Parenting fearful children

Children are unusually prone to fear. From fear of the dark to night terrors; from separation anxiety to monsters under the bed, our children fear many things.

And this has been an unusually fearful year. Children have watched their parents don masks to guard against an invisible threat; open doors with elbows and wash hands over and over again. They have seen people giving others a wide berth and recoiling when someone gets too close.

Now at one level, our children’s fearfulness makes sense. Being small is scary. When almost everything is bigger than you a little apprehension seems wise. But what if things are not quite as they seem? What if some childhood fear is driven not by feeling too small, but by feeling too big?

The peril of being too big
Let me explain. One of the Bible’s descriptions of sin is as a desire to take God’s place (Genesis 3:5) and such presumption is not just terribly wrong, but also terribly frightening. It is a scary thing assuming final responsibility when we aren’t actually in control; scary expecting perfect decisions when we aren’t all knowing; scary organising the future when we can’t even see what tomorrow will bring. In sinful presumption we over-reach and that gives us all sorts of reasons to be afraid.

Children, being sinful from birth (Psalm 51:5), are also caught up in this. But, being little, are even less capable of filling the job description than we are. It’s not just that they are unable to be God, they aren’t even ready to be grown up. Yet sometimes we grown-ups collude with our children and reinforce their exaggerated view of themselves.

When our children express their fears, when they worry whether things are safe and ask all those “why” and “how” questions about risk and safety, the necessary response may seem obvious. Surely we should provide the information they seek – explain the relative risks; advise over proper precautions and answer every question as fully as we can. Shouldn’t we?

The peril of exhaustive answers
But what if, rather than allaying fear, that response might actually foster it? What if answering every question and engaging with every discussion only reinforces their exaggerated view of themselves and leaves them believing they really can know everything and can choose perfectly and can control totally? Might answering every question end up deepening their terror because it attributes to them far more capacity than their cognitive and emotional development really allows. Is it possible, then, that instead of responding to our children’s questions with exhaustive answers, and engaging their junior logic with extended debate, we might do better simply to remind them who is who.

“Because I said so” can most certainly be used harshly and unkindly, but if we can find ways to express such sentiments in warm and tender tones, they will reassure. They can, indeed, serve to remind our children that they are small and we are big. And there is very great comfort for over-reaching egos in that.

Three lessons from Job
The experience of Job is helpful here. For while Job’s problem was not, in the first instance, fear, he certainly over-reached. His suffering led him to ask a great many questions, many of them addressed (with no little forcefulness) in God’s direction. As we see how God responded, three lessons emerge.

1) God listens
It would be a much shorter book if we jumped straight from Job’s opening complaint in chapter 3 to God’s responses in chapter 38. (Sadly, many books and sermons treat Job just this way). But, as becomes clear, God not only listens to Job but speaks of his words with approval (Job 42:7-8). Which means that, while there is much Job never knows, he does know that he has been heard. We should listen to our children and hear their fears.

2) Job is humbled
The barrage of questions which begin in chapter 38 leave Job speechless. “Where were you when you when I laid the earth’s foundation?” (38:4); “Do you know the laws of the heavens? Can you set up God’s dominion over the earth?” (38:33). It even seems as if God engages in a little sarcasm to drive his point home: “What is the way to the abode of light?… Surely you know, for you were already born! You have lived so many years!” (38:19-21).

God knows that it is not good for Job to claim a place for which he was not designed. God loves him by this humbling; by forcing him to see that he is finite and to stop pretending he is someone that he is not. And in this comes unexpected relief. Job no longer needs answers to all his questions for Job stops pretending he is God. With gentle love we also may need to help our children stop pretending they are bigger and more capable than they really are.

3) God asserts his authority
Implicit in this long concluding interrogation is the recognition that, even though Job may not know the answers to God’s questions, God does. From the glory of heaven, God sees, God knows and God rules. Job, finally, acknowledges this: “I know that you can do all things; no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” (42:1). And in this realisation Job finds relief. His questions remain unanswered, his losses and suffering remain and (unlike us, the reader) Job never discovers the real reason behind all that he endured. But he still finds a proper kind of peace.

Job’s vision of God is restored. The God he sees is big once again and he himself is small. And in this he finds a comfort and security that simply was not possible when he overreached. Our children need something similar. They need to know God is big. Big enough to be trusted. They also need to know that we are big and that we can be trusted (which gives us lots else to work on).

But we, too, are prone to the same mistake. We quite like pretending to be God, too! So, as we seek to honour God and bless our children by elevating him in their eyes, we can find the same blessing by elevating him in our own eyes, too.

Questions for reflection

  • Are you aware of this kind of “over-reach” in your own life?
  • If you see in yourself a tendency to always answer every one of your children’s questions, what do you think might be driving this?
  • In what areas do you particularly need the comfort that comes from being humbled?


This article was first published on the Biblical Counseling Coalition blog.