Helping Kids Deal With Their Fears, Part I

I heard her sniffing before I saw the moist strokes left by tears on her cheeks. “I’m just scared,” she sobbed. My daughter was headed to a good friend’s house so my husband and I could enjoy a night out. When my husband sat with her on the bed and nestled her under his arm, she eked out an explanation for her sobs: She’d seen a presentation on tornadoes that had frightened her. And she didn’t want to be away from us anyway.

But what I found my ears drawn to even more than her tears were my husband’s straightforward, yet gentle words to her. He realized that this was a way she felt powerless, and he treated it with that kind of respect. Still, he kept himself from responding in a way that added more drama, realizing she was taking her cues from him. Rather than opt for “That won’t happen. Everything will be fine,” or “Tough toenails, kiddo,” he, essentially, calmly told the truth. It went something like:

a) Let’s look at the truth. The chances are pretty slim that would happen tonight.
b) But even if it did, this is what we would do.
c) Still, see point A.
d) However, what do we know about bad things happening? Who’s in control of that? Where is our hope?
e) Let me pray with you.
f) Let’s take some baby steps. And going to your friend’s house for a movie night is a pretty nice baby step.

I compared this with a friend who had addressed her son’s fears regarding their trip to Europe several years ago. I remember her telling him, “Nothing bad will happen! We’ll be back safe and sound! God will take care of us.”

Here’s what I’ve been thinking about. What about when something bad does happen? What happens to your son’s thinking about God at that point?

I’m far from an expert in this area. But here are a few tips I’ve picked up from parents along the way.

In dealing with our kids’ fear, we’re developing their theology—their thinking about God and His relationship to bad things. Kids learn methods to deal with lifelong fears in these moments—and to choose faith and courage instead at those little, and large, forks in the road. They’re also answering the question, “How does God respond to my fear?” When God gives us reasons not to fear in the Bible, the central answer is because I am with you. So…

Get to the heart of the fear. Why are they ultimately afraid? Talk it out. Sure, my daughter saw a presentation. But beneath that I believe we discovered, through talking with her (as opposed to brushing it off or minimizing it) a fear of being unprotected, alone, and in the face of uncontrollable phenomena without a trusted plan. Try to deal with both the presenting surface issue as well as the heart-level issue. We want our kids to be able to “name, recognize, and manage [their] feelings”[1] in truthful ways that explore how feelings are symptoms of our hearts, and hopefully share them: Could our child be in an abusive situation? A painful situation they can’t talk about? The keeper of a secret that’s hard to bear alone? Consistent atypical levels of anxiety may mean that you enlist the help of a professional.

There’s a healthy tension between teaching our kids Scripture to deal with fear and still completely exploring what’s going on within them. Simply squashing fear with Bible verses can at times serve to mute our kids’ fear without encouraging them to unpack their emotions. It is deeply good to teach our kids verses like Philippians 4:8 and other verses about courage and who our God is! (I love Seeds Family Worship’s Seeds of Courage and Seeds of Encouragement for this.) We want our kids to present their hearts honestly to God, as David did in the Psalms, rather than just spackling over it. Think of it as the difference between slapping a Band-Aid over a splinter versus extracting the splinter, disinfecting it, and applying the bandage. Feelings are great indicators of where God wants to connect with us and do work in us, not just get us to straighten up.

Pray with them. Fears can create places where we turn to unhealthy remedies to right ourselves, to retrieve our equilibrium. Pray Scripture together; pray over them; pray specifically and for heart issues… and create reminders for yourself to keep praying.

Together, find creative solutions. Make a plan. Get uber-practical, especially for younger kids who think concretely. And first, ask them what you could do, helping them to be problem solvers for times you’re not there (try not to settle for “I don’t know”). With my daughter, we walked through what would happen if there was indeed inclement weather. For some of my kids, giving them sample “scripts” for what to do or say in an unknown situation, or telling them stories (fiction or non-) about other people going through similar situations has really helped equip them.

[1] Scazzero, Peter. Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: Unleash a Revolution in Your Life in Christ. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson (2006), p. 45. Kindle edition.

Janel has recently launched a new blog of her own: A Generous Grace. She writes, “Discovering God’s undeserved, indescribable favor—grace—has turned my life on its head. It’s my hope that He’ll knead that more into my soul, so others can soak it up, too. This site’s about ‘Jesus with jeans on’—letting God work Himself into real, practical, everday life.” Check it out!

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