When Your Child is Struggling with Fear
What do you do when your child is struggling with fear? When a scary story is being replayed by the mind and a sticky, frightful image won’t stop haunting?
As parents, we have walked with our kids through many a sleepless night, wiped many tears, looked under beds a gazillion times, held them in our arms while praying over them. Answers seem so easy and so obvious, and yet it is a struggle to guide a child through the battle in his or her mind.
A good starting point when working with fear is what the Bible says about it. It doesn’t just tell us not to fear, it also provides multiple reasons for why we are not to fear. And the Bible calls those who are around fearful people to “encourage the faint-hearted” (1 Thessalonians 5:14)”. We know that Christ, as he walked among imperfect people, often said, fear not. We know that his presence was gentle, as Isaiah had prophesied about him: “A bruised reed He will not break.” (Isaiah 42:3).
The Bible also has a solution to fear: trusting the Lord. There may be dangerous and frightening things out there, but we belong to someone who holds our very existence in his hands by the power of his word (Colossians 1:15-17, Hebrews 1:3). The reason why we need not be afraid when we walk through valleys of the shadow of death is that the Shepherd has gone through those himself. He took the punishment for our sins, including our tendency to seek refuge in things other than him, and he defeated death. Death and resurrection of Christ apply to big things in our life – like terrible dysfunction of this world – and the little ones, like a night terror.
Here is what not to do when helping someone to work through fear:
- Become frustrated and resort to manipulating the fearfulness out of their fear.
- Call the child only to use logic. Fear is often not based on or tied to reality and it is hard to explain it away and make the feelings go away.
What we do need to do and say:
- Speak openly about it. Help the child put his feelings into words; it looks to me that you are feeling ____, is this right?
- “Turn to the Lord” – help the child turn to the Lord with these feelings. Help her see how big God is. Fear makes real things around us, including God, seem small and insignificant. As a parent, my role is to help the child keep the right perspective. And by the way: talking Big God theology with kids is important on calm days so that in the day of crisis we have something to call to mind and lean on.
- “You are not alone” – we say this all the time. Another lie of fear is that you are all alone facing danger and that it is up to you alone to overcome.
- And here is what my husband says all the time in times of crisis and in times of calm: “Trust me”. A child needs to learn to trust the parent. That is how he learns to put his trust in something other than himself. On a very basic level, that starts with trusting his parents.
- “Do not let fear control you. Fear wants to be your master, but you already have one – the Lord – who also calls himself a Good Shepherd! Fear lies; it says that it can make you its slave to obey its commands: “retreat, play ___thoughts over and over in your mind, feel ___, hide”.
As parents who are called to raise our children in the Lord, we wanted to put this struggle with fear in the context of his or her life with the Lord. Here is a simple exercise we did with one of them recently to root her confidence in Christ. This is by no means a formula to follow, but an example of how to engage a child in the life-giving Word. We read Psalm 23 with her and asked her to do some simple things, and all of it took about 15 minutes:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Let’s take turns dictating the verses to each other and writing them down. You read, and I write and then we switch. What do these words mean?
Can you circle three things that stand out to you about God and us? And I will circle mine. Can you explain why you picked these things?
Let’s pick a couple of things from this Psalm to draw. Can you explain what you drew? And here is my drawing! Can you bring this picture to mind – yours and mine – when you feel afraid? We can hang it up in your bedroom if you wish.
Let’s pray together about this Psalm.
What can we learn about Jesus in this Psalm?
Here are some truths we dwelled on as we read the Psalm together:
- God is the Lord of all. We do not have to let fear control us, but instead, can be led by the new master, the Lord.
- God is a good shepherd who knows all of our paths. Sometimes they lead to the still waters, and sometimes they cut through valleys of the shadow of death.
- He not only knows them but takes care of us every step of the way.
- He is always near; the rod and staff are symbols of his guidance and protection.
- He is the God who grants peace and victory in the midst of war.
- His love is inseparable from us.
What was important to me as I worked with her:
- That the child had a maximum engagement with the Word, not me talking at her. That she would absorb it through different channels: writing, hearing, drawing, talking about it, picturing/imagining it, meditating on it.
- That the child had some initiative in this: I gave her a choice in what to draw and which concepts to talk about.
- That she saw me actively engaging with the Word and me being affected by it as well.
- That she had an image in her head that could solidify the truth for herself.
- That ultimately, she could get to know God’s character through this, because it is easier to trust someone you know!
All of the above is just an example of how we as parents can turn to the Lord in any situation and lean on him, and guide our children to him. It may not bring about desirable results immediately, but engaging with the Word of God will certainly bear the good fruits of trust and rest.
And last, but not least; besides working with the child through these points, as a parent, I also must depend on Christ. I must rely on him to help me be patient and gentle as he is with those who are afraid. My child is not the only one who needs to learn these truths and grow more into Christ!