Praying Together as a Special Needs Family
Updated: May 9
Most prayer books directed at Catholic families suggest praying together as a family. Many families struggle with how to work a family rosary, or other prayer, into their daily routine. Despite the importance of prayer, between school, work, outside activities, chores, errands and everything else, it's not uncommon for family prayers to fall by the wayside.
As special needs families, we also struggle with how to pray together as a family when one or more of our children cannot participate in prayers as a typical child would. Mass can be an additional challenge, and sometimes it may seem easier to not even attempt praying together.
However as many of us are experiencing a lot of togetherness currently, I thought I would share some suggestions for how to include everyone in a regular prayer time.
First and foremost, you don't need to start with a full rosary, or sitting together and watching daily Mass with all the standing and kneeling and sitting. More than anything else you want to start small. Your goal should just be to aquire the habit of praying together at the same time more days than not. Even if you only start with five minutes, that is a great foundation on which to begin a solid family prayer habit. In five minutes, you can make the sign of the cross, say a Hail Mary, an Our Father and maybe a St. Michael the Archangel prayer.
Even if your spend those five minutes saying the prayers yourself while your child chews on a rosary or they continually try to wander off. Keep your cool, and say the prayers with meaning and reverence. We may think it's not sinking in, and that our children are in their own worlds, however our contributing writers David and Mercedes Rizzo have shared numerous times how their autistic daughter surprised them with her knowledge and willingness to pray at various times. You never know what's going to stick or make an impression, so do your best to instill a love of the prayers, and a reverence, or proper attitude towards them. Slowly build up more and more prayers. Maybe in a few months you can say a full decade of the rosary. Make long term goals to shoot for, and give positive reinforcement when your child sits and participate as well as they're able.
Now is a great time to sit together during a live streamed Mass and use the opportunity to talk during Mass. Explain the parts of Mass and the homily, and let your children ask questions, but focus on remaining quiet and focused during the Consecration. Let them know this is when the bread and wine is turned into the body and blood of our Lord. Select activities before and after Mass that reinforce the readings, the feast days, and parts of the Mass. Picture books and bibles, coloring pages, crafts, you can do as little or as much as you want. You want to teach them in a way that is positive and uplifting; those are the feelings you want them to associate with practicing their faith. If their only experiences up to this point have been a lot of frustration at sitting still during Mass at church on Sundays, you can use this time to hopefully teach them that church is so much more than that.
Some churches still have adoration available and families can attend in their car, or you can live stream it. Work on practicing silence, even for short bursts of time; 30 - 60 sec.
If your children need to keep their hands busy consider silicone or wooden rosaries, or coloring pages for the mass. One mom shared with me that she lets her children make beads out of Playdough during her family's rosary. Keep a variety of laminated holy cards handy. Active children may enjoy hanging pictures of the stations of the cross, and walking around your house or yard to each station. For non-verbal children consider teaching them (and maybe your whole family) simple sign language prayers or adding related words to their AAC device. Display religious artwork in your house, and hang or display some at your child's height so he or she can study it, ask questions, or even touch and hold it. Maybe even buy, or make, a child's Mass kit (aff link). Listen to hymns or chant as a family during meal times, or in the car. Now that most of our children are older, we can actually light candles and burn incense during our family prayers. Make your Catholic faith something tangible for your child to see, touch, smell, and hear as much as they are able.
Give your child the oppotunity to lead a meal time prayer or a decade of the rosary. You might be surprised how well they do, and even if it's not perfect, celebrate the accomplishment.
Even if you have a bad night, or a bad week, try again. Pray for the gift of fortitude and perseverance. You, your child, and your whole family have so much to gain from praying together, don't give up, even when the going gets rough. Shorten the prayer time, or the length of prayer, give your child a new item to hold or use during that time, but always work to include him or her in your family's prayer time.
You may not see the results you expect in the time you wish, but remember your efforts and hard work have eternal rewards. Have hope that your child's heart will be moved to love our Lord and his Church so long as you continue to model unfailing faith and devotion yourself, even in the tough times. Don't give up and despair. Jesus calls all the children to him and he will strengthen you for this work.
Kelly Mantoan is the founder of Accepting the Gift. She blogs on Fridays at This Ain't the Lyceum.