Here are four things you can do to help your child when they are dealing with anxious feelings.
On a recent vacation, my family and I visited Bishop’s Castle in Colorado. To get to the castle, we had to drive over Independence Pass in the heart of the Rocky Mountains. The steep heights that one has to cross for these attractions would trigger anxious feelings for almost anyone. If you are afraid of heights, Independence Pass and Bishop’s Castle will create a flurry of anxious feelings in your mind, just as they did mine.
My kids were unfazed by the heights and were excited to explore. However, each of them has anxious thoughts of their own that pop up under different circumstances. Anxious feelings are something that all kids must learn to navigate. There are four fundamental things to know about anxious feelings:
- Anxious feelings rely on how we interpret reality.
- They occur automatically and unexpectedly.
- Experiences, biology, perceptions, and overall personality can influence anxious feelings.
- As kids mature and get older, the brain will either adapt and learn to manage anxious feelings or become more controlled (possibly imprisoned) by those anxious feelings.
A Healthy Response
Anxious feelings are normal. They can be helpful and provide valuable signals for dangerous situations. When people feel unsafe, anxious thoughts respond to what they see and interpret, which is a healthy response for survival.
Although feelings provide important input for thoughts and decisions, they usually don’t deliver enough information to produce an appropriate response. To contribute to a healthy response that matches the situation, we each need to interpret our experiences and thoughts appropriately. We must teach our children to have healthy reactions and responses to their anxious thoughts to keep them from being overcome by anxiety.
For example, if a child is very anxious about being rejected, they are likely expecting rejection and are hypersensitive to it. She will probably attribute any rejection to a personal issue (for example, I’m not attractive enough, good enough, smart enough, etc.), resulting in anxious feelings when she is with other people. Of course, rejection often has little to do with one’s personal qualities or traits.
The Difference Between Anxious Feelings and Anxiety
What is the difference between anxious feelings and anxiety? Anxiety is a constant state of overwhelming fear that will not go away. Anxious feelings are feelings that come and go as circumstances change or as a person effectively manages the feelings. Anxiety causes anxious feelings, but anxiety prevents a person from functioning until they briefly quiet down.
4 Ways to Handle Anxious Feelings in Children
Fortunately, there are tools you can use to help your child deal with anxious feelings. Here are four things you can do to help your child when they are feeling anxious.
1. Normalize These Feelings
Normalize the fact that everyone has anxious feelings sometimes. Anxious feelings create important signals that can help keep us safe. They don’t mean that your child is weak. Help your child learn that anxious feelings are necessary, temporary, and used for their benefit. Let them know they are not alone when they experience these feelings and that everyone has them.
God tells us not to be anxious. Paul provides some great tools in Philippians 4 on where to point our thoughts so that we can find peace. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-Nego must have experienced powerful and overwhelming feelings of anxiety during moments of adversity (Daniel 1-6).
The Book of Daniel is filled with intensely difficult moments that Daniel and others faced as young men. The anxious feelings they must have felt are entirely normal, but by trusting God, they were able to overcome them. We must teach our kids how to overcome these normal feelings they too will experience.
2. Discovering Our Kids’ Thought Bubbles
Thoughts and feelings dance together. Anxious feelings can pop up like thought bubbles and begin to create thought patterns in our children. For example, some kids are afraid of the dark. However, darkness doesn’t necessarily mean danger. Find out what is happening in their minds and thought bubbles, and help your children learn how to bring truth to their thoughts.
In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul talks about taking our thoughts captive. I often imagine taking my thoughts through a military guard gate or a security screening at the airport. Some ideas need a second look to overlay them with truth and provide direction guided by the Holy Spirit.
Prayer helps align our mind with the mind of Christ and find peace in our thoughts as we learn to trust the Holy Spirit. As you read Bible stories with your kids, ponder as a family the thought bubbles with which each character may have been wrestling. Examining how they might have felt can open up great conversations about the impact of one’s worldview on our thought bubbles.
3. Responding to Anxious Feelings
Teach your children how to respond to anxious feelings. They need to know anxious feelings are indicators of possible danger but not directions on their behavior. Help them learn to understand and question these signals to know whether to be genuinely concerned or if they are misinterpreting things.
Take some time to read the stories of these biblical people with your kids:
Discuss how each of these people became aware of their anxious feelings and managed them. Each person listed above was strengthened through the process of trusting in God’s strength, guidance, provision, and love.
4. Knowing and Communicating Limits
Kids should not be forced to satisfy competing anxious feelings. For instance, some kids may be afraid of heights but may also be concerned about looking weak when their friends climb higher than they feel comfortable climbing.
Kids can learn to stretch their boundaries in healthy ways and develop limits based on freedom — freedom from needing to impress or gain acceptance, as well as freedom from avoiding everything that sparks anxious feelings. Doing this can be a lifelong journey. However, it’s an exciting way to bring about maturity and growth.
Anxious feelings often cause us to avoid people and things. Discuss 2 Corinthians 12:9-11 with your children. In this case, Paul talks about how God strengthens us to face difficulties. God strengthens us as we become aware of and acknowledge our limitations and weaknesses and give those weaknesses to Him. Also, knowing and admitting weakness invites humility into our character, which invites connectedness with others and peace of mind.
For example, David felt confident enough to tell Saul he did not need his armor to face Goliath. David could have taken the armor to make Saul happy, but instead, he chose to go to battle without it. Despite the mocking and doubt from others, David stepped toward Goliath, relying on what he knew and not trying to take on armor he was unfamiliar with. Like David, our kids need to know their limits and how to communicate them effectively with others.
7 Traits of Effective Parenting
The 7 Traits of Effective Parenting can give you the necessary tools to help your child navigate anxious feelings. If consistently and patiently implemented, these can help you and your family learn to see anxious feelings as a part of life, not something that has to rule them.
The difficulty to this growth requires risk and following the lead of the Holy Spirit. Fear can quickly and persistently hold us back, but God tells us not to be afraid. God does not want us to lose sight of the fact that He will give us what we need to discover and live out our identity as contributors in His kingdom.
To learn about the 7 Traits and find parenting tips and resources on managing anxious feelings in your child, begin by visiting www.focusonthefamily.com/7traits to take the free assessment.
© 2021 by Focus on the Family. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.
DANNY HUERTA, PSYD, MSW, LCSW, LSSW