This is an excerpt from HomeLife Magazine.
As a kid, I often came in the back door bloodied from running through the rose bushes or falling down trying to race the wind on my Rollerblades. The bright red scrapes and scratches didn’t bother me. I liked being rough and tough. So when I started to complain of frequent backaches, my mom knew it wasn’t a matter of having a low pain tolerance.
We tried stretching and heating pads and warm baths. But as the pain persisted, my mom knew there was something more going on. Unfortunately, several thorough medical examinations left us without any clear answers. No physical injury or abnormality could be detected. So what was the deal?
Eventually a doctor switched from asking about my physical activity and started asking about my mental and emotional wellbeing. Was there anything particularly stressful happening at home? Actually, yes. My parents had recently separated and my dad moved out. The doctor and my mom finally solved the puzzle of my pain: My body was having a physical reaction to mental and emotional circumstances. I was literally storing my stress.
Now as an adult with a diagnosed anxiety disorder, I can look back on my life and see how my anxiety manifested in several ways that my family and I didn’t have the education to identify at the time. I never told anyone about my racing thoughts and the feeling of being outside my body. I didn’t know that when I became paralyzed with overwhelming anxiety as a high-achieving student that it was my anxiety kicking into action.
There have been countless times I’ve looked into the eyes of my own anxious child and felt at a loss for how to help.
In the ’80s and ’90s, mental health wasn’t a mainstream topic of conversation, yet my mom could sense when something was off with me. I remember being allowed to stay home from school and taking a note to the office the next day that gave “overly tired” as the reason for my absence. I didn’t really understand what that meant at the time, since I was getting the same amount of sleep each night. But I see now it was my mom’s version of offering a mental health day. She saw that I wasn’t fully OK - and made space for rest.
As parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, aunts, mentors, and friends, we all have the privilege and responsibility of paying attention to children and adolescents. We don’t have to be trained mental health professionals to sense when a child isn’t OK. We simply need to be attentive to the young people in our lives and ask God for wisdom to respond. James 1:5 promises, “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God—who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly—and it will be given to him.”
Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God—who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly—and it will be given to him.
With three kids of my own, I’ve often made this verse my desperate prayer. Just like my mom couldn’t see what was happening inside my mind and how it was affecting my body, there have been countless times I’ve looked into the eyes of my own anxious child and felt at a loss for how to help. I’ve wiped tears and witnessed tantrums and received anger. I’ve listened to worry and sadness at a child who felt like no one understood. And I have to remember what is true: Jesus sees. Jesus understands. And Jesus holds it all.
One of the worst things about anxiety is feeling alone in it and fearing that it will never change. Your job isn’t to fix your children or their problems, but you can let them know you’re right there with them and together you’ll find healthy ways to cope.
If a child you know is struggling, listen to her. Believe her. And ask God for wisdom to guide her. Sometimes that might mean taking her to a doctor or therapist. Or simply just lean close and be with her.
Approaching Kids with Anxiety
If you have a child who struggles with anxiety, here are three strategies that might help....
1. Practice Gratitude
If your child is fixated on the negative, help him create new mental pathways by practicing gratitude. Ending the day with gratitude trains the mind to see the whole picture and builds trust in God.
2. Journal what is Known
At the height of the pandemic, my friend’s daughter was extremely anxious about the ever-changing restrictions and guidelines. My friend would repeat the same information over and over again, but it didn’t help ease her daughter’s mind. I suggested that she have her daughter write down what she knows. Then when she’s feeling anxious, she could read back through her own words and write down additional questions.
3. Take Five Deep Breaths
Shallow breathing is linked to increased anxiety, while deep breathing signals your nervous system to calm down. If your child is anxious or agitated, teach them “box breathing.” Start by exhaling to a count of four. Then hold your lungs empty for a four-count. Inhale to a count of four. Hold the air in your lungs for a count of four. Exhale and begin the pattern again. Breathing five “boxes” will help your child feel more centered and relaxed.