Children enter this world vulnerable. They must fully trust their caretakers to provide for all of their needs, and with such a big vulnerability comes big worries. The world is all brand new for them to explore without the experiences that reassure them that the darkness is safe and the monsters in scary movies aren’t real. They have yet to learn that, when their parents leave, they will come back, or that, although new situations can be scary to take on, fresh adventures often become some of our best experiences yet. As parents we have a responsibility to both protect, reassure, and encourage our children to learn how to cope and grow through the situations that cause them worry.
One of the common worries a child has is being in the dark. A worry over darkness should be no surprise to any of us; many of us adults feel uneasy in the dark and walk a little faster or become a little more alert when we don’t have enough light to illuminate our path. The Bible often speaks of light versus darkness, and darkness is associated with evil, and light is associated with good.
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil John 3:19 ESV.”
Understanding the Bible's association of evil being done in the darkness helps to further understand the worries that our children have of it instead of dismissing their concerns. Yet as Christians we know that God is bigger than any evil in the dark. God’s word guides us to the truth that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome” (John 1:5). As parents, we should reassure our children that God’s light overcomes the darkness and when he is with us we have nothing to fear. As parents we can also work on finding night lights to brighten up some of the scary shadows in their room, talk to them about how safe and loved they are in our home, and give them teddy bears and other things that help provide comfort to them as they adjust to being alone in the dark.
Another common worry children have growing up is of monsters. Most of us can remember the feeling of having to crawl into bed after seeing something scary on TV, or hearing a scary story at a campfire and being convinced that there was a monster hanging out under our bed waiting for the perfect time to get us. The imagination of a child is a beautiful gift, and something that comes so natural to kids.
“In a longitudinal test of creative potential, a NASA study found that of 1,600 4- and 5-year-olds, 98 percent scored at "creative genius" level. Five years later, only 30 percent of the same group of children scored at the same level, and again, five years later, only 12 percent. When the same test was administered to adults, it was found that only two percent scored at this genius level.”
With young children scoring 98% level of creativity it’s no wonder their imagination runs wild when they see images of monsters, and other scary things. Our children's increased creativity is important to consider when we are thinking about the ways in which we can protect our child.
We should be aware of the movies we allow them to see, the video games we let them play, and the activities we allow them to participate in. Their creative minds are on fire, and it’s our job as parents to protect them as best as we can as they mature and grow into adults who are more equipped to handle the images thrown at them. Nevertheless, no matter how hard we try to protect them they will come across something that is too scary for them, and when they do it’s our job to decipher what is real from what is made up. We can remind them that God will never leave their side even as they are dealing with the scary things they imagine, and encourage them to pray and call out to God whenever they are afraid.
Separation anxiety is a common worry among children. I have three kids and all of them have been “stage 4 clingers” and so navigating separation anxiety has been a big part of my parenting experience. My twins were born the year before the pandemic started so with all of that time around a limited amount of people it has been extra difficult to transition them to be around other people. Some of this worry is a very natural part of our children's development. Erick Erikson created eight stages of development which many in the mental health field use to understand child development better. Erickson theorized that during the toddler stage children go through a stage called “autonomy vs. shame and doubt” which basically means your toddler is learning how to do things independently. The reassurance and praise you give them will help encourage them to learn autonomy. If you discourage toddlers in their independence they could end up feeling shame and doubt in themselves and struggle with having their own autonomy.
Whether you agree with these stages of development or not, I think most of us have seen the importance of praising and supporting our children when they have separation and independence away from us, and the difference this support can have on their worry of being away. One way to support your children who struggle with this worry is to reassure them that you will be back. They still might cry when you leave but when they hear you say you will be back for them and then see the action of you coming back it will help reassure some of those worries of being apart.
Another way to help support your child as you leave is learning how to best support your individual child's needs. With my oldest son we could leave him to cry and then would find out that he would stop minutes after we left. With my daughter she needed us to stay with her if possible until she could get comfortable and then we could leave. Every child is different and it’s important to take their individual needs and personalities into account when you are learning how to support them best.
Another way to support them as you leave is giving them a picture or toy for them to have with them as you are away. When they have something they can cling to and bring them comfort, it helps them cope while you are gone. My son used to bring a picture of our family to preschool with him and he would take it out to hold and look at when he needed comfort. He only used it for the first week, and ended up giving it back and telling us he didn’t need it anymore. It was encouraging to see his confidence take hold after allowing him the space to have the comfort he needed to build it.
The worry of being in new situations is something that many of us deal with, but I believe it starts in childhood. As parents if we are able to help our child understand how to deal with this worry it will help set them up for a lifetime of coping with new experiences. Many children fear the unknown of new situations, and worry about what will happen, what they will experience, and if it will be a negative situation they will want to get out of.
Some common places this worry could show up is if they are starting a new sports team, going to a new school, or going on a field trip for the first time. If your child struggles with higher anxiety it’s important to allow them some control in the situation if you are able. As a parent it’s hard to step back at times and be aware that your child's defiance over starting something new might have a deeper layer of fear at its base.
Giving them some control could look like telling them that if they go to their first sports practice and don’t like it they don’t have to go again. Another idea is telling them they have to go on their field trip but if you are able to make it work agree to come with them as a chaperone for the first one. Try to work with them as you can, reminding yourself that many times the more you are there to support them, you are setting the expectation of them following through on something new and their adaptation will become easier.
Another way to help support your child in their worry over trying something new is talking through it with them. Part of this conversation will look like breaking down what the event or day will look like, giving them an idea of what they can expect. Another part of this conversation will be discussing the good or bad consequences of avoiding something new.
As parents we should be discussing the truth that there is always an element of learning involved in new experiences, and if they try something new and don’t like it at least they will know it’s not something they enjoy. Another consequence to discuss with them is that if they never try the new experience out of fear what if they miss out? This new experience may end up being the most enjoyable thing they have ever done and they would have never known it if they never took that first step to try. Finally ending the conversation, reminding them that God called us to be strong and courageous, and promised to always be with us.
“This is my command--be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).
Help encourage your child with the call to be strong and remind them that God’s power is always in them and with them. This truth will help empower them as they face the fear of the unknown.
From the day our children enter into this world, we are studying their every move whether we realize it or not. We know their likes, dislikes, fears, quarks, and start to see the little things that make them who they are. With all this knowledge of our children, we are the best people to walk through these common childhood worries and fears with them. As parents, we need to be their safe and stable place, allowing them to be open about the concerns they have. Nevertheless, as parents, we are also human and imperfect and need to remind our children that God is their perfect parent. God knows them even better than we do, and they are truly safe in his powerful and beautiful hands.
Rev. Dr. Rob Toornstra