Parents and supporters are well aware that as our students prepare to board their buses or join the carpool line this August, they will face new challenges, perhaps even before the school year starts. And similarly, we may be encountering a challenge - how to best come alongside our students through the struggle of back to school anxiety. Scripture teaches us a lot on the topic of anxiety, offering us particular guidance on what a whole person approach to anxiety can look like. We can use this wisdom to access practical strategies to equip and care for our students, especially if we know that this is an area of struggle before the school year starts. In fact, these principles can be helpful for us adults, as well.
Based on the way that our brain works, it is best to begin with regulating our bodies when we are anxious or fearful.1 God created us as embodied souls (Gen 2:7, 1 Corinthians 15:42-9, 2 Corinthians 5:1-10) therefore, our brains and bodies have a strong response when we sense a threat to our physical or emotional safety. It takes about 20-30 minutes for our bodies to metabolize chemicals like adrenaline and cortisol to gain a sense of calm.
Before you approach your anxious child, check your own level of anxiety, fear, or anger. The verbal and nonverbal cues that you give your anxious child will influence their ability to regulate. If you need to regulate yourself first, take time for that. When you are ready, you can reflect God's love and steadfastness, to comfort your child. This is what is praised in Psalm 136. When addressing an anxious child or teen, it is first helpful to affirm that it’s normal to be anxious and that you will be there with them through the difficult emotion. Next, you can guide your child to breathe slowly with a count of four in and a count of seven out for three minutes. If it would be helpful, you can direct your child to breathe in God’s love and breathe out the fear. If you have a child that needs movement when they are anxious, you can substitute slow breathing for walking, running, or doing a repetitive activity. Younger children often like the relaxation exercise called “Robot/Ragdoll,” where the child tenses all of their muscles like a robot, then releases them and becomes a floppy ragdoll.
Once your child is feeling more calm, you can connect with them to discuss the anxiety at hand. If your child enjoys touch when anxious, this would be a good time to ask if you can hug or hold them. Moving forward, Philippians 4:4-8 encourages us to meet anxiety with “prayer and [requests]”, as well as, thought work, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” Ask your child if either you or your child can pray to start your discussion. Then listen carefully to their thoughts and concerns. Ensure that ample time is given to listening and validating the hard feelings. You can respond by saying things like, “It’s really hard to feel that way” or “Sometimes I get anxious when things change, too.”
Many times, negative past experiences cause our anxiety. Investigate this with your child and share that it’s okay if a cause isn’t found. Negative experiences can result in faulty thinking or false beliefs. If this is the case, you can ask your child if they are ready to hear some truth that might help. If they need more time before moving from sharing feelings to hearing truth, let them know that you’ll check with them later. You can share with your child that it’s okay if their “head” knows the truth, but it doesn’t feel true to them. There also may be ways to problem solve your student’s anxiety. If this is the case, make sure to allow them to be an active participant in the solution as this will grow their independence and emotional capability.
Guiding your student to practice these strategies, even when they are feeling calm, will empower them to utilize the tools when they are upset. The younger the child, the more repetitions will be needed to learn these skills. Children and teens (many times us adults as well!) will need prompts to use these tools when they are anxious until they become automatic. Depending on their developmental level, this may take time, however; you are teaching your student lifelong strategies to help steward their bodies and souls well. Most importantly, you are reflecting our Father’s love to your child or teen in a time of fear, building attachment with you when they feel alone and pointing them to their healing Creator in times of struggle.
1 See here for a practical example of body regulation: https://counseling.redeemer.com/updates/may-2019. For further discussion on helping children process anxious thoughts and responses, see Caring For the Souls of Children (Chapter 7), by Julie Lowe.
Check Parenting Through the Storms: a support group for parents in challenging situations a new support group led by Jessica Gallina.
Jessica Gallina taught and mentored children and adolescents as an intervention specialist for 12 years, before feeling called to become a biblical counselor.