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Raising Up Fearless Kids

Wes Fleming

A large commercial jet flew low over an intersection where I waited for a light. The person in the car next to me rolled down his window and strained to watch the plane fly out of sight. I knew what he was thinking. As I looked in the rearview mirror and saw my children sitting quietly in the back seat, I wondered what kind of world they'd inherit. Our schools, streets, airports, and post offices have become battlefields. Personal safety has become a national preoccupation. How do we equip children for such a frightening world? How can we help them walk boldly with faith and not fear?

Teaching our children to properly manage anxiety, stress, and fear requires us to do two things. First, we must cultivate kids' healthy capacity to trust so they can access resources greater than their own. These resources will hopefully include our guidance and emotional support as well as God's power and provision. Second, we must help them gain strategies for overcoming fear -- strategies that are honed from learning to manage fears on a daily basis.

Children who learn to face their fears of ridicule, math exams, and gym teachers are well on their way to handling adult-size anxieties in the future. As children's ministers and parents, we must equip children to overcome fear with faith, starting with these six steps.

1. Cultivate a Healthy Capacity to Trust

It's impossible for children to draw upon your strength, receive comfort, or take your advice if they're not convinced that you have their best interests in mind. Trust is like a spiritual umbilical cord. It allows emotional nourishment to pass back and forth between two souls. When trust is damaged, it leaves a child to fend for himself. Children who are continually disappointed or hurt by a parent or another adult develop self-protective and self-reliant methods of managing their needs -- patterns of behavior that are characterized by pride, anger, rebellion, and inappropriate responses to fear.

Children who grow up in stable, loving environments where it's safe to be honest about their feelings -- and where trust is reinforced -- learn to place trust in others to help meet their needs. Vulnerability and honesty are seen as acceptable risks. A healthy capacity to trust is, in fact, the emotional groundwork of faith.

How can we cultivate children's ability to trust? Showing respect for and understanding of children's feelings is probably the most effective way we can build trust and earn children's confidence. When a child is feeling afraid, honor her feelings rather than try to change them. Say, "A lot of people feel afraid when they face a bully," rather than "Listen, girl, you gotta be tough in this world!" When math anxiety strikes, instead of saying, "Come on, it's not that hard. You just need to concentrate more!" say, "That's a tough problem for you, but I've seen you master hard problems before. What can I do to help?"

Sometimes in an effort to encourage children, we unintentionally minimize their feelings with well-meaning platitudes. "Don't be afraid...just trust God." Banishing feelings (even for the cause of greater faith) won't make them vanish -- it only drives them underground.

Cultivating children's capacity to trust others is critical, but cultivating our children's ability to trust God specifically is the greatest thing we can do to help them combat fear in their lives. A resolute faith in God is the ultimate weapon against anxiety, fear, and stress. "If God is for us, who can be against us?" Fear breeds fear when there's an absence of trust in God's availability, goodness, and power. Fear is always based on lies that seek to make God out to be less than who he really is. By reinforcing children's capacity to trust and providing them with an accurate image of God, we prepare our kids to live fearlessly in a frightening world.

Increasing children's capacity to trust God requires us to reflect the heart and character of God. More than our words, our model is our message. If we portray a grumpy, frustrated, and impatient God -- or a preoccupied, busy, and neglectful God -- it's unlikely that children will grow to trust God. On the other hand, if we depict an understanding, kind, and compassionate God through our example, we can hope that children will learn to depend on God. Paul challenges us to be examples: "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1).

2. Help Children Identify Their Feelings

Helping children acknowledge their fears is the first step to overcoming them. Sometimes just naming the emotion brings relief. When a child is able to admit, "I feel afraid," she feels less helpless and out of control.

Ask open-ended questions to help a child understand her feelings. "What's going on? What are you feeling?" Be careful not to ask questions that accuse. Questions such as "Why did you say that?" or "Why are you acting this way?" cause children to hide their feelings. Second, speculate about children's feelings to help them open up. Ask, "Are you afraid? A lot of children feel afraid when they see scary pictures and hear such scary things on TV."

3. Identify Underlying Reasons for Fear

To overcome fear, we must identify and disarm the beliefs that sustain the fear. Ridicule, for instance, is most painful for children who have underlying doubts about themselves. If a child believes he's ugly or stupid, he's more likely to take the teasing of his friends personally. The 10-year-old boy who's afraid of being called "dumb" by his peers at school, for instance, may believe that what his friends say is true. By helping kids realize the truth about themselves or the facts about a particular event, we remove fear's teeth.

My 6-year-old was watching the evening news on September 11 and saw footage of the destruction of the World Trade Center. Suddenly, she began to cry, "Oh no! Another plane crashed into a building!" My poor daughter! Each time she saw the replay of the horrific event, she believed it was another plane crash. When I accurately interpreted the frightening information for her, she was less fearful and anxious.

