Worry and Anxiety
In Australia 13.6% of children ages 4 to 11 years have a mental illness with anxiety and ADHD being the two most common. Christian adults have a wonderful opportunity to use worry and anxiety to teach children about God.
So here are 8 tips for helping children to manage worry or anxiety. Most of these tips use biblical principles as well as research in psychology for supporting children with anxiety. In my work with anxious children, I often use the word ‘worry’ rather than ‘anxiety’ as this language is easier to understand and also doesn’t unhelpfully heighten the emotion. So you’ll see I use the terms interchangeably throughout the 8 tips.
1. Jesus teaches us we can trust him. Using the International Children’s Bible in Matthew Chapter 6 Jesus says ‘So I tell you, don’t worry about the food you need to live. And don’t worry about the clothes you need for your body. Life is more important than food. And the body is more important than clothes. Look at the birds in the air. They don’t plant or harvest or store food in barns. But your heavenly Father feeds the birds. And you know that you are worth much more than the birds. You cannot add any time to your life by worrying about it.’ Clinical research also points to this truth. Literature in psychology tells us that religious affiliation is related to lower anxiety levels. Religion creates meaning, promotes optimism and can compensate for decreased self-control. This makes sense. As a Christian we have faith in a sovereign and all powerful God. We can trust that God is our heavenly father and that he takes care of us. Therefore, we need to teach children that God tells us not to worry but instead put our trust in him.
2. Expect worry. While Jesus teaches us not to worry, we should not be surprised by feelings of worry. We live in a fallen and sinful world. In the book of Revelation, we learn that there will be a time when there will be no more worry, fear, pain or hurt. When we go to heaven all our worries will be gone. You may have heard of the term helicopter parenting. A significant obstacle for parents today is allowing children to suffer or experience hardship in order to build resilience. Sometimes parents contribute to their children’s anxiety in the long run by trying to protect them from experiencing anxiety in the short term. Christians we should not seek to protect or shield children from every worrying situation or experience. Christians we should not seek to protect or shield children from every worrying situation or experience. In a sinful world we should expect suffering. Therefore, we need to use hardship to teach children how to persevere, manage feelings of anxiety and look forward to the day where there will be no more worries or pain in heaven.
3. Pray and give thanks. Using the International Children’s Bible Philippians Chapter 4 Jesus says ‘Do not worry about anything. But pray and ask God for everything you need. And when you pray, always give thanks.’ In psychology there is substantial research around the benefits of daily gratitude to reduce anxiety. As Christians this is a natural pattern of behaviour as we pray and thank God for how he has abundantly blessed us. But praying and giving thanks must be modelled to children so that it becomes part of the everyday experience. For example, if a child expresses worry about an upcoming event like a school concert or competition, stop and pray aloud asking God for help and then thank God that he is always in control. As children get older and mature in their faith, encourage them to pray whenever they are worried. If you are anxious and your child is present, pray aloud for God’s comfort and strength and model that you are also depending on God for all you need.
4. Tip the seesaw with biblical truths. For every worrying thought, help children think about something they can thank or praise God for. An anxious child is in constant mental flux. Therefore, it is important for adults to prompt their thoughts towards concrete and positive truths. For example, if a child is worried because of an upset with a friend, firstly acknowledge their worry and then encourage them to tip the seesaw with biblical truths. For example ‘I can see that you’re worried about your friend at preschool. Remember God loves you all the time and you have lots of friends at church who love you for who you are’. A powerful way to tip the seesaw for an anxious child is to use evidence from the past. Remind them of a time they were worried but in the end had a good time or overcome the worry. For example if your child is worried about something new at school, acknowledge the worry, use evidence from the past and then tip the seesaw with biblical truths. For example ‘I can see you are worried about learning how to give a speech in front of the class. Remember when you first said the memory verse in front of the group at church, you were nervous but it went well. Don’t forget that God created you uniquely just as you are, he made you with lots of special gifts’.
5. Renew your mind: It is clinically proven that our brains are constantly changing and evolving. Neuroplasticity is the ability of our brain to form and reorganise synaptic connections, in response to stimuli. Our brains are pattern seeking devices. So key to managing anxiety in children is looking at unhelpful patterns of worry and how this can be rewired. Children can forge new patterns of thought and behaviour. It can be helpful for children to identify triggers for anxiety or patterns of internal dialogue and to then re-establish positive patterns. For example a child might be anxious about a recurring event such as school drop off, sports game, lessons with a specific teacher or going to a sleep over. This anxiety can be managed by establishing a new pattern of action or thought, such as drop off with a different parent, prayer in the car, listening to Christian music on route and repeating a positive message about the situation. Forming new habits of positive actions and thoughts is a long term process and initially very challenging. Over time due to neuroplasticity, a new partner of behaviour can become the well established path. This the beauty of how God has made us is that our minds can be rewired and renewed. What is more, we have the Holy Spirit dwelling in us as our helper.
6. Be a role model. Children look to adults to moderate their behaviour. Research on mirror neurons has shown us that children will reflect or mirror anxiety displayed by adults. Therefore, as the child dials up the anxiety, the adult needs to dial down. Anxiety is highly contagious. Consider how you respond when you are feeling worried or anxious. Is your first instinct to turn to God and trust Him in prayer? Or do you ruminate and allow your internal dialogue to become negative. As adults we need to focus on reflecting positive mirror neurons to children. However, your anxiety or another mental illness is becoming too overwhelming, it is crucial to seek out professional help and support. It can be very difficult to moderate the anxiety of children if you as the adult are also struggling with anxiety.
7. Focus on hope. We need to remind children daily that we have a great hope in our salvation. This hope is described in Hebrews as sure and steadfast. This is because our hope is not based on what we do but on what God has already done, in sending Jesus to die for our sins. In psychology hope is deemed a helpful strategy to assist with managing anxiety. Hope theory is often associated with goal setting, will power and patterns of positive thought. But as Christians, our hope surpasses earthly worries and is not dependent on what we do. We need to explicitly teach children about biblical hope. They need to know that their hope in Jesus is strong, constant and solid. Hope in Jesus doesn’t change and doesn’t depend on us. Focusing on hope in Jesus is a great encouragement to an anxious child.
8. Grow in Christ’s Likeness. Overcoming worries and anxieties necessitates a growth mindset. Parents and children alike must exercise determination, resilience and persistence. Real growth takes place when children push through anxiety to overcome personal challenges. Growth and learning involves struggle. This process of struggle and growth is consistent with the Christian life. Jesus himself faced moments of worry and anxiety when things were hard and he called out to God in faith. The process of becoming more like Jesus is a journey and requires the work of the Holy Spirit. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians that over time we are being transformed into the image of Christ. Therefore, be patient with children as they learn to give their worries to God. But encourage a growth mindset, tell children that they have God’s spirit and that gives them power to trust him even when they feel worried or anxious.
Further Reading and Recommended Resources:
- When The Noise Won’t Stop – Paul Grimmond
- Will I Always Be Happy? Episode 73 – Faith In Kids Podcast
- A Mind Of Their Own – Katherine Hill
- Helping Your Anxious Child – Rapee, Wignall, Spence, Lyneham and Cobham