Children aren’t the best conversation starters about their emotions and worries, because they don’t yet understand them themselves. Sometimes, they don’t even know that they are worried. They just know that their tummy hurts and they feel sad. They won’t necessarily connect that feeling with the fact that it’s their turn to do ‘Show and Tell’, or the week before their big sister starts secondary school.
As adults, we need to be on the lookout for the hints our children give about their worries. These might be physical signs of anxiety (eg tummy ache, headache, fast heart rate or feeling like they need to go to the toilet a lot), or a slightly odd question or comment. Once, on a beach in May, my son started asking me about school shoes for September! I was tempted to just bat this question away – “we don’t need to worry about that now” – but it’s always worth being curious so I asked a follow-up question, “Why is that bothering you now?” His answer revealed a tangle of hidden anxieties, “What if there’s another lockdown and all the shops shut again? What if you lose your job and we can’t afford them? What if I arrive at school without the things I need?”
When the worries come spilling out, it’s easy to lose it yourself, to join the doom spiral and wonder how you could have failed to protect them from having such thoughts. Instead, stop. Take a breath. Pray for God’s help. Remember, this is a good moment not a parenting failure. Your child trusts you enough to share a worry that might seem silly. He’s carrying a burden that’s too heavy for him, so he’s bringing it to a person that God gave him to share his problems with. It’s not our job to prevent our child from ever feeling worried. It’s our job to teach them what to do when it happens.
Try to understand what they’re really worrying about. It’s not actually about the shoes, it’s the unknown, the lack of control, the unexpected. All those ‘What if ..?’ questions are a reminder that we don’t know the future. In the past few years, our children have faced big changes in their lives, and many of them are struggling more with anxious thoughts as a result. But throughout it all, God has been faithful to his people and has kept his promises.
Once we’ve taken the time to listen to our children talk about their worries – the things that feel big and hard – we can also point them to the God who is good and is with them.
For instance, “Even if all the shops are shut, and you can’t get new school shoes, your teachers will understand. Let’s imagine I lose my job and we have very little money – Can you think of other people who would help us? Psalm 46 describes for us a day when it literally feels like the sky is falling, and the mountains tumble into the sea. Even in the absolute worst of disasters, God is our safe place to run to. Can you think of ways he has been kind to us in the past? We can trust him with the future. He is big enough to hold our worries for us because they are too big for us to hold on our own. Let’s talk to him about the shoes, right now.”
Look out for more posts in this series, answering specific questions our kids might ask, coming over the next few months.