When children are anxious

Many children in the UK are anxious. This is not surprising. We live in a broken world which leaves all of us feeling vulnerable and uncertain of the future, especially in our current situation. The strangeness of lockdown and social distancing, and (for older children) the constant news updates about coronavirus cases, deaths, and possible outcomes, all mean we need to help our children navigate their fears of what might happen.

We cannot promise our children that they will not lose loved ones, nor be directly affected by coronavirus. No-one’s life is normal at present. So much of what was familiar is now shifting, uncertain and changeable. It’s important that we don’t dismiss credible fears. Bad things do happen, hard things are real, and life doesn’t always turn out the way we hope it will. Our world is confusing, and currently even more so.

Our children will respond in different ways. So we need to understand how they are thinking and feeling, what is important to them and what concerns them. And we need to have confidence that in the midst of this situation, the Lord will be shaping our children and calling them to grow in him.

Nurturing growth:

  • Comfort them in ways that embody Christ and points to his comfort (2 Cor 1:3-6). He is the one who always goes with them and is available, even when we are not. The gospel not only promises an end to all suffering and wrong, it also enables Christ to meet them in their sufferings and forgive their wrongs. We want to present God as so much more appealing, and the gospel as the most beautiful story ever, so that we enlarge our children’s desires for God.
  • Help children to capture their thoughts and make them obedient to Christ (2 Cor 10:5). In the midst of their anxious thoughts, point them to what is important and valuable, and show them where hope and comfort are found. We want to discourage children from relying on themselves and trying to control the uncertainty. Instead, help them to see that trusting God is about shifting the responsibility for uncertain/scary outcomes onto him. The more a child recognises and practices this kind of dependence on the Lord, the more confidently they can walk through uncertainty with hope.
  • Teach them to pray, and ask them questions that help them think about praying. Why do they pray? Does prayer get answered? Prayer is entering into a conversation with God and gives comfort because of who we are praying to, not because we get particular answers. Does God take away our fear, or does he meet us in our fear?
  • Know that there are places inside a child’s head and heart that we cannot go. These are places only God can reach (1 Chron 28:9). Christ pours out the Spirit, and this is a wonderful truth for our children to grow in their understanding of. He doesn’t always change their circumstances, but he is with our children in the midst of their situations. We are not the ultimate answer, and neither is a change in their circumstances. Instead, Christ, who knows them intimately, promises that he will equip them with everything they need in the midst of any struggle to grow in ways that please him (Heb 13:21).
  • Remember that their hearts and minds exist within a body. Structure, reasonable goals, play, rest, sleep and eating well are all important. Putting these things in place, amidst the shifting sands, reinstates some normality for them.

Practical steps:

  • When teaching children how to pray, help them to write/journal their thoughts, or draw them. It slows down their thinking and helps them to see more clearly what they are anxious about. Use this to help you think about how to respond to their concerns with Scripture. The command ‘do not be anxious’ in its various forms is always linked to an assurance of God’s presence, a description of his character or his promises (e.g. Phil 4:5-6). Help children to see that while there are real reasons to be fearful, there are better reasons to trust God and not be afraid.
  • Use visual reminders. Psalm 23 provides a wonderful picture of how God, our Shepherd, puts our hearts at ease. Psalm 24 invites God to be the King in our lives. These and other Psalms are great to read through, and to draw.
  • Read books that explore these themes. For example, The Hiding Place – the story of Corrie ten Boom, the concentration camp survivor. As a young girl, Corrie’s father explained that some things in life were really hard to understand. Like packed suitcases, they were too heavy for her to carry. But he could carry them, and so protect her from bearing their weight. This lesson helped her in later years, when life became extremely hard and uncertain. She knew that her almighty and perfect heavenly Father was able to carry these things for her.
  • Give children examples of people in Scripture who are overcome by fear (e.g. Jonah, Peter) and examples of those who overcame their fears (e.g. Abraham, Joseph).
  • Wisdom seeks advice – so phone other parents in your church, and in the current crisis make use of practical suggestions from trusted websites (e.g. UK Government; The Gospel Coalition)

Finally, be encouraged.  We can commit to wisely helping children to grow through hard things, rather than avoid them – because we have a God who goes with us and equips us with courage and wisdom to live, love and parent in this way.