How do you help when your child is scared to go down the slide by themselves? Or won’t play with other kids at the playground? Or sobs uncontrollably at the thought of you leaving them in their Sunday school classroom? Or won’t stay in bed during a thunderstorm?
Fear comes in so many shapes and sizes, but there is a common underlying theme. In each instance, fearful kids perceive a threat to something that’s important to them—fitting in, being accepted, looking competent, feeling their world is predictable, staying unharmed, having pleasant experiences. So to safeguard what they want, they shrink back from life rather than embrace something new or untried.
This reaction can be frustrating to a parent, since it’s hard to help your child do something well when they refuse to even try. It’s even more frustrating when their reaction becomes a patterned way of life.
Life of Fear
Fear has a way of generating a strategy that reinforces itself. The unspoken logic of fearful kids goes something like this: If I don’t try anything new, then nothing bad can happen to me. Oh look! I just did nothing and I’m still okay. My approach to life is working; therefore, I will continue not trying.
This is when you realize your goal as a parent isn’t to eradicate bad behavior in one small area of life. Instead, you have to help them realize that something bad is happening to them by not trying—they’re stunting their growth and development as a human being. They’re consigning themselves to a small world when they were made to rule over and care for a large one. Fear is costing them their potential as of God’s image-bearers.
Help fearful kids see the goodness of developing as a human being so they start valuing growth over a life of perceived safety.
You have to help a fearful child see the goodness of developing as a human being, so that they start valuing growth over a life of perceived safety.
Helping Fearful Kids Overcome
First, please don’t tell them that there’s nothing to be afraid of. They know better. They know that they might fail or get hurt. Telling them there’s nothing to fear will only convince them that they understand the world better than you do. If they think you see less than they do, you’ll only convince them that you have nothing to offer.
Instead, acknowledge that they’re scared and either ask or guess what frightens them. Then, to the extent that you can, tell them that you get it. Let them know you understand why that’s scary for them. At the same time, though, remind them they’re not alone. Tell them you’re there with them and they don’t have to fight their fear all by themselves.
Share that you know what it’s like to be afraid. Can you recall a time when you were scared of the same thing or something similar? Use your experience to forge a connection.
Please don’t tell [your children] that there’s nothing to be afraid of. They know better.
And then go beyond empathy. Talk about how you’re learning to handle your fears with faith. Tell them that you can face things that scare you because you know you’re not alone. Jesus has promised to be with you through every good or scary thing you’ll ever face. It’s good that your kids have you, but ultimately they will need more than what you can give. This is a great moment to teach them that we were never meant to live apart from the God who made us. Encourage them to believe that if Jesus doesn’t abandon their parents in their struggles, then they can trust him not to abandon them either.
Now take the time to work with them in advance of scary moments. Once you’ve seen your child afraid a couple of times, you can anticipate when fear may crop up again. Start prepping them to live by faith by saying something like, “Okay honey, later today we’re going to go to Sunday school. Now I know that’s been hard for you before. But I also know that Jesus will be with us. Let’s ask him to help you today.” Make sure you pick a small action that will help them take a step in a more proactive direction. You want to stretch their faith, not break it. “Could you maybe climb all the way to the top of the slide ladder without stopping before I carry you back down?”
Make sure you not only notice the small steps they make, but celebrate them verbally with your child.
Last—and this is critical—make sure you not only notice the small steps they make, but also celebrate them verbally with your child. Don’t miss the opportunity to help them live their faith. Take 30 seconds to pray together, thanking Jesus for the courage he’s giving them to exercise bigger trust.
Patience in the Struggle
Are you sensing that this process will take lots of patient, and potentially frustrating, conversations? Parenting is so much more than simply identifying where our children are struggling. It’s also the commitment to find a million ways over the years to say, “I’m here for you. I love you and, because I love you, you can’t stay where you are. But we’ll go together.”
What keeps you hopeful and engaged with fearful kids when you realize that unraveling fear is a process that can take years, not hours? For me it’s the realization that I haven’t had to be more patient with any of my three children than Jesus has been, and continues to be, with me.