Guarding a Child’s Heart From Anxiety: A Faith Perspective

alphabet-arrangement-away-459846Many argue that anxiety is an adaptive coping skill, a feeling that helps us to stay on top of things.  For example, we may get anxious about a project at work being completed which then makes us remember deadlines.  We may be anxious about our children eating well and therefore make sure their diet is balanced.  Children may be anxious about school performance, and therefore remember to turn their homework in and study.  Anxiety can prompt us to do what is good and healthy.

But what if anxiety becomes a problem?  What if it lends to irritability and frustration?  Or isolation, withdrawal, or lack of enjoyment?

What does the Bible tell us about worry or anxiety?  Let’s look at Matthew 6:

Matthew 6:25-34 New International Version (NIV)

Do Not Worry

25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[a]?

28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 

Many times throughout scripture, God tells us to not fear or worry.  He desires that we focus on Him and count on His sovereignty and love for us which is infinitely beyond what we can know or imagine.

So, knowing this, how do you teach your child to worry less and trust God more?

1.First, normalize the battle against fear.

If fear was not a battle to be anticipated for every human being, the Bible would not mention it so many times in scripture.  It is a battle that we all wage, and it is one that most of us tend to really struggle with at certain points in life.  Teach your child that worries will come to mind, but God is bigger, and we can win the battle against fear.

2. Help your child to identify anxious thoughts.

The Bible speaks of taking our thoughts captive, which means being aware of thoughts that are rooted in truth and those that are not.  Teach your child to identify thoughts he is having and to recognize whether the thoughts are reflective of God’s truth (His protection, grace, mercy, love, forgiveness, and purpose) or not. Learning to focus on truths is important!  You can help your child to remember God’s love and grace, and to rest in it when he is worried.

3. Talk about  great heroes that battled fear, and who learned to trust God when times were tough.

Read the story of David and Goliath.  David knows the truth of who he is with God on his side and who God made him to be.  He fights a giant who evokes fear for everyone in the land, but he does so with his thoughts rooted in God’s truth.

4. Have grace for a child who worries more.

Worry is a product of several factors:  genetics (some children are prone to developing low serotonin levels or other neurochemical imbalances that lend to anxiety), how a child processes sensory input and environmental stress, a child’s baseline feeling of emotional safety, and need for control and predictability.  You might perceive your child’s worry to be “about nothing”.  The fact is, that to your child, it can be everything.

While anxiety is a battle every child faces at some point, it is more of an uphill battle for some children than for others.  Be understanding if your child is one who struggles more, and be willing to help with plenty of grace.

5. Remember that children who are seen as irritable and defiant often are just struggling with anxiety.  Be understanding and address their underlying feelings with empathy.

Children who like things to be “just so”, who don’t like change and prefer things to be predictable, and who get angry when things don’t go their way often have marked anxiety.  They want control because when things go their way, they feel more emotionally safe.  They try to assert control over their parents and siblings, leading to frequent arguments and upheavals, all in an attempt to feel better on the inside.  These children often feel that they can’t do right by themselves or their families, and that they are constant disappointments.  They internalize guilt about their behaviors, and yet often can’t apologize because it makes them feel worse about themselves.

If you have a child who is like this, remember to take the T.R.U.S.T. approach I’ve discussed in my other posts.  It will help you to connect with your child and to recognize that anxiety is fueling his behaviors.  You’ll then be able to respond with empathy and make lasting change.

6. Teach your child the power of faith and trusting in God. 

Teach your child about the Lord, read stories about God’s faithfulness, have him remember scriptures about God’s love, and tell him about your own life experiences when God has proven faithful in the midst of your fear.  Make your testimonies a regular conversation, so that your child comes to remember that God is always faithful.  Albeit circumstances may not be what we want or expect, God never leaves us and His love never fails.  We know from scripture that His plans are to prosper us, to give us hope, and a future (Jeremiah 29:11).  He covers us, desires joy for us, is just and fair, and there is nothing unbeknownst to Him.  He uses all things for our good. (Romans 8:28)

7. Model faith and trust in God even in difficult circumstances. 

As a parent, make self-reflection a habit.  Be mindful that your own personality, defenses, and childhood experiences are pivotal to how you understand your child’s behaviors and to how you respond.  Worried parents often lead to worried children.  Are you a parent with rigid routines, a high performing parent, or a person with a type A personality?  Are you the type of parent who gets easily worried if your child falls, sustains an injury, or gets upset?  Do you tend to get nervous and seek to protect your child from adversity all the time?  If so, your child may be more likely to struggle with worry.  Try to reflect on situations that historically led to your own stress, anxiety, or rigidity.  Focus on changing your own stress responses.

Aim to become more flexible, adaptable, and resilient so that you can model these qualities for your child.  You will see that your child’s stress will decline as you work on lowering your own reactivity.  It is hard work to change but you can work toward it!

Trusting God’s sovereignty and his shelter over us is a process that is life long, but the more we engage ourselves in that pursuit, the more we model faith for our children.

8. Practice active listening and allow your child to process worry.

Ever think about what helps most when we are worried?  For most people, it is talking to someone who will actively listen.  To actively listen means to be present, make good eye contact, and spend time listening to someone without distractions.  It means not interjecting your own opinions or stories, not offering advice, but just listening, being present, validating, and expressing a desire to understand.

For most people, having someone actively listen reduces stress even more than someone offering counsel.  Be an active listener to your child daily.  Put screens away, make face to face contact, and do so over something enjoyable that disarms your child (i.e. a snack, a warm drink, a drive, a walk).

9. Provide reassurance and walk the journey alongside your child. 

After actively listening, always let your child know that you are a team, that you want to walk alongside him, and that you appreciate when he shares his heart with you.

10. Practice the habit of prayer throughout the day with your child.

I can’t say enough about how important it is for your child to hear you talking to God throughout your day.  It lets your child know to come to God will all of his cares and to trust Him.

11. Redirect worry toward joy.

Children benefit from redirection when they feel their emotions are stressful.  Find an activity that your child enjoys and engage in it together.  Read a book, watch a show, take a walk, ride bikes, or go window shopping!

12. Introduce new experiences. 

Helping children to adapt to change and enjoy new experiences is important in reducing anxiety later in life.  Introduce your child to things regularly that are new or unexpected.  You will find that when children make positive associations by pairing new experiences with something comfortable and familiar, they don’t fear change (i.e. starting a new school and going out to an old favorite restaurant afterwards).

13. Teach resilience by letting your child fall and get up.  Try to not make mountains out of molehills. 

Many parents tend to overprotect their child from adversity or from injury.  If you fret over small bumps and bruises, your child will learn fear when he tries new things.  If you become anxious over breaks in routine, your rigidity will cause your child to become nervous with transitions.  It is okay to allow your small child to fall down and pick himself up without running to the rescue.  Remember to reassure your child that this is a normal part of growing up.  Encourage your child to keep playing and moving on.  Allow him to mess up,  make things better, and to ask for help when needed.

14. When worry persists and it gets in the way of enjoying life on a regular basis, don’t hesitate to seek help.

Sometimes, an underlying neurochemical, experiential, or behavioral cause can be behind chronic worry or anxiety and treatment can provide tremendous relief for your child.  Treatment can be therapy alone, medicine, or nutritional counseling.  These interventions can make a world of difference for your child and prevent anxiety from worsening.  Talk to your pediatrician about scheduling an appointment with a therapist or child psychiatrist.