Help for the Anxious Child
Kathryn L. Stout, B.S.Ed., M.Ed.
Published: January 2002
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Is your child a perfectionist? Is he easily frustrated? Frequently worried? Does he struggle with poor self-esteem? The answers to these questions should give you insight into whether or not your child has the confidence to learn or, instead, retreats from challenges, afraid of failing. Here are a few suggestions to encourage the nervous child or one who has poor self-esteem:
- The very atmosphere surrounding children should reinforce the belief that mistakes are a normal part of learning. We all make mistakes, no one is perfect. The perfectionist sets impossible, mistake-free standards for himself and mentally punishes himself if he does not effortlessly accomplish each goal. It is necessary for these children to recognize that courage means doing something in spite of being afraid, and that it is courageous to continue trying after making mistakes.
- Establish routines (without making learning boring!). Routine and an orderly atmosphere have a calming effect on nervous children. Since they tend to "over think," routine reduces the number of decisions they must make. Visual learners tend to be unsettled by clutter, while the auditory and kinesthetic children may only be unsettled at the thought of having to clean up the clutter. Either way, "a place for everything, and everything in its place" helps reduce stress.
- Teach your children who they are in Christ and that God is in control. Anxious children are fearful of many things—change, challenges, and even making decisions—often because they ultimately fear disapproval. What if people don't like them in this new situation? What if they can't handle whatever unknown expectations people will have of them? They may be overwhelmed by their lack of control. Without control, they risk humiliation. Frequently, these children are overly-sensitive, misinterpreting words and behavior to reinforce their expectation of disapproval. They could say a shy "Hello" to someone who was looking in their direction, but not at them. That person may not respond because he didn't see or hear that quiet voice. However, instead of reminding themselves of positive possibilities, these children tend to draw faulty conclusions that leave them hurt and disappointed. In this case, they may conclude that the person they greeted ignored them because he doesn't like them.
- Pray as a family about important decisions and pray with your children about decisions and situations they face personally. This habit of turning to God and letting Him be in control is very reassuring to an anxious child.
- Use classical and uplifting gospel music to soothe tension. Just as King Saul was refreshed when David played the harp, we can all benefit from such musical breaks. During times of anxiety or fear, praise is a wonderful antidote.
It is essential, as a teacher, to break down difficult tasks into small steps to ensure that a student experiences lots of little successes. This approach should also distract the perfectionist from dwelling on what he may perceive as an overwhelming goal. For example, when he practices a song for his weekly piano lesson, he can first be told just to learn the notes for his right hand in the first line. Within a very short time he may achieve success. Continuing with this approach, he will ultimately play the piece well, but with a positive attitude throughout. Otherwise, this type of child tends to hear only his mistakes and despair at how long it is taking to "get it right." Your instructions and encouragement will, hopefully, eventually replace his negative thinking even when he approaches situations on his own.
Kids also need time to succeed. Continuing with the example above, some children may master a simple song within minutes and others may take days. In public schools, many children feel as if they are drowning because a set pace is enforced; they are expected to keep up. The poor grades that result when they can't cause them to believe that the teacher thinks they are stupid or lazy. If this continues long enough they may decide that "opinion" is a correct. If they are given time to succeed, their self-image can remain intact.
They need to be continually reminded of things that will help change their outlook. Explanations of possible reasons for other people's behavior will help them "give themselves a break." Reminders that you love them unconditionally, but that their behavior, like everyone else's, needs correction at times, can help them separate who they are from what they do. Because these kids tend to hold onto every sour look and harsh word, it may take a dozen encouraging comments to offset just one stern look! All kids need plenty of reminders of what you like about them. Be especially generous with sincere compliments if your child is anxious or has poor self-esteem.
Reminding these kids that God loves them, that it is by His grace, not our perfection, that we enter His kingdom, and that God is not only in control but wants us to accept His direction and help in every situation—especially those scary new ones—also offers reassurance. Without these concepts in place, these children may eventually become so preoccupied with an artificial attempt at pleasing both God and men that they never experience the freedom from preoccupation with self and the ability to act out of love that a real relationship with Christ provides.
Following are just a few of the many passages of Scripture that may prove helpful to these children. They may be copied as part of their handwriting lessons, or written on note cards for easy and regular reference. When parents recite these same Scriptures as they reassure their children, they also serve as models for applying God's Word in a practical way.
For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. Ephesians 2:8,9
Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new. 2 Corinthians 5:17
Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think any thing as of ourselves; but our sufficiency is of God. 2 Corinthians 3:5
I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me. Philippians 4:13
The joy of the Lord is your strength. Nehemiah 8:10
Be joyful always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (NIV)
Fear not, for I am with you. Isaiah 43:5
Being confident of this very thing, that he which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:6
Now unto him that is able to keep you from falling, and to present you faultless before the presence of his glory with exceeding joy, To the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen. Jude 24-25
In all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us. Romans 8:37
Do not be anxious about anything; but in every thing by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds through Christ Jesus. Philippians 4: 6-7 (NIV)
But my God shall supply all your need according to his riches in glory by Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:19
Change may not be immediate, but in time a joyful outlook may become a habit. Hopefully, we can give our children the tools to become confident adults who embrace life. And, by God's grace, may they be continually shaped into images of Christ.