hold fast to your retreat-friendly position at the edge of the pew. Arrive early, reserve your seat (bring a seat-occupied sign if you need to), then go to the bathroom one last time before coming back to pray.

During Mass, quietly explain what is happening in an enthusiastic, awe-stricken manner. During hymns, point to the words on the page (good pre-reading prep that seamlessly segues into reading practice and then poetry study) and sing to your child. Draw your child’s attention to key moments and to details that are easily missed. Turnabout is fair play, and ADHD kids notice all kinds of things other people never see. If your child points out something on-theme (that detail in the stained glass, not the lector’s weird shirt), listen and show appreciation.

And of course you’ll do all the basics in addition, drawn from lists of tips for average kids. By all means, figure out if there’s a silent fidget-toy that will help with the wiggles. There probably isn’t one that your power-fidgeter won’t be tempted to throw (or roll under the pews, or bounce on someone’s head), but it’s worth a shot. Definitely don’t seat your child next to anyone, probably a sibling, who has recently engaged in a during-Mass fist fight. Definitely do have that reward ready in the car if your child meets goal (more on that below). But even though you are doing all the things, there’s a good chance you’re going to have to take your game up a level with a pro move.


Step Three: Master the Art of the Mass Mini-Retreat

Identify a different place on campus to be when your child needs a retreat from the pressure of too much sitting still. The place you are going to go needs to be away from entertainment (no view of the playground), and it needs to be prayerful. It’s probably going to be outdoors, so pack your umbrella, snow boots, sun hat — whatever it will take for you to survive the journey. Some examples of retreat destinations, and what to do there:

  • Outdoor stations of the cross or rosary garden. Walk each station and talk about what’s there, lingering as long as you like and skipping ahead as desired. Pray the Station, however briefly.
  • Cemetery. You can look at gravestones, talk about your guesses about that person’s life based on the limited information, and then pray for the repose of that person’s soul. You can also pray for situations prompted by the tomb-reading, such as families who have lost a young child, or towns facing epidemics, or married couples or priests, or whatever comes to mind.
  • Just plain outside with God’s creation. If you need a jump-start, invest in Paul Goble’s Song of Creation as an exemplar of how to take a scriptural model of prayer and apply it to your present setting. Let your child’s prayerful creativity lead you on winding paths from thanking God for fire ants to praying for that lector with the weird shirt.

You can BYO some holy cards, a rosary and a small, durable crucifix if you need to assemble a retreat station in a hallway, church basement or other not-so-inspiring shelter. The key here is to go someplace during your retreats that allows you to pray aloud with each other in whatever way you and your child both feel led, or else to talk to each other about something spiritual.

One of the gifts of ADHD is the ability to link seemingly unrelated concepts. Live the gift. If you bring a book (children’s Bible, Stations of the Cross guide, saint story), don’t feel obliged to read from beginning to end; skip around as the Spirit moves the two of you, and use chosen pages to prompt interconnected ideas and prayers.

Your contemplation may at times take the form of physically touching or closely examining the craftsmanship of God or man, or sitting in the grass making clover rosaries, or whatever it is that engages your child’s senses. If your child is very energetic, bring a rosary and pick a walking circuit, and talk and pray as you keep moving.

Use a sober, calm voice, but you’re away from the crowd so you don’t have to be dead-silent or statue-still. You are going to stay united with the Mass even though you aren’t sitting in the nave.


Keys To Success with the Retreat

The Mass retreat method requires you to be able to step out one-on-one with your child. Don’t bring all the siblings. That means that if you are the sole parent in the pew, your younger ones may have to use the nursery (even though you’d rather they be in Mass) and your older ones may have to prearrange to sit with a trusted adult. You will need to anticipate the weather and dress accordingly if you expect you’ll have to go outside.

You’ll have to do some legwork to make it happen, and yes I know that sometimes circumstances just don’t allow the possibility. But since this is your child’s pre-sacramental year, consider stepping outside the box in terms of scheduling and seating arrangements, if only for this year. One of your child’s long-term goals can be to make it all the way through Mass by the time First Communion prep begins in second grade. A more modest goal, if you need it, is to make it all the way through a short daily Mass by the start of second grade, and all the way through a typical Sunday Mass with a little more practice.

Do teach your child to request the break before he or she starts doing the crazy. Your partner in prayer can whisper “I'm ready to go pray for the souls in purgatory” (or whatever it is you two do during your breaks) or “Let’s go take a retreat.” Give the Mass-reward you have in the car — not for making the whole way through Mass indoors (though that’s coming one day), but for being an effective Spy for Jesus who can pray the Mass indoors or out, conventionally or not, without disturbing other people.

Good retreat technique is crucial because it lets your child be genuinely spiritual. Your child’s prayers and ideas become valuable to you and to the parish and to the souls you are praying for, without degenerating into “being naughty gets me play time.” Instead: “Knowing myself lets me pray more effectively, given the fact that I am six.”

Because you are united with the Mass, your goal of course is to get back to Jesus in the Real Presence as soon as you can. You can use a combination of goals (“Let’s try to get back by the offering — that’ll probably be in about four minutes”) and guided self-assessment. Because you two are becoming pro spies, it is possible for your child to self-assess, “Yes I am ready to go back in and pray before the Blessed Sacrament,” and also realize a few minutes later, “Okay, I wasn’t quite ready to stay the whole time. Let’s take another retreat.” You guys are gonna get really, really, good at walking that aisle without bothering anyone.


Your Child’s Busy Brain is a Gift from God

Your child doesn’t do passive — and that’s a feature, not a bug. Harness it. Teach your child about how the Mass is the “source and summit” of the Christian life.

When you are headed out to the retreat, you are flowing on the stream (that’s what a “source” is — a spring) of the graces in the Mass. When you head back into the building, you’re climbing back up Mount Godmore to the place where heaven literally opens up for us.

That might sound abstract to you, but 6-year-olds are totally capable of visualizing and riding on the wave of that imagery, because they are better at imagining things than you are. They can feel the cool refreshment of ice-cold Water of Life flowing from the Mass. They can taste the exhilaration of trekking up the mountainside of the nave to meet Jesus waiting at the peak. It’s Ignatian spirituality for first-graders, and it works. Thank God you’ve got a kid who can help you finally learn how to pray.