"The truth will set them free!" Help your children get the facts about who they are, who God is, and how real the threat of loss really is.

The Bible indicates that to overcome fear we must destroy "arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God" and "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5). Note that Scripture says we're to take every thought captive -- not every emotion. Fear cannot be converted, renewed, or transformed. The beliefs that underlie and fuel the emotion, and the thoughts that contradict the knowledge of God, however, can be taken captive and replaced with the truth. We might ask the 10-year-old who fears the ridicule of his peers, "Does God think you're dumb? What does Psalm 139:14 say? How do I feel about you? Do you believe me?"

In our zeal to correct children's thinking, we must not neglect their profound need to be understood. Kids feel violated if advice is given before their feelings are acknowledged and understood. If an 8-year-old girl whose parents are getting a divorce worries about who'll care for her, avoid saying, "Don't worry. God says all things work together for good." Instead, bring comfort by confirming her feelings: "A lot of girls your age feel alone and wonder if anyone will take care of them when their parents divorce." Understanding brings healing to hurting emotions.

4. Guide Children's Plan to Handle Fear

Kids rebel against our ideas -- not their own! When children, especially older kids, feel like adults are limiting their opportunities to gain independence and to think for themselves, they're likely to resist us. That's why wise parents and teachers encourage children to come up with solutions to fearful situations.

In our eagerness to provide comfort and reassurance, we can actually do more harm than good. Moms and dads whose parental instincts run amuck try to solve all their children's problems and handle all their fears. "I can't believe those rotten kids called you 'dumb.' I'm going to call your teacher right now! No one gets away with calling my child names!" Unintentionally, an "overprotective" parent robs her child of opportunities to sharpen problem-solving skills, to learn strategies for overcoming fear, and to grow in confidence. Children whose parents "take care" of their fears not only grow up ill-prepared for the real world but grow up not knowing how to take care of themselves.

To foster confidence and problem-solving in her child, the above mother might say this: "Being called a name hurts. What can you do to stop it?" And rather than offering unsolicited advice, she might ask, "Would you like to know what I do when someone says something mean about me?" By asking permission rather than dictating what children should do, parents can help children feel that their decision-making counts.

A great way to help preschoolers handle fear is to play with them. One mother frantically shared with me the week after September 11, "I think there's something wrong with my son. He keeps building LEGO towers and crashing his toy plane into them." She was relieved to discover that this behavior was totally normal. Children often act out their fears through play. Instead of reacting negatively to behavior that seems violent or horrific, play with children. "Let's get the fire trucks and save those people in the building. We need to pray for them." Playing is God's therapy for kids during times of stress. Encourage children to write a story, draw a picture, or act out the fear-provoking event to help them resolve their anxiety.

5. Model Trust in God

This is a hard one -- especially if you're struggling with fear yourself. As long as you're not so emotionally overwhelmed that you lose your objectivity, it's a good idea to discuss your battle against fear with children. By doing so, you can offer an example of how to manage anxiety. "I'm scared too, but I know that God is with us and can help us. That makes me feel better. What do you say we pray about it?" If you're overtaken by fear and unable to help children cope, give them the opportunity to talk with someone who can offer support and help them solve problems with God's guidance.

6. Control the Flow of Fear-Provoking Information

Many Baby Boomers recall the looming fear of nuclear war when they were children. I remember as a child, for instance, lying awake in bed thinking that it would be better to die from the initial blast than to die slowly from radiation poisoning. Disturbing, I know, but I bet I have friends out there who thought the same thing!

Information can be a heavy burden for children. So it's extremely important to keep exposure to frightening news coverage, movies, and video games to a minimum -- especially when kids are young. By controlling the flow of media into our homes and accurately interpreting the data that children see and hear, we can reduce the level of anxiety in children.

On September 11, my 12-year-old daughter came home from school like many other children in need of answers, comfort, and reassurance. "Dad," she said in an unusually serious tone, "Is this the Tribulation?" I've taught kids the Bible for 20 years and I've never had to field a tougher question! Rachael was looking for more than Bible facts; she wanted to hear something that would soothe her fears.

After I regained my composure, I put my arm around her and whispered, "Rach, some pretty scary things have happened today, haven't they? I'm not sure what it all means. But I do know that God is right here with us and that we'll be okay." With that, she went carefree up to her room. I exhaled a quiet prayer, "Thanks, God."

The challenge of parenting and ministering to children has never been greater in light of recent events, yet the opportunity to prepare kids to face their future with overcoming faith has never been better. Though we may not always be able to prevent fearful events from entering into children's lives, we can help them develop lifelong strategies for coping with fear -- methods that spark faith and deepen their dependency on God.


Wesley Fleming has ministered to families for 20 years. His books Raising Children On Purpose and Helping Your Kids Find Their Way are available at www.raisingchildrenonpurpose.com or 877-935-9955. Please keep in mind that phone numbers, addresses, and prices are subject to change.

 

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