“MOM, I DON’T WANT YOU TO DIE.” My 10-year-old son touched my arm to get my attention. I had been on the phone with my sister-in-law talking about wills. Not realizing my child overheard our conversation and anxiety crept in.
Turning to him, I said, “I know that’s an incredibly scary thought. And I’m sorry you overheard that conversation. While I can’t promise that could never happen, I want you to know that losing a parent while you’re still a kid is really rare. Although if it did happen, who could help you with it?”
He thought a moment. “God.” “How could He help you?” “He would be there. And, he would listen to me pray. He would know I would be sad.”
Because my son spoke up about something that frightened him, we could begin to address and defuse his fear. Maybe you have questions about your own children and their anxiety or fear. Questions like: Are they overwhelmed by fear, anxiety, or worry?
Find What’s Wrong
Unfortunately, kids don’t always tell us what’s bothering them. Their behavior or body language might give us clues—like fighting, fleeing or freezing up. But it’s often up to parents to figure out how to help kids share and overcome their fears.
And it’s so important that we do. When fears take root, they can evolve into anxiety, depression and even suicidal thoughts. As parents, we long to provide love and support to our child struggling with anxiety. But when one of our children is suffering, we can find ourselves feeling lost without a map to help us navigate the problem.
As a counselor, I direct parents to ways they can help their kids open up and overcome their fears. Here’s how you can move in this direction:
Ask Non-Threatening Questions
When my daughter, then 7, landed a small role in a community performance, she was really excited. But as we drove home together after the first performance, I looked at her face and could tell something was wrong. My guess was that she was disappointed that no one in the audience had come up to her after the show to ask her to sign their program.
I asked, “Is there anything you wished were different tonight?”
She looked at her hands. “No one came up and talked to me after the show.”
First, I let her tell me the problem, even though I had correctly guessed it. I said, “I can see how that would be disappointing because of all the times you’ve gone to shows and have asked actors to sign your program.” At the root of her disappointment was the fear that she was invisible, that no one saw her. That’s a dangerous lie. But I could easily have missed it.
Forcing kids to talk when they aren’t in the right frame of mind rarely gets the right results. But when we ask simple, nonthreatening questions, we can invite them to share.
Create Unhurried Connection
When our children are little, bedtime prayers, stories, Scriptures and snuggles cultivate a peaceful ending to long days. As kids mature, we can be tempted to replace familiar bedtime rituals with a quick hug and kiss good night. But don’t do it.
As kids—especially older kids—wait to fall asleep, their brains keep going. Fears and negative thoughts about themselves, their world and their future can easily surface. So bedtime traditions can be reassuring. Here’s a simple bedtime tradition I practice with my kids. As we snuggle, I ask these questions:
- What’s something great about God?
- Name something you can tell God you’re sorry for that you did wrong today?
- Is there something you can thank Him for that He did for you today?
- What is something you can ask Him for?
Sometimes their answers reveal hidden fears. One night my son answered the last question by saying, “I can ask Him to help me sleep well tonight and not be afraid when you leave.” That was a fear I had no idea existed—and might not have discovered otherwise.
Bedtime isn’t the only time to connect with our kids. A friend told me she often takes her daughter to paint pottery at the mall—especially if her daughter seems troubled about something.
“When we’re painting, there’s no pressure to talk,” my friend explained. “But the fact that there’s no pressure to talk—along with the relaxing distraction that painting provides—makes it pretty easy to slip in and out of conversations about serious or intimate topics.”
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My daughter came the bedroom after I had gone to bed. She couldn’t fall asleep because she was overwhelmed with the amount of school-work she had that week.
Instead of delving deeper into my child’s emotions of anxiety or fear, I asked if I could pray for her. I embraced her and asked God to give her peace, ease her stress, and move on her behalf. When I pray with and for my children, I often remind them that God answers in His own timing and in His own way—and that sometimes His answer may be different from what we had hoped for.
But that night, God answered quickly, and in a way that exceeded our expectations. While we were still praying, a teacher sent out a late-night email postponing a test that had been scheduled for the next day. My daughter and I rejoiced together at God’s speedy answer. Like my daughter, kids are often anxious about areas surrounding their school life.
For some kids, school is a fun place. They feel successful and embraced. For other children, school creates anxiety. Especially after their experiences with online classes, masks and scary news. Here are some conversation starters you can use to help your child open up about school-related fears:
- Is there anything about school you wish was different?
- How are you feeling about school this year? What are you excited about? What are you nervous about?
- Is there someone new in your class that we could invite over this week?
- If you have a problem at school, what could you do? Who could you tell?
- Do you ever think how God is with you, even while you’re at school? How might you act differently at school if you truly believed this?
- What’s a Scripture you could remember to help you feel less nervous about school?
- How can I pray for you while you’re at school?
Changing the Focus
Whether my child’s anxiety stems from school or something else—culture, news, failure, friends—what they feel is real to them. If I sense that one of my children is really worried, we worship God through music. Worshiping God changes our focus from us to Him.
Sometimes we do a simple exercise where we inhale deeply—and imagine we’re “breathing in” the love of God. Then we exhale—and imagine we’re “breathing out” the worries of the world. When my kids were younger, after having them do this with me, I would ask, “Did that feel good?” Once they answered, I’d ask them to do the same exercise five more times on their own. I’d add, “Maybe go outside. Close your eyes. Feel the wind and sun that God has created.”
Sometimes now I’ll see my teenage daughter standing on our back patio, eyes closed, completely still, just breathing, and I know what she’s doing.
How to Respond Well when our Children are Overwhelmed
Even when we invite our kids to talk, they may not be in the mood to tell us what’s bothering them. Especially when our children struggle with anxiety, fear, or worry. So when they do open up, we don’t want to shut them down. In other words, how we respond can make or break the rest of the conversation. Here are some helpful tips to keep your child talking:
- Listen attentively, fully focused on your child. Let him see the love on your face and your genuine interest in his words.
- Encourage eye contact. As your child is sharing, she may look away, which may make it easier for her to talk. That’s fine. But as you respond, encourage her to look at you. When she can see in your eyes that you aren’t upset or disappointed, your response can help break any shame she might be feeling.
- Embolden your child to keep sharing by reflecting what you heard, such as “Can you tell me more about ____” and asking questions.
- Normalize their struggles by sharing stories you’ve heard or things you’ve read, or even by briefly sharing a similar struggle of your own.
- Avoid judgmental facial expressions or comments. You may not always realize what your facial expression is communicating or how your kids are interpreting it. So focus on looking attentive and showing interest.
- Avoid spouting quick fixes. No matter how quickly you may want to react to something, breathe deeply and count to 10, if you must, before you respond. There will be time for a discussion later. For now, force yourself to listen.
Invite God into the Conversation
Getting our children to open up about their anxieties and worries—and responding well so they keep talking—is a great start. Sometimes just the act of airing what is bothering them in a safe environment is enough to cause their fears and worries to dissipate, or at least diminish power over them.
As our kids open up to us, we also have a beautiful opportunity to broaden their perspectives to include God.
Once again, use questions. You’ll remember when I asked my son, “Who could help you?” and he came up with his own wonderful answer: “God.” Questions often engage our children in ways that help them come up with the right answer.
Try questions like these to help kids focus on how good can come out of the challenges they face:
- Can you think of a Bible story in which someone faced a difficult time, but in the end God used it for good?
- Can you remember a time when we prayed, and God answered our prayers?
- What do you think God might be saying to you?
You might be surprised at your children’s answers.