Anxiety disorders aren’t just found in adults. Children can face anxiety, too. Here’s what you need to know and how you can help.
I parent two children with disabilities, and both have anxiety. I don’t mean they experience typical anxiousness; that’s different. One takes medication. The other shuts down when anxious. But my typical teenager also has anxiety, and to add to the mix, I was a child with anxiety and now I’m an adult with anxiety. Now imagine my family shows up at your church.
What is an anxiety disorder?
According to the Mayo Clinic, people with anxiety disorders experience frequent, intense, excessive, and persistent worries and fears about everyday situations. These fears can interfere with daily activities, and individuals experiencing anxiety may feel they cannot control these intense emotions, although they’re aware some of their fears may be irrational.
Anxiety disorders look different in children.
Anxiety is the most common mental health concern in children. Often, when a child displays signs of anxiety, it can come across as negative behavior or extreme shyness.
In an article for The Mighty, a digital health community, Colleen Wildenhaus wrote, “[My child] behaved differently than other kids… acting out, showing defiance, crying, clinging, refusing to interact with others—the list goes on and on.”
One Sunday, I taught a lesson on the wonders of heaven. I didn’t expect that one of the kids would cry and say she never wanted to see Jesus. After I spoke to the child’s mom, I found out this little girl had severe anxiety over death. Knowing she would be with Jesus did nothing to erase that fear.
I can tell you from personal experience that anxiety as a child is tough. For me, personally, I always feared I didn’t have “Jesus in my heart.” I was afraid I’d missed a word in my prayer. Maybe I hadn’t said the words in the right order. Maybe God didn’t think I was good enough. These fears resulted in gut-wrenching tears. My Sunday school teacher often asked the go-to question: “Are you sure you’d go to heaven if you died today?” Nothing like a word from a church leader to send me into that awful, self-doubting spiral of doom.
A child at your church who may come across as whiny, bossy, or perfectionistic or who refuses to speak or sit down may have an anxiety disorder. Remember: it’s possible the child isn’t being difficult or naughty; he or she may have anxiety.
How to Help a Child With Anxiety
We can make church a safe place for children with anxiety. Here are ways to do that.
Affirm the child’s feelings.
If a child says he feels anxious, ask him why. Rather than trying to explain why his fears aren’t rational, affirm what he’s feeling. You want kids to know they can talk to you about anything, so if you tell them their fears aren’t valid, they may not share with you again.
Don’t try to “fix” kids’ anxiety.
You probably have great intentions, but unless you’re a trained professional, just stick with supporting the child.
Respect the child’s choices regarding church activities.
A child may not want to come to your kids’ program, and that’s okay. Don’t force kids or coax them with, “I’m so sad you won’t be there.” This can make children even more anxious because now they have your feelings to deal with.
Let the parents participate.
If parents want to be at the kids’ program with their kids, they’re not being “helicopter parents.” They’re the experts on their children, and they know how to best support them when anxiety flares up.
Be careful with the words you use about salvation.
As it turns out, I’m not the only person with anxiety who agonized over whether I was “really saved.” Keep language positive, and make it super clear that it’s not about words in the prayer but a heart and desire to follow Jesus that matters—even when we mess up!
Ellen Stumbo is the director of Disability Matters, where she encourages every church to embrace disability.