Raising Up Fearless Kids

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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?

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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.

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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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