On Sunday morning I had the chance to teach in Kidzland 2-4 during the first service. I love those kids! They are typical, high-energy, fun-loving, leader-challenging boys and girls; and then there are the ones who aren’t. Every week there will be a handful of kids, who are lovely and good, but who are afraid of being in Kidzland. There are all sorts of reasons why. Sometimes they just develop fear of being alone, or being away from their parents, or of other adult leaders, or other children, but often these fears can appear out of what seems like thin air. Ask them why they are afraid, and they don’t know. I always choose to believe a kid when they say they don’t know why they are afraid, it helps them to trust me. Even if a child does know what they are afraid of, many of them actually don’t!
But God knows. Cliche? Yes, of course it is. True? Absolutely.
There are all sorts of spiritual reasons why a child might be afraid. I have seen kids come to rely on “spiritual warfare prayers” in a way that is unhealthy. I’ve met kids who come from very difficult homes where there is actual spiritual oppression. And I have seen kids who are so emotionally wounded that the devil can play havoc in their little hearts. In these cases prayer is going to be especially critical, and listening prayer will be essential. Ephesians 6 tells us that we are at war with spiritual powers and 1 Corinthians 10:4 tells us that a spiritual war requires spiritual weapons. In cases of spiritual oppression parents have the most authority in their home, so we can pray even without our children knowing and have tremendous influence over the spiritual climate.
That being said, there are also a host of physical, biological, experiential, relational and emotional reasons that anxiety might suddenly develop. For example a child might learn that to get attention he or she needs to be needy. I think this was one of the lies I believed as a child. For some reason I felt that to get the care I desired I needed to be sick – so I was often sick. In fact in grade four I missed 36 days of school with headaches. Now I don’t remember faking being sick, I was actually sick, but there was a lot more going on than just a physical illness, there was a deep emotional need that I wasn’t dealing with well. In this case if my parents had only gone the spiritual route doing spiritual warfare through the house I wouldn’t have likely gotten better. Of course you had better believe there was a ton of prayer going on, but they knew that the root of it was emotional.
It’s important to point out that it isn’t helpful to separate the spiritual and the natural – we need to employ both at all times – and every family will naturally navigate from one extreme to another. But God has built our brains and our brains rule our lives. So, while I believe the spiritual is incredibly important let me give some suggestions to help deal with the physical side of anxiety.
First it is important to understand the difference between “upstairs” and “downstairs” “anxiety.” The brain is often spoken of as having two halves, the right hemisphere which is largely non-verbal, creative, emotive and expressive, and the left hemisphere which is more linear, informational, concrete and logical, but there is also an “upstairs” and a “downstairs” in every brain. When the upstairs is engaged in chances are very good that you have a manipulative kid on your hands. But when the downstairs is activated, there is a primal reaction going on. When this happens no amount of talking is going to work because all that thinking through things happens upstairs… downstairs is fight or flight. This is important to understand because if you are dealing with a kid who is being ruled by the downstairs brain we are going to have to calm our kid down before talking. And getting mad or frustrated? Well that REALLY isn’t going to work. Of course if you’re dealing with a manipulative child I’ll let you decide on which disciplinary tactic will be most effective – that’s an entirely different thing.
It is because of the nature of the downstairs brain that leads to believe any child who doesn’t know why they are feeling the way they are! On the other hand sometimes kids can come up with bizarre explanations of why they feel the way they do. This also makes sense because our brains will often try to fill in the “narrative” of what is going on when it doesn’t have the information or context.
Next remember that anxious kids need comforting. They aren’t being rebellious they are anxious! And to address the downstairs brain you are going to have to talk downstairs brain language… which isn’t talking… it is gentle touch, loving eyes, and kind understanding words. Part of the words that might help are narrative words. What I mean is words that help our kids express what is going on in their world. “I can see you feel afraid – are you afraid?”
You might want to default to putting your foot down and tough love – but if what is going on is downstairs anxiety – you aren’t going to actually help your precious child. There isn’t really an easy out on this one and the reality is that anxiety is on the rise, so take your child’s fear as an opportunity from God to build long-lasting tools into their lives!