A flag went up in my head when I first noticed the anxious behavior of my two year old son. My husband and I prayed regularly with him concerning his fear and anxiety and taught him appropriate biblical truths and verses. But as time went on, I began to feel at a loss as a parent in the face of his anxious behavior.
So, I asked professionals for help. A behavioral scientist diagnosed him with separation anxiety and social anxiety the summer of 2019, and a few months later we began Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. This assistance gave me practical tools to help my son walk through his anxiety, and it helped him be more brave and face some of his fears.
Though his anxiety is unrelated to COVID, I’m sure many children during this pandemic have experienced fear and anxiety on some level — their typical way of life abruptly disrupted and the future uncertain. Many of the lessons I’m learning in my son’s struggle with anxiety can apply to children struggling with COVID. I’m no expert at offering advice in this arena, but I am a mom willing to share what I’ve learned so far.
- Engage the Emotions
Everyone, even with good intentions, can make mistakes. One that Christians often make, when it comes to fear and anxiety, is to give trite answers: “Trust God,” or “Don’t worry.” Of course, these statements are true, but can feel dismissive of real human emotion, and at times used as a way to avoid dealing with underlying issues. Most Christians are rightly concerned with the idea of truth informing our emotions, but we don’t always have to jump to the “truth part” right away. First, we should acknowledge, validate, and engage the emotions.
I try my best to acknowledge my son’s feelings of anxiety, then validate his feelings as real. When I try to engage my son’s emotions it’s typically in the form of questions, probing to figure out why he might be feeling this way and how it feels for him. This takes time. Sometimes, it doesn’t work to do all this in the moment of anxiety, but to wait and talk about it later.
If we can get our kids talking about their feelings, it will help them grow into emotionally mature adults who can cope with life in healthy ways. It will help strengthen their honesty and vulnerability with us, thereby creating a close relationship between parent and child, and all of this will connect in their relationship with God as they learn to identify their struggles and bring them to him. Lastly, engaging our children’s emotions will help them grow in compassion and empathy for others. They will learn to truly love their neighbor.
- Truth Telling
Fear and anxiety is often based on countless lies, which requires the need for speaking truth to those suffering with anxiety. But let’s also keep in mind that though there is a spiritual element at hand in anxiety, for many, it’s also mental and physical. We know the truth of scripture is powerful for our children, but truth telling can also look like rationalizing with our children in practical ways.
Recently, my son started exhibiting certain behaviors associated with his separation anxiety again. If he doesn’t see me for a minute, I hear a loud, “Mom?!” and sometimes the running of feet as he tries to find me. I eventually brought his actions to his attention, and I asked him to try something next time he doesn’t see me. I told him to stop and think first before he yells for me and tries to find me.
“Think about the usual places I go to in the house when you don’t see me: the laundry room, the bathroom, upstairs to grab something quickly. Then just wait a little longer until you see me again.”
Instead of jumping to conclusions or assuming the worst (which we’ve talked about in therapy), he’s learning to exercise self-control and speak truth or reality into his fears. Children (and adults) need to not only speak the truth of God’s Word into their fears, they also need to train themselves to speak practical, rational truths to themselves.
- Comfort, Compassion, and Patience
Being a mom of a child who suffers with chronic anxiety, I am still learning patience, compassion, and comfort. The story of God’s interactions with Gideon in the book of Judges has helped me see how I need to grow in my interactions with my son. When God calls Gideon to be Israel’s next judge and deliverer, God greets Gideon as a “mighty man of valor” (Judg. 6:12). But what we continually see of this man is fear and anxiety.
Gideon lists some excuses for why he can’t save Israel (Judg. 6:15), and even though God answers, “I’ll be with you,” Gideon then asks for a sign (Judg. 6:17). Once the sign confirms who this strange visitor is, Gideon finally believes, but then responds in fear (Judg. 6:25-27). The most remembered part of Gideon’s story is when he asks for the two signs from God with the fleece of wool (Judg. 6:36–40). Gideon is still not confident that God will use him to save Israel from the Midianites, so he needs tangible signs to prove God will do what he says.
God never calls out Gideon and says, “You need another sign? What’s wrong with you? Haven’t you learned yet? Don’t you know who I am?” Instead, he walks beside Gideon and shapes him into the mighty man of valor that he has declared him to be. He was patient with his need for signs, which brought Gideon comfort and reassurance. He gave Gideon the signs, even though He didn’t need to.
The phrase, “Do not fear” is repeated over and over in the Bible, because God knows fear is a natural part of our lives, until he makes a new world without the curse of fear in it. One day, we will be free of fear. One day, my son will be free of fear. Until then, I join in God’s work of making him a mighty man of valor.