He cried all the way to school, and I cried all the way home. Day after day my 7-year-old’s fears loomed large in our lives. The latest fear was of school, but over the years, his other fears had kept us from normal life routines.
Thunderstorms kept us up at night as we tried to calm his terror.
He and I stopped attending a weekly Bible study with child care because of his fear of an automatic garage door.
A family trip on an airplane was approached with dread.
Screams from the backseat echoed as we drove past the mall where Santa was inside.
Panic ensued when balloons were brought out to add to the “fun.” (Just think about how many places have balloons.)
Both my husband and I are educators, so we pulled out discipline to psychology from our bag of tricks. By the time Nolan reached seven, his fears were truly overwhelming to the entire family and debilitating in daily life. We were exhausted and at the end of our rope.
Finally, in desperation we turned to a Christian counselor, Pat.
She met with Nolan several times, but then Pat began meeting with just me. In one of our first meetings, she asked me to make a complete list of all of Nolan’s fears from the beginning. I started the list, and then I listed some more. And I listed. And I listed. I was stunned when I looked at the full scope of all his fears at once. Although I had wanted to blame his teachers for his newest fear of school, it was clear when I looked at that long list that his fear of school was just one more symptom, not the root.
Each week when Pat and I met, she opened with prayer, asked for an update, and gave our family a new “homework” assignment for overcoming Nolan’s fears.
I clearly remember when I finally got the courage to ask the question that had been weighing on my heart from the beginning. Through tears I explained to Pat my family’s history of mental illness containing both depression and schizophrenia. “Is this just the beginning?” I asked. “I need to know what to expect.”
Pat smiled, explained that childhood anxiety is usually short-lived, and then told me a story. Pat had a friend who had struggled with overwhelming fear and anxiety since she was a child. As her friend grew up, she came to a saving knowledge of Jesus followed by a calling to missions.
The friend overcame her fear enough to move to a foreign country, but she confessed to Pat that there was constantly a gap of time between God speaking to her and obedience while she overcame the fear of change.
Pat gently reached for my hand and said, “Amy, you’re doing the right thing helping Nolan now to face and overcome his fears. If my friend had gotten help as a child, she would be able to obey God with joy instead of fear. That’s the goal!”
I sobbed with relief and stoked my determination to fight Nolan’s fears (and mine) to the death. If you’re in those shoes today, my friend, I want to encourage you. Your child’s fears can be vanquished, and it’s worth the work. Just keep your eye on the prize.
We conquer fears to follow God fearlessly.
My heart goes out to you if your child is struggling with fear. I know how hard it is to know what to do. Here are some steps that worked for us:
- Memorize scripture with your child—Knowing key scriptures by heart was really important. At the very beginning of an “episode,” we would say these scriptures out loud and remind ourselves of the truths in them. We’d say the verse: “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear….” (I Jn 4: 18a). Then I’d ask Nolan to say who loves him. Sometimes just doing this would calm him.
- Talk about thought patterns—We talked about how fear is like a snowball rolling down a hill. The longer it rolls, the larger and faster it gets. When Nolan would start to panic, we’d say, “Let’s not let the snowball roll down the hill. Let’s talk about/think about something else.”
- Make fun of fear—Nolan and his dad gave fear a silly name. (I’m not going to tell you what it really was, because you’d judge me. Ha! Suffice it to say, it wasn’t too terrible for a second grader, and it made Nolan giggle.) When Nolan would start to get scared, Barry would say, “Oh, there’s fear. He’s such a big dummy head!” For some reason only known to boys, it would get them both laughing every time. There’s nothing like laughter to break fear!
- Work on desensitization—This method takes some time, but it’s very effective. The idea is to work up to facing the fear one step at a time. Here’s how it worked at our house with thunderstorms:
- Step 1: Read books about thunderstorms that explain what causes them. Look at the pictures and talk through the book with your child.
- Step 2: Listen to a recording of a thunderstorm with your child on your lap and with the volume low. Gradually turn up the volume until it’s very loud.
- Step 3: Sit with your child on your lap watching a thunderstorm from inside.
- Step 4: Sit with your child on your lap watching a thunderstorm outside from under a covered porch.
- Step 5: The family sleeps soundly through thunderstorms. Oh, happy day!!
- Enlist the help of a Christian counselor—Our family has hired a Christian counselor several times when we ran into problems we couldn’t seem to solve ourselves. In each case, we only saw the counselor for a very limited time before we were back on our feet again. We’ve been very thankful for the help, and I’m a huge advocate. If you are looking for a well-qualified, Christian counselor in your area, Focus on the Family has an excellent referral service.
Today, Nolan is a thriving high school senior. He didn’t overcome his fear and anxiety overnight, but we haven’t seen signs of them in years. He’s eager for his story to be told to help other kids, so he gave me full permission to share it here.
If you’re struggling with a child who is anxious and fearful, take heart! It’s a challenging road, but your child can overcome his or her fears and grow from the experience.
This week, I’m giving away copy of Lysa TerKeurst’s new children’s book It Will be Ok which addresses childhood fears. Just leave a comment to enter. If you’re in a hurry, just leave “Perfect love drives out fear!” as your comment.
Winner is Wendy Fernandez! Thank you to all who participated in this giveaway.
*Please leave your comments below!