Note: This week we have Dr. Rebecca Huizen, D.O. as our guest contributor. She is a pediatrician at Christian Healthcare Centers, a distinctively Christian membership-based primary care medical office in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She and her husband Scott have four children and they work together to homeschool.
Every child’s battle with anxiety looks different. Help your child sort through true concerns that need to be brought to God in prayer from destructive worrying thoughts. Here are some possible principles/strategies to teach your child to help him or her overcome destructive worrying thoughts.
1. Try to identify and address any root causes for anxiety, such as a scary movie/book or an embarrassing or painful experience. If a root cause is not obvious, pray specifically asking the Lord to reveal any cause. Reflect on the onset of when your child started having anxiety, including what was happening circumstantially to your child at the time.
2. Encourage your child to talk to God about his worries and trust in Him. Remind him that no matter what he is feeling that God is in control, reigning supreme over every detail of the universe, and is always ready to help him. Remembering that God is in control helps to calm our hearts.
3. Meditate on God’s Word. Share scriptures often about trusting in God and finding peace in Him. Hang simple verses in your child’s bedroom or play area. Your child could even help decorate these.
4. Teach your child that her value comes from being an extraordinary creation of God and help her establish her identity in Christ. If your child believes her identity and purpose come from her performance or other external factors, this can lead to anxiety about not measuring up or not having the approval of others. (Max Lucado’s book You are Special conveys these truths for kids in a powerful way.)
5. Teach about switching from “downstairs brain” thinking to “upstairs brain” thinking.
a. Our first response to a potentially disturbing situation is often an automatic/reflexic worrying or negative response at our brainstem level. To a child, we might describe this as our “downstairs brain” (or “worry brain”) thoughts.
b. Empower your child by helping him understand that while we can not choose what ideas pop into our heads, just because certain thoughts come into our head does not mean they are true or good thoughts to keep thinking on.
c. When a worry thought comes, help your child to instead switch to true, godly thoughts, which we might describe to a child as “upstairs brain” thoughts.
d. If your young child is all worked up with irrational anxiety and can not seem to get out of “downstairs brain” thinking, it may help to just ask simple factual questions (such as what is the color of the sky) to help him to start thinking more clearly on what is actually true.
6. Come up with a plan together about saying “No!” to worry thoughts. Some ideas are that your child picture herself:
a. Taking the thought captive – picture locking the thought up or capturing it
b. Casting the fear away like with a fishing pole (1 Peter 5:7)
c. Holding up a stop sign
d. Shaking head “no”
e. Holding out hand in a “stop” gesture
f. Talk to those thoughts like he would talk to a bully and tell them they are not welcome
g. Stomp on the “ANTs” (can think of them as “Automatic Negative Thoughts”)
7. Replace worry thoughts with good and true thoughts. Here are some ideas:
a. Have a simple verse ready to say
b. Sing a verse song (check out Seeds of Courage & Seeds of Faith CDs)
c. Picture Jesus holding your hand (Isaiah 41:13)
d. Think about finding refuge in God
e. Sing a song of praise
f. Recall past successes over the fear
g. Make a list of things he is thankful for
h. Remember a good memory. Ask him to try to imagine he is back at that moment and try to remember what he felt, smelled, heard, etc.
8. Try deep breathing to help your child relax when she is worked up with anxiety. Coach her in taking a deep breath and letting it out as slowly as she can. Then pause breathing for 3-5 counts and repeat deep breaths.
9. Progressive Muscle Relaxation may also be calming. Talk her through starting her with feet and tensing for a count of 4 and then relaxing while taking a deep breath. Then slowly work up through the legs, stomach, hands, arms, shoulders and face following the same procedure (see online for tutorial videos or “scripts” to follow).
10. Teach your child to “grow” the right thoughts. Like a plant, the thoughts that we “water” (by continuing to think about) will grow and the ones we say “no” to will wilt. (Consider as parents that continually explaining why irrational worries are nothing to be concerned about can actually help “water” the worry.)
11. Help your child identify physical signs of anxiety. Stomachaches, headaches and sleep disturbance are commonly triggered by anxiety. Especially for older children, increased awareness of how anxiety affects the body can help in dealing with anxiety.
12. If the source of the anxiety is not obvious, try to help your child identify specific anxious thoughts. When you child gets anxious, ask him what he was thinking about right before he became anxious. Working through exercises in the I Bet I Won’t Fret anxiety workbook may help identify specific areas of anxiety.
13. Assess if your child is trying to control things that he cannot. Children who are trying to control their world get frustrated and tend to be anxious. Trying to control their world leads to anxiety because so many things are out of their control. It can be life-changing to choose to relinquish perceived control and instead trust in God, who is truly in in control.
Scriptures for Overcoming Anxiety
“When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” Psalm 56:3
“For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline.” 2 Timothy 1:7
“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” 1 Peter 5:7
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” Philippians 4:4
“For I, the Lord, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, ‘Fear not, I am the one who helps you.’” Isaiah 41:13
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Joshua 1:9
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28
“You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you.” Isaiah 26:3
“We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” 2 Corinthians 10:5
“Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together. I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears.” Psalm 34:3-4
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” Philippians 4: 6-8
I Bet I Won’t Fret: A Workbook to Help Children with Generalized Anxiety Disorder* by Timothy Sisemore
What to Do When You Worry Too Much: A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety* by Dawn Huebner & Bonnie Matthews
What to Do When Mistakes Make You Quake: A Kid’s Guide to Accepting Imperfection* by Claire Freeland & J. Toner
Battlefield of the Mind for Kids by Joyce Meyers
*These books are from a secular perspective. Please review before sharing with your child to choose which sections may be helpful and appropriate.