Children and Anxiety

BW portrait of sad crying little boy covers his face with handsEmmy let a helium balloon go by accident and for days, she has been concerned about it. “Will it be OK, Mama?” she asked me repeatedly. “Will the birds see it and bring it back to me?”

Each day she has asked about the balloon in various touching ways. “Does it miss me?” “Is it on the moon by now?”

It was a source of anxiety to her that her balloon friend had been lost somewhere up in the air.

I remember being a child and being anxious. I had a doll named Sally who got lost at a park in Indiana once. It was a real emotional crisis. A doll is a real baby in the mind of a little girl, and the fact that my baby was somewhere out there without me to watch over her was very upsetting.

Storms frighten Emmy a great deal. Storms terrified me as a girl also. I remember what it was like to be scared, and I do my best to provide comfort to my little daughter when she’s frightened.

Anxiety doesn’t always fade as you get older. As adults, we learn better how to deal with it, or in some cases, hide it, but it is a very real problem, particularly in this world where so much is going wrong. From experience, I can tell you that nobody will ever talk you out of being anxious.Ridicule makes it worse. The response of siblings to a brother or sister’s anxiety during childhood is important. Most kids know that if they have an inordinate fear of something, it can be embarrassing. Having someone point out your fear or mock it, or laugh at it, rather than support you, can be devastating. Nobody chooses to be afraid or anxious. Some children are more anxious than others, and it’s built into their personalities. Parents need to immediately stop any ridicule by siblings and point out how heartless it really is.

Parents need to be attune to anxious children, especially when there is more than one child in the family. Something that does not phase one child can be a terrible experience for another. Observant parents will see this and try to provide comfort and help to the anxious child.

Another thing that does not help is forcing a child to do something that frightens them. I remember coming close to being forced on to an indoor roller coaster ride at an amusement park once. The thought was terrifying. Only the intervention of an understanding person prevented what would have been a traumatic experience for me.

There is much about adult conversation that can create anxiety in children. I overheard a conversation once where the premature death of a man in his early 40’s had occurred. “People are dying in their 40’s more and more now,” said the adult. The words sank into my heart and as my own mom was in her early 40’s, those words terrified me. A little caution around children goes a long way. (And the apocalyptic headlines are another thing to avoid around children. We have no idea the impact of our conversational topics on small ears. They have no larger perspective to deal with these things like adults do.)

There’s obviously a time when anxious children need to be encouraged to try things and launch out. It’s a fine line sometimes between encouraging a child to do something and forcing an issue to their detriment. But if we don’t try to encourage our children to overcome anxiety, fear can become a jail cell. But only the child can come to the point of readiness to overcome fear. You can’t force it.

A steady offering of opportunities and positive talk goes a long way. Children who have anxiety problems need someone in their lives to say, “You can do it! I know you can. You let me know if you’d like to try it.” If they do succeed at something hard for them, it goes without saying that they should get a big high five!

Emily and I talked about what makes thunder so loud. She put her own spin on it and reassured her daddy the other night that the thunder was just “clouds bumping into each other.” We have a specific spot in the house (our “thunder chair”) where we go when it storms out. She literally trembles she gets so frightened. In her mind, that chair is a safe place where we can talk about comforting things while the storm rolls by overhead.

We all need a safe place in our minds. Adults know that terrible things do happen. But having someone to talk to and understand, without negative judgment, is what we all need sometimes. It’s a safe port in the storm of life.

Emily learned this song at preschool (as I did years ago in my Lutheran kindergarten), and she likes to sing it to herself. She learned all 3 stanzas. I once heard a military pilot recount singing this to himself as he flew combat missions. What a comfort to know this in our “age of anxiety.”

I am Jesus’ little lamb,
Ever glad at heart I am;
For my Shepherd gently guides me,
Knows my need, and well provides me,
Loves me every day the same,
Even calls me by my name.

Day by day, at home, away,
Jesus is my Staff and Stay.
When I hunger, Jesus feeds me,
Into pleasant pastures leads me;
When I thirst, He bids me go
Where the quiet waters flow.

Who so happy as I am,
Even now the Shepherd’s lamb?
And when my short life is ended,
By His angel host attended,
He shall fold me to His breast,
There within His arms to rest.

8 thoughts on “Children and Anxiety

  1. Lorrie says:

    I was one of those children who took things to heart and had more than my share of anxieties growing up. My parents spent many hours calming my various fears (come to think of it, they probably caused a few of them, from things we discussed!). Fortunately it has gotten so much better as I’ve gotten older, but I remember how it feels and try to be a comfort to others. That is a sweet song that you quoted, one that I’ve never heard. Does it have a familiar tune? I’m going to try and find it online.

  2. Lorrie says:

    Thank you Ingrid – what a beautiful song! Now I want to try and find the piano music too.

  3. INC says:

    I am so glad you wrote this post. It is so very important for parents to know whom each child in their family is, and to teach their children to love, appreciate and help one another.

    Seeing the world through a child’s eyes is such a vital part of parenting. A Christian counselor once told me that children are excellent observers, but poor interpreters. Our daughter once thought that the E on the car gas gauge meant Enough, and that the F meant Final Drop—exactly the opposite of reality! As in you wrote, as adults we may be able to handle something that would be overwhelming to a child and detrimental to his well-being. I think one of the most important tasks of being a mom is to understanding our children’s perspective and how they may react to events in their lives.

    Young children may have a difficult time verbalizing their reactions. Loving observance and patience in interpreting their thoughts and feelings and discussing what happened helps defuse anxiety as you mentioned in your time with Emily.

  4. Becky McGraw says:

    I approve of this message and you may use my picture as a visual aid! From my earliest memories I was an anxious child and at 53 years of age, I still live in that “jail cell!” It has been a life sentence!

  5. Karin Laser Ristau says:

    Beautifully written. I grew up with this song – but in German! Weil ich Jesu Schaeflein bin! Over the years, I’ve put English words to many German songs, but have never done this one. So glad to have it now. I know my grands will love it!

  6. Cindy says:

    Wow, this post is wonderful! I also am one who had anxiety as a child and still do. It is something I struggle with continually. Unfortunately, my parents only became frustrated and irritated with my anxiety and for the most part became mad and dismissed me. I also had two sisters who were unrelenting in making it worse. I wonder if my anxiety problems would not still be with me to this day had my parents (and sisters) read your post. I try so hard to rely and trust on the Lord, but it usually isn’t enough. Of course, still having the anxiety only makes me feel worse because I know it is a sin to not trust in the Lord. I wish I could figure that one out. And like you said trying to talk someone out of anxiety won’t work! I feel for Emily! I know how she feels (I still stress very much over storms but manage to keep it in for my own children’s sake). Emily is very blessed to have a mother who is so very understanding!

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