I’ll be the first to admit that helping my kids when they are feeling anxious is not my strong suit. In fact I think I am a pretty poor example of what to do, that does however give me a place to start because I just have to think of the many ways that I add to my kids’ anxiety to see how doing the opposite might actually help them.
First, don’t ignore, dismiss, downplay, or (heaven forbid) mock their emotions. Quite frankly, I was afraid of the dark well into my teens (WEEEEELLLLL into my teens!), so for me to tell my kids to suck it up when their nightlight is burned out is pretty selfish. Our kids need to know that their fears at the very least feel real to them in that situation. When they are feeling overwhelmed we need to meet them in that state and help them find their way back to peace. A time of day that produces a lot of anxiety in our home is bedtime, particularly when it is difficult to fall asleep. I can relate. How many times have you lain awake knowing that the next day is going to bite the big one because you are going to be so tired. As an adult I’ve learned a couple of tricks to help me cope. First I pray. I often fall asleep praying anyways so this is my go-to strategy. Barring the success of plan A, I remind myself that I am an adult and if I need to take a power nap in the afternoon because of poor sleep, I can do that. Then I remind myself that a quiet house is a rare occurrence and one that I can actually enjoy! So I try to the enjoy my quiet alone time.
The thing is I’m 35. I have built these strategies into my life so that I know how to deal with a sleepless night, my kids don’t have those tools and I need to help them find a way to relax. So I remind them that chances are good that they can have a nap the next day if they are just exhausted. But what if it’s a school night! Well, I’m going to let you in on a little secret, letting a child sleep in to the point of missing the first few classes of the day isn’t likely going to result in their expulsion nor failure in school. Give your kid some hope! Tell them to turn their alarm clock off and to sleep in the next day. Did you know that just making that an option can often alleviate the anxiety?
Second, don’t try to rationalize with them. Without getting into it, did you know that reasoning with a child who is overwhelmed, aka freaking out, is actually physiologically impossible? It has to do with the fact that when people are overwhelmed parts of their brain fires on all cylinders and literally shuts off the parts that are logical. So to say to a child, “You are safe, don’t you know that Jesus is bigger than the impossible feeling you are experiencing at this moment?” is NOT going to register. Our job as parents is to help our kids to return to a state of calm from overwhelm and then to help them figure out what is going on! It is when they are calm that you should strategize about ways to deal with stress (this will not take place at 11:45pm). I would suggest that following an episode of anxiety it would be very good to sit down afterwards and talk about what triggered it and what you might help them do the next time they are feeling that way. Write down 5 or 6 different options they can try next time and keep the list handy.
My wife tells me, that when she has had to ward off anxiety, one thing that can actually help that feels somewhat counter-intuitive is to talk about the worst case scenario and then back up from there to the present situation. This might work for your child, but only when they are at a level where some rationality has been reached.
And how do you get a child to calm down when they are feeling overwhelmed and anxious? First you hold them. Touch is powerful and particularly holding them tightly can help them to feel secure (just like swaddling an infant soothes them). Next turn on the lights if it’s dark. Turn off the TV if the noise is too much. Get them a cool drink or better yet a glass of juice to help their blood sugar levels. And then sit with them. Smile at them, rub their back, sing softly, play worship music. Hit them with love in all their senses! Then take steps to help them to avoid being triggered again right away. That’s where reading a book or even watching a bit of TV can help them to just get out of the crazy space in their heads.
Finally remember, anxiety breeds anxiety. I know that’s a hard truth because if you are an anxious parent chances are very good that just knowing your anxiety is affecting your children will make you feel even more anxious, but the fact remains. Just remember that this isn’t a death sentence, it just means that Jesus and you have some more ground to cover. It also means that very likely the best gift you could give an anxious child is to deal with your own anxiety. How do you do that? Well you talk to your cell leader and have him or her pray for you (maybe even the whole group). Maybe call a pastor at church or make a personal ministry appointment to do some intentional praying. To start however you go to Jesus. Ask Him to meet you in your anxiety. Ask Him where the root of the problem is and ask Him to speak His Truth to your heart. I promise that if you consistently pursue Jesus, regardless of the minuscule incremental progress you feel you are making, in the long run, He will carry you through the trials of anxiety. He has a good plan for you.
Of course, that means He has a great plan for your child as well. And we need to talk about this plan to our kids often. Then we need to talk about God’s amazing plan to other people in front of our kids and even when our kids don’t appear to be listening. Faith filled speech creates a faith-filled atmosphere in your home and that is the antidote for anxiety – or at least a piece of the puzzle. I’m not talking about ridiculous “word and faith” nonsense, I’m simply saying that when we talk about the amazing promises God has given us through His Word, and the incredible fingerprint of God on our lives, we will invariably feel faith rise up within us and that is a very, very healthy thing for you and your kids!