“Mommy, I can’t sleep. Can I come and snuggle in your bed?” Anyone experiencing this question these days? Are your children experiencing bad dreams? eating disorders? emotional outbursts? lack of attention to homework or even play? negative thoughts? nail biting, hair pulling, repeatedly running to the bathroom? School has not even begun again yet, but signs and symptoms of anxiety in children may be insidiously creeping into your child’s life and the life of your family.
There is no question that we love our children and want to do everything we can to protect them in this uncertain, anxious time of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is natural for us, as parents and grandparents, to default to protection mode. Older and wiser, yet also facing anxiety in these uncertain times, we may try to protect our children by attempting to solve their problems and distresses for them, reduce or avoid the worries that trigger anxiety in them, or even try to organize and engineer their lives to block worry.
The reality of 2020 (and frankly the reality of life since Adam and Eve’s fall into sin) is that we cannot remove anxiety from our children’s plate. However, we can help our children learn creative, adaptive, and collaborative ways to digest it; to learn how to deal with anxiety. These creative, adaptive, and collaborative efforts to help our children come not from within ourselves but through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and with the faith community God has gifted to us. However, it is critical that we (with the Holy Spirit working within us) assure our children of the spiritual anchor for addressing change and anxiety—their faith in Jesus.
Here are some practical suggestions, based in God’s Word, to help us parent anxious children:
- Keep them anchored in God’s Word and promises. Help little children learn the Bible stories of our faith—this is the vocabulary and language of their faith journey. Encourage older elementary children to explore the logic of their faith; work directly through their spiritual, emotional, and behavioral questions, using faith-community resources such as pastors, DCEs, Christian educators, confirmation class, and the Catechism. Allow and encourage teens to discuss the application of their faith in daily life, in all of the external influences that may dominate their time. Remind them to discern who in their lives actually cares about them, their health and wellness, and their future. Encourage participation in your faith community’s youth ministry offerings, especially service projects, where your teen can learn a servant heart.
- Understand your child’s learning strengths and weaknesses and, with educators’ assistance, set reasonable and clear expectations. Some children will be able to attend in-person classroom education again; others will desire to or have to learn online from home. Work out a clear set of goals, paces, learning aids, measurement parameters, and markers with your school. Communicate regularly with your child’s teacher and other parents, and communicate frequently and honestly with your child: is she understanding assignments, strategies, and concepts? Helping your child understand expectations will help her work through her anxious feelings and manage her anxiety.
- You cannot stop your child from worrying completely, so allow him to worry. But give him one-on-one time each day to verbalize his concerns, and most important, to brainstorm creative ways to solve any problems and dilemmas anchored in his faith.
- Desensitize your child to known triggers to her anxiety by helping her take small steps in facing stresses. For example, perhaps she is fearful of walking back into a classroom that she has been told is a place where she might catch coronavirus. Teach these incremental steps to help her feel safer and to introduce public-wellness etiquette slowly: Start by slowly walking through all the procedures being put in place to protect her and her fellow students. Show her pictures of the classroom. Help her wash her hands and put on a face mask for short periods of time. Help her learn not to touch her face or share food or drink. Teach her how to cover her mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing.
- Monitor use of personal communication devices. One of the strongest anxieties, especially for older elementary students and teenagers, is their false internet identity. Instead of remembering their Baptism, their true identity as a child of God—forgiven, restored, and renewed by Christ’s death and resurrection—they can easily fall into a particular view or self-image created by verbal or visual images on the internet. How do others see me? What is my physical or emotional persona as defined by my image on the big or little screen? What must I do to maintain or change that image so that I am more accepted, more loved, more normal? These are the types of concerns that can severely damage the physical, emotional, and even spiritual life of your child and create enormously destructive anxiety, injury, and even suicidal ideations or attempts. Remind your child repeatedly, and certainly daily, of your love for him, of God’s love for him, and of God’s active presence in his life.
- Help your child or teen to reconstruct or reframe her worries. Encourage her to name each worry and then determine if that worry is real or accurate. Work with her to try to change that worry into a positive or motivating thought. Be aware that the internet might be the source of this perceived worry. Although someone may make a negative comment out of jealousy or to hurt her feelings, help your child understand that there are many others (especially parents and family) who are supportive of her or think positively about her and really understand who she is.
- Help your child learn to adapt to stress through healthy coping skills: deep breathing techniques; muscle relaxation mechanisms; writing down or journaling his feelings; talking out his worries with you, his parents; seeking help from resources that have his best interest in mind.
- As a family, practice good basic health habits: regular sleep and rest; plant-based nutrition; adequate hydration; daily exercise; downtime, pause points, and prayer and meditation routines; and regular family devotions and worship.
- Be empathetic. Assure your child that you are trying to understand and face her anxieties from her viewpoint, that you as the parent don’t always have all the right answers, but that you are always willing to help walk with her through her worries.
- For many of our children, the music they listen to is a constant and influential companion. We can modulate the playlist within our home or car, we can play music consistent with our Christian values, from “Jesus Loves Me” and “This Little Gospel Light of Mine” to “In Christ Alone.” We can dial into calming classical music or access the wonderful Christian radio stations available in our communities or on streaming services. CPH has a wealth of Christian music resources in their catalog.
- Take care of yourself as the parent. Your children feel and experience your pain and anxiety, so if you are having real struggles yourself (and all of us are), make sure you are practicing good self-care, even if that requires professional counseling for you.
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. 2 Corinthians 1:3–4
Now, more than ever, it’s important to focus on the total health of our families.