Parenting an anxious child

Lessons from Mark 6 on storms of anxiety

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Illustration: Getty Images

As we pulled into the school parking lot, my 5-year-old said, “I’m scared of kindergarten.” My heart sank. I wanted to say, “Don’t be scared” or “You’ll be fine.” But I knew that he was scared, and he didn’t feel fine. In fact, my own heart was pounding.

Then my husband prayed. His back-to-school prayer was mostly for his and my racing hearts. But it was for each of our kids as well, especially for the one who was feeling anxious. Although my own anxiety prevented me from speaking to God myself that day, I was listening for his voice. As I heeded the silence, I felt God whisper, “I will be with him. I will be with him.”

As I have parented young children—and now young adults—who experience anxiety, I have come to expect feelings of nervousness, tension and fear as part of our daily life. And we can’t ignore these feelings because they can interfere with our ability to make sense of our experiences, to make decisions, to move forward—to go to school. We must acknowledge and address them.

Fear, anxiety and uneasiness have become a normal part of the human experience in a world full of uncertainty and regular exposure to the effects of sin. These emotions are not bad or wrong. They, and all the other emotions, are cues; they tell us something and provide us with an opportunity to respond.

As Christians, how are we supposed to respond to anxiety? In ourselves? In our children?

In Mark 6:45-52, Jesus watches as his disciples struggle to row their boat across a lake. Less than 12 hours before, the disciples partnered with Jesus in a miracle that fed more than 5,000 people. Yet, when they find themselves facing waves and winds that push against them, they ended up miles from the shore feeling weary and afraid.

Anxiety is based on past, present or future uncertainty. It is wondering if we will be ready for college or how to respond when someone puts food in front of us that we don’t like. Anxiety was in the wind and waves that pressed against the disciples when they were trying to get to the other side of the lake.

I think we can learn a lot about how to parent children with anxiety by looking at how Jesus equips and responds to his disciples in this story.

Prepare and plan ahead. The miracle that precedes the storm is one way that Jesus prepares his disciples for their fear. The disciples have just witnessed a miracle; they know what is possible. Yet, they are still afraid.

As a parent of children who experience anxiety, I have done my fair share of preparing and planning. I’ve shown my children photos of x-ray machines before heading to the hospital and talked them through procedures step by step. I’ve taught them social scripts for birthday parties and tough conversations. It didn’t take the anxiety away, but it gave them the tools they needed to fight their uncertainty.

Be patient. Jesus watches his disciples fight against the storm for 12 hours as he prays on a hilltop. I don’t have to go too far into my imagination to see that he was praying for them. He lets them try to fight it alone; he gives them space to use the tools he has provided. Then, he intervenes.

One of the worst things I have done for my anxious-minded children is to implement a quick fix. Although my hope is always that they will not experience anxiety, the reality is that they may. And if they do, I want them to be able to use the tools they’ve acquired along the way. Their storm may last longer than I’m comfortable with, but ultimately it is their storm not mine.

Meet them in the place of their anxiety. Jesus doesn’t stay far from his disciples forever. At their point of desperation, he walks toward them. He meets them in their fear. And they invite him into their story by crying out.

Patience is necessary, but it doesn’t mean that our kids are on their own. Meeting my kids in their place of anxiety looks like staying up late to let them talk about all the things on their mind, holding their hand while the blood is drawn and guiding them step by step through a difficult school project once they ask for help.

Provide validation and comfort. Once the disciples see Jesus, he speaks to them, “Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” Jesus confirms their fear and comforts them with his presence. I don’t think Jesus is rebuking the disciples for their fear. Instead, he is recognizing it and reminding them of his perfect love, which can ease their fear.

Validation is not agreeing with someone’s feeling; it is acknowledging it and comforting them in it. So, what does this look like in our lives and homes? I think it depends on the child. I have three children who are each comforted in different ways. For one it is a favorite item, for another a hug or simply the words, “I’m here.” Avoiding the wrong kind of comfort comes from knowing our children well and asking them what they want. Seeking our children’s input and allowing them to use their voice is always a good idea, especially when anxiety is involved.

Help them get to the other side. Mark 6:51 says, “Then [Jesus] got into the boat with them, and the wind ceased.” There’s something about the image of Jesus getting in the boat that is so comforting to me. In John’s account, it says that when Jesus gets on board the boat “at once [it] was at the shore where they were heading” (John 6:21).

We may not be able to stop the wind and miraculously bring a boat to shore as Jesus does for his disciples, but we can be part of how our children get to the “other side” of their anxious mind. Here are a few suggestions:

• Find a therapist who can meet the specific needs of your child and who they feel comfortable with. Whether the therapist is a Christian is up to you and your child.

• Pray together, submitting your concerns and anxious thoughts to God. This models prayer as a response to anxiety and helps parents know what their kids are thinking about.

• Establish open communication so that your children know they can talk to you about anything, ask any questions and bring forward any concerns. It is also important that they have other trusted adults in their lives with whom they can talk.

Watching my children struggle with anxiety has not been easy and there has been no quick fix. It is not unlike the disciples’ arduous journey over the water, through the winds and waves. As I’ve held my children’s uncertainty in one hand and a vision for their future in the other, I have found that because Jesus is with us in the journey, I can be a catalyst for change by preparing, meeting and comforting my children to the other side

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