It takes time for us to realize we aren’t made of glass, that shattering isn’t imminent, that God can always bring us through to the other side—no matter what hellish things we experience. Time teaches us. In fact, for any person of faith, time is the only tutor.
But kids don’t have time yet—at least, they have more ahead than behind. Each day holds out threats without the assurance of safety, let alone the promise of strength for having weathered hard things. And so, for kids, fragility comes naturally. They see their smallness in a wild world. A tiny scratch demands a Band Aid. The sidewalk cracks threaten their bicycle tires. Honey bees have daggers attached to their abdomens. The world is big. Children are small. Dangers abound.
As parents, with more time behind than ahead, we go through seasons when we feel confident in God’s sovereign care, maybe even impervious to harm (or at least ignorant of it). But the longer we live, the more quickly we spot this feeling as a momentary illusion. We lose a parent. Our highschool friend dies of spinal cancer at thirty-one. A Yellowstone mudslide wipes out a bridge as if it were built of toothpicks and glue. Health issues crop up like weeds in everyday conversations. The world is uncontrollable. And though we’re more confident in God’s control than we used to be, we’re still small. And dangers abound.
Maybe that’s why nearly 20% of the American population battles an anxiety disorder, including yours truly for the last 16 years.1 I’ve written about my own anxiety war in Struck Down but Not Destroyed. But I’ve also had the joy of being a parent for nearly 9 years, which means I’ve had to take what God has shown me about anxiety and use it to help my own children. I approach them with deep empathy, as one whom the Lord has shattered and put back together many times. Let me offer what I’ve learned so far and then point you to some resources I’ve found helpful along the way.
What I’ve Learned
1. Kids are very perceptive.
While children deal with their own fears and worries, they’re also watching you, taking cues on how they should respond. As parents, we tend to think it’s best to shield our children from our anxiety, and there are times when that’s appropriate. But shielding them and denying the presence of anxiety teaches them to do the same. That’s unhealthy, and it’s unbiblical. The psalmists didn’t bottle things up; they poured everything out. That doesn’t mean you should pour out your soul before your kids each day. But it does mean they should see it’s okay that you deal with fear and anxiety, too, and you do something about it: you turn to your heavenly Father in prayer. You read his word. You walk by faith. You believe. Showing them what to do with anxiety is much healthier than modeling denial.
2. Listening is critical, and so is letting kids feel.
I grew up in a Christian home. My father was a pastor, but that doesn’t mean my emotional life was healthy. My father, God rest his soul, viewed anxiety as a faith problem: “You’re struggling with anxiety because you don’t trust God enough.” I get the sentiment, but I’ve learned that’s a terrible (and, again, unbiblical) response to anxiety. It compounds suffering with guilt. Scripture doesn’t say we shouldn’t feel. It calls us to be brave and courageous (Josh. 1:9) and to not worry (Matt. 6:25–34), but that’s not the same thing. Rather, it tells us what to do amidst the feelings. Heroes are brave not because they don’t feel fear, but because they act in spite of their fear. Feeling anxious is part of living in a broken world, and God weaves those feelings into his providential plan for our spiritual growth. As we mature, our feelings of anxiety may abate, or they may swell. What runs constant is God’s call to trust him and act in the context of our feelings. Simply listening to our kids express their feelings is a great way to ease their burden by assuring them of our non-judgmental presence.
3. Keep showing them how God does great things through hard things.
I love doing this through epic stories. Stories resonate so deeply with children. And all stories have an element of suffering or hopelessness that needs to be met and overcome. C. S. Lewis is a great classic example, and Andrew Peterson is a wonderful contemporary one. Think of Lucy and Susan weeping over Aslan’s slain body in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Think of Eustace lamenting his hideous dragon scales in The Voyage of the Dawntreader. Think of Janner as he slogged through exhaustion in a sultry and sooty child-labor factory, yearning for freedom in the second book of The Wingfeather Saga. Or all three children—Janner, Kalmar, and Leeli—when they’ve been captured by Gnag the Nameless (you’ve gotta’ smile at that title) and give up all hope of seeing the world restored by those who believe in the goodness of the Maker (i.e., God). These stories help children see that great things often come through hard things. And the same is the case with anxiety. It’s a hard battle, crippling at times, but God will do great—not good but great—things through it.
4. Don’t underestimate the importance of counseling.
The church is getting better at appreciating counseling, but it has a long way to go. Mental health, just like physical health, isn’t something we should pay attention to only when something breaks. We need the counsel and wisdom of others who can shepherd us and our children through anxiety, whether anxiety is with us for the short term or the long haul. I’ve seen both, and having a good medical doctor and well-trained counselor is critical.
There are lots of other lessons I could share, but those are enough to get you thinking. And the books below will help, too. I’ve found it encouraging to view anxiety as a tool in the hands of God. Tools are things to be used, things we grasp in order to build something greater. That’s the way it’s been for me, and that’s the way I imagine it’ll be for our kids, and for yours. Anxiety is a tool in the hands of our Good Shepherd. If we’re open to it, he’ll shape us and our children in profound ways. And he’ll do that by walking with us through anxiety, not around it.
Books for Kids
Here are some books to consider for your kids, books we’ve found especially encouraging for various ages.
- Lysa TerKeurst, It Will Be Okay: Trusting God through Fear and Change
- Jonny Gibson, The Moon Is Always Round
- David Powlison, Zoe’s Hiding Place: When You Are Anxious
- Ed Welch, Track: A Student’s Guide to Anxiety
- David Murray, Why Am I Feeling Like This? A Teen’s Guide to Freedom from Anxiety and Depression
Books for Parents
Here are books that may help parents, both those who deal with anxiety themselves and those who want to understand anxiety to help shepherd their children.
- Pierce Taylor Hibbs, Struck Down but Not Destroyed: Living Faithfully with Anxiety; Finding Hope in Hard Things
- Michael R. Emlet, Descriptions and Prescriptions: A Biblical Perspective on Psychiatric Diagnoses and Medications
- Julie Lowe, Helping Your Anxious Child: What To Do When Worries Get Big
- Paul Tautges, Anxiety: Knowing God’s Peace
- Ed Welch, A Small Book for the Anxious Heart: Meditations on Fear, Worry, and Trust
1 “Anxiety Disorders,” National Alliance on Mental Illness, https://www.nami.org/About-Mental-Illness/Mental-Health-Conditions/Anxiety-Disorders.