Hope For The Anxious Child: Parenting With Empathy & Wisdom
by Amy Diller

At various times in my childhood, I experienced things that made me anxious. I was afraid of the dark, going to the basement at night, and being away from home, to name a few. One of the things that caused me panic was snakes; I was terrified of them. It didn’t matter to me that none of them were poisonous. I tried to avoid activities that made it more likely for me to come into contact with one. 


A particularly funny-to-me-now incident I vividly remember is being on roller skates in the grass (I was a little odd) when I saw a snake outside my bedroom. I ran like lightning on my skates into the house where I believed I was safe from immediate danger. However, I was convinced that the snake was eventually going to crawl up the side of the house and make its way into my room, and no amount of reassurance from my parents alleviated my extreme concern. 


As with any other topic, it’s important to know the definition. Anxiety is characterized by excessive apprehensiveness about real or perceived threats, typically leading to avoidance behaviors and often to physical symptoms. When children are anxious, it doesn’t necessarily look like it does in the teen and adult years. Children may display straightforward symptoms, but sometimes they exhibit different behaviors and physical effects such as irritability, anger, trouble sleeping, chronic headaches, tummy aches, and lots of tears.


It’s not unusual for kids to experience fears at different points growing up. Some creep up during periods of big change, like going to school for the first time or having a new baby in the house. However, anxiousness can also occur for seemingly illogical reasons, too. In either situation, a child’s fears and concerns are very real to them. At times, it’s easy to downplay anxiety over irrational fears because it doesn’t make sense, but an anxious child always needs your help. 


Extend Empathy

So, what can you do when your child displays symptoms of anxiety? The first thing is to begin with empathy, displaying compassion and understanding. In their book Relentless Parenting, Brian and Angela Haynes write, “Hugs before words make our words able to be heard. Offer your child compassion laced with patience and follow through with words of wisdom.” Before a child has the capacity to listen to you over the noise and confusion of anxiety, they need the assurance that you love them and understand their feelings. Love first before going into “fix it” mode. Offering compassion first helps your child to be better able to hear you when you say you are going to help. When you start with empathy, it validates your child’s feelings, whether they make sense or not.  


Turn to the Lord

When your child is experiencing anxiety, lean into the Lord through prayer and His Word. You and your child need the comfort only He can give. Knowing what to do when your child is hurting can be a daunting task without help from the Lord. James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” Godly wisdom is so important when dealing with the challenges of parenting, and the Bible assures us that it’s readily available. Sometimes, you can’t put your finger on exactly what’s behind your child’s anxiousness, and that’s where insight from the Lord makes a difference. Pray for and with your child, too. Teach them to use simple words to talk with Jesus about their feelings and how to ask for help. Use Bible verses about God’s love, safety and peace, such as Isaiah 41:13, Philippians 4:7, and 1 Peter 5:7, as prayers. Memorize scriptures so you and your child are reassured of how great and loving God is. 


Address Your Own Issues

Kids learn a tremendous amount from parents’ actions, including anxiousness. If you often give in to worry or fear, your child picks up on that. Examine your own life to see if you have any areas of anxiety needing attention. This is not an easy step to take by any means, but it can lead to your own freedom and equip you to better guide your child. This is not meant in any way to say your own struggles caused your child’s anxiety – not at all. It’s more a matter of putting your own oxygen mask on first before you can help anyone else. You need to find healing and wholeness, which will also make you better able to model your reliance on the Lord and positive coping skills for your child.  


Know When to Enlist Help

Sometimes childhood anxieties linger longer than seems normal. You know your child best, so trust your instincts on a timeframe. This is where careful observation of your child is important. When anxious behaviors and symptoms continue without some improvement or increase in intensity, it’s definitely time to seek outside help. If there are ongoing physical symptoms, consider an appointment with your child’s doctor to rule out health issues and to have an objective set of eyes looking at the effects of anxiety on your child. Seek help from your church and your child’s school. Ask them if they’re seeing what you are seeing at home. People who work with children often have books and tools for dealing with childhood anxiety. Don’t hesitate to turn to a licensed therapist, one who specializes in pediatric care if possible, for evaluation and treatment. If you need assistance locating a trusted therapist, ask church leaders, physicians, and/or school staff for recommendations. 


Parenting a child through anxiety can be a challenging journey but be encouraged. The Lord is a constant source of wisdom and compassion. As you offer your child empathy and reach out to others for support and assistance, you can help equip your child with hope in the Lord as well as practical skills needed to alleviate their anxiety.