On a recent gorgeous day in Nashville, I opened the windows in our kids’ playroom upstairs. My son, Landon, and daughter, Kennedy, stood with me as we looked out the window at a neighbor’s cat and a rabbit nearby.
Looking down, he asked me to read the sticker on the screen. Not knowing what it said, I just read it aloud. “Warning: Screen will not stop child from falling out window.”
Talk about overwhelming your already fear-prone child. Fortunately, not much was said after that. Landon just slowly backed away from the window and resumed playing with his trains.
Later that night, at 2:30AM, I felt a nudge beside my bed. “Daddy,” Landon said through his tears and anxious voice, “If I push on the screen, I…I…I…fall out the window, right?”
Groggily, I stood up, walked him back to his bed and lay down with him. “We shouldn’t push on the screen,” I answered.
Knowing he was feeling anxious, I figured I would sleep in his bed with him. However, not more than five minutes later Kennedy woke up crying. Yes, it was one of those nights. As I got up to put her back to bed, Landon started bawling again. “Daddy, will you come back?”
This is only one example of many where kids, no matter their age, feel anxious, worried, scared, or overwhelmed. Not knowing what to do in these moments can be quite alarming for a parent.
If we’re not careful, especially when our frustration tolerance is low, our default mode can be to minimize and dismiss the anxiety, or even punish the child in his anxiety for what we view as “acting out.” This is where we have to be careful to separate a child’s overwhelming emotion from their disobedient behavior. The latter sometimes comes from the emotion, but the two are not synonymous.
Here are two ways we can help our kids when they feel anxious:
1. Let them ask questions.
Putting language to what we feel is like emotional brain surgery. Simply allowing our kids to voice what they fear reduces anxiety. That’s because when their “feeling neurons” connect with their “language neurons” in the brain, it helps them begin to make sense of their experience.
This is why I call the Apostle Paul the first neuroscientist. He understood how the human brain works centuries before brain imaging came about.
In Philippians 4:6-7, he writes, “Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” (italics mine)
Paul is saying not to be anxious, but instead to talk to God about your worries. As you do, thank Him for all the good He is doing and will do in your life. As you put language to your worries, in prayer, the peace of God will guard your mind. In other words, your brain will calm down.
Not until then does Paul write the next verse, “Finally brothers and sisters, whatever is true,…honorable,…just,…pure,…lovely,…commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is anything praiseworthy—dwell on these things” (Philippians 4:8, italics mine).
I believe Paul understood that when we feel anxious and overwhelmed, we have trouble thinking straight. Not until we go to God will our minds be calm enough to “dwell” or “think” in the ways God would have us to.
In a very finite way, our privilege as parents is to help calm our child’s brains, lead them into prayer, and help them to think straight.
What happened the night Landon was crying over the screen was out of the norm. Christi, who was awake by now as well, walked over to his room and lay down with him.
Christi, in a calm voice, simply asked, “Buddy, what questions do you have?”
Lord bless her, she lay with him for the next 30 minutes just talking. Landon asked questions; Christi answered them. Landon talked about his fears; Christi put them into perspective.
When Christi came back to bed she said, “He’s learning about the dangers of the world, but doesn’t know how to process them.”
Her calm voice and listening ear in the middle of the night was a gold medal for our son’s brain. Truth be told, I was ready to just settle for the bronze and lie down and go back to sleep beside him.
2. Remain calm.
Be realistic about the reaction you give and the real danger of the situation. A skinned knee isn’t a disaster; it’s a mark of your kids having fun.
If we’re anxious, our kids don’t know if they can be safe. Anxiety has a trickle down effect on kids. In fact, one research study called What Makes a Good Parent? shows that—only behind love and affection—a parent’s ability to manage his/her own stress is the second best parenting strategy for getting the outcomes we desire most in our kids.
Perhaps that’s why Solomon wrote that, “Patience is better than power, and controlling one’s emotions, than capturing a city” (Proverbs 16:32).
If you struggle with anxiety yourself, you’re not alone. Seeking counsel for yourself could be the best investments you ever make in the life of your kids. Our new children’s book, What Am I Feeling? is a great way to help your kids label their emotions and begin to put Philippians 4 into practice.
Want to see more from Dr. Josh? Check out his other LifeWay Voices posts: