My heart melted with mom love as I watched my daughter, Brittainy, on the playground in her first-day-of-school plaid skirt and matching hair bow. She was standing next to her first-grade teacher, fidgeting and chewing on her fist, her customary signal that all was not well.
We'd had a rocky start that morning, beginning with her words, "I don't want to go, Mom. I don't know anybody."
I could relate. Our family had recently moved across the country, and this was day one for both of us. I was just beginning as the assistant principal at her school. From my tiny corner office with a window that overlooked the playground, I watched Brittainy's face contort nervously as she shifted from foot to foot.
That night, I asked her about her day. Did she like her teacher? Had she learned any of her classmates' names? Did anyone else have her same yellow Curious George lunchbox?
Brittainy answered my questions, and then it was her turn to ask me a question: "Do I have to go back tomorrow?"
As parents, we want our children to face their fears head on and with confidence. We want them to try new things. And if they fail, we want them to have the courage and resilience to try again, this time with wisdom gained from the experience. It hurts our hearts just as much as it does theirs when we see them shrink back and give fear the upper hand. So how can we help our children face and overcome their fears?
With Brittainy, I knew I was not only facing the immediate task of helping her acclimate to a new school, but I was also helping her with the bigger picture: developing her unique sense of bravery when she faced scary situations. It would require more than my words of encouragement; it called for a parenting strategy.
Brittainy's question reminded me that she was experiencing normal new-school jitters. New beginnings are difficult, and she was facing lots of them, all at the same time. A new house in a new neighborhood, a new church, a new set of friends and a new teacher were a lot for a 6-year-old to handle.
She wasn't the only first-grade student I'd seen that day battling the fear of a new experience, away from Mom and Dad and surrounded by a sea of strangers. But this was personal. This was my child. And I wanted to do anything and everything to take that fear away.
It didn't help my anguish when Brittainy put words to what she was feeling: "I don't want to go to that school. It's scary and makes my tummy hurt."
I warned myself not to overreact. I needed to keep my voice calm and gentle and let her know I understood. But I also needed to let her know that of course she would have to go back to school the next day, and for many days to come.
It's a wise parent who realizes not only that our children watch us and repeat our words, but they also take their cues about how to react to life from us. If we overreact, we send messages of worry that can enable our children's fear.
Facing fears is a normal and healthy part of life. If my reaction to Brittainy's situation is not appropriate, then I may hinder her from an important part of growing up and maturing. So I try to remember that the best help for my child is for me to be sensitive to her feelings but remain calm.
Help your child own the fear
Brittainy's fears weren't reserved for new experiences. As do many children, she had fears that also surfaced at bedtime. She found the darkness scary and always wanted to sleep with a light on.
I dealt with this myself as a child and always wanted one of my parents to stay with me until I fell asleep. My mom would sit on the edge of my bed for a few minutes, but she wisely used this time to help me put words to my fear, and she encouraged me to say it out loud: "I don't like the dark; it's scary."
I decided to try this with Brittainy. As we sat together in the dark, I encouraged her to put words to her fear and say it loudly, as if she were telling the darkness itself how it made her feel. When we state what we're afraid of, it helps us realize that what we fear may not be as scary as we thought it was.
Also a biblical principle is at play here. God wants us to be honest with Him about what scares us, and He reassures us that He understands and is ready to help. In Isaiah 41:13, He tells us, "For I, the LORD your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Fear not, I am the one who helps you.' "
We tend to focus on the part that says "fear not" and skim over the part where God assures us that He will hold our hand. Perhaps Satan, in his conniving way, doesn't want us to grasp this. He prefers to keep us ashamed or quiet about our fear.
I didn't want Brittainy to be ashamed that she found the dark scary. I shared with her that I had been afraid of the dark, too, as a child and that it had helped me to say that out loud.
I sat with her on her bed as she said, "This dark room is scary, and I wish I could see better."
Since that strategy helped her handle her fear of the dark, I decided to try it with her fear of a new school.
"Why is your new school scary?" I asked.
That question opened the door for her to put her feelings into words. "I don't have anyone to play with at recess, and I don't know where the bathroom is," she told me.
That was the first step for her to realize why she felt as she did. It allowed her, in this case, to identify tangible problems that eventually could be solved with practical solutions. I then shared that I knew exactly how she felt. I put words to my own fears about my new position and working with a new team of teachers, and it helped us both see that we could face our fears head on. Over time as we continued to practice voicing our worries, Brittainy was able to say that she did have several girls to play with, and she was able to show another new girl where the restroom was.
Help your child identify courage
Eventually friends invited Brittainy to sleepovers, but she felt anxiety over the thought of being away from home. Another strategy I found helpful with Brittainy was to encourage her to remember the times she had faced something scary.
I told her, "Remember when you stayed all night at Aunt Marla's house and slept in the big bed all by yourself? You were scared at first, but then you really had fun." Hearing this example allowed her to see that she had faced her fears before and that she did have the ability to be brave.
We came up with a phrase that she could repeat to herself when she was away from home: I've done this before, and I can do it again.
Years later Brittainy confessed that she used this same strategy — reminding herself of her successes over fear — in other situations. As a young adult she had the opportunity to be an intern at a school that was hours from home. She didn't know anyone there. Thinking back to her scary first days of first grade, she was able to remind herself of how terrified she was, but how the year turned out to be one of her favorites. She ended up loving her teacher and forming lifelong friendships. That experience helped her realize that she could be brave and face this new challenge, as well.
Help your child ask for help
Though Brittainy faced her fears of new surroundings and new friends, she still struggled with anxiety. When she was in middle school, she and I went to a movie together. Halfway through, she left her seat. I thought she had just gone to the restroom. After 10 minutes, I became concerned. I found her lying on a bench in the lobby with her hand over her chest. She thought she was having a heart attack.
At the emergency room, we found the problem wasn't her heart. She had had an anxiety attack. In answer to the doctor's questions, Brittainy explained that she had experienced several of these before but had told no one. By keeping the attacks to herself, she had felt overwhelmed and powerless to fight back.
The doctor explained that it was common not to understand what anxiety attacks were and how they could feel like heart attacks. He reassured us that they weren't fatal (even though they might feel that way) and that help was available through counselors and even medication, if needed. Instead of feeling relieved, I was stunned that my child needed outside help.
Brittainy was able to meet with a fantastic doctor who helped her recognize when an anxiety attack was coming and what she could do. She grew tremendously through this experience and today is able to talk to other young women and girls who suffer from anxiety. God used this to build compassion, courage and resilience into her life.
We both learned that it's important to know when to ask for help and that asking for help is not a reason to feel ashamed. God places people in our lives to help us get through difficult times. Sometimes those people are professional counselors and doctors who can help us take our next step.
Above all, kids need to be reminded that they don't have to face their fears alone. Even when we or other professionals can't be there with them, God is. We can encourage our children to admit their fear to God and trust Him, no matter how they feel in the moment. He is always ready to help and to supply the courage they need. Sometimes He may do the miraculous and remove the fear. Other times, He will be with our children as they learn to face their fear. Regardless, He will walk with our kids through whatever fears, real or imagined, that they face. And that is our comfort as parents.
Sherry Surratt is the president and CEO of MOPS International and the author of Brave Mom.