The next to last thing we want is to parent, nurture, and raise scared, fearful, and frightened children. What a far cry from the Lord’s healthy, wholesome, and lively design.
The last thing we want, however, is to raise foolhardy, injury-prone, and absolutely fearless children. Just ask my parents.
Yes, I was that kid.
On a whim I climbed forty feet to the top of an evergreen only to have the top quickly bend straight down and hurl me shoulder-smash after shoulder-smash down to its largest branch, which I snapped before landing face-to-face with a boulder several times my own weight. I crawled back into the house, severely sore and bruised, and read books for two days.
Yes, my dad took one look at the snapped branch and immediately guessed what happened. Many years later, he and my mom asked why I never cried. According to them, I never cried once. Then again, I’m far from normal.
So, what’s normal?
My youngest grandson, Bryson, seemed absolutely fearless from the moment he learned to roll around and then crawl. A few months later, walking took things to a whole new level. He wanted to explore everything.
Inevitably, Bryson started climbing. Onto furniture. Up bookshelves. Onto dining room chairs. Into kitchen cupboards. We were scared to death, but he was happy as could be.
Loud noises, flying objects, being chased, and even falling onto the floor didn’t phase Bryson.
Bryson was nearly 20 months ago before he finally flinched. He flinched for just a second, but we cheered. Fear had started its good, natural, and very necessary work inside our grandson.
As they get older, kids get to know fear all too well. Older kids sometimes get to know lots of fear. They certainly know how it feels. They sometimes come to understand how they typically respond to it.
By and large, however, our children don’t know how to overcome their fears. That’s where we come in.
Here are the 7 fastest ways to help your child overcome fear in healthy, safe ways.
1. Make It normal within Your Family to Talk about Fear
Begin by praying about any fear your child has mentioned.
Tell stories about times you have felt fearful--as a child, as a young person, and as an adult. Again, make it normal to talk within your family about fear.
Of course, don’t assume that your child understands what the word “fear” means (and doesn’t mean). Use everyday examples such as shopping at the mall (getting lost?), going to the park (falling down?), being at school (mean kids?), or walking around the neighborhood (barking dogs?).
Even more importantly, don’t assume that your child knows the four ways that men, women, youth and children respond to fear. Yes, four is a child-friendly number. So, most kids ages 7 and up can catch on quickly.
So, how do you help your child do that? The three fastest ways are…
2. Talk with your child about "Fight" or "Flight"
The two most common responses to fear. We’ve heard about them down through the years.
Fight is easy to picture. The Lockwood Elementary School’s recess bully walked up and punched me in the face. Most kids would cry. I slugged him back as fast and hard as I could (only once). He fell to the ground, crying, with a bloody nose.
The principal asked why he shouldn’t discipline me. I said I was confident that bully would never pick on anyone anymore. He nodded his head and waved me out of his office. Granted, this isn’t a good story to tell your kids, but sometimes, sometimes, fight is best.
Other times, flight is the best option. A known criminal came into downtown Portland, Oregon, for a three-day crime spree. One of those mornings I saw him walking quickly toward me. I put down my briefcase and walked away at a measured, self-controlled clip. The crook took the bait and I disappeared.
Two minutes later I swung back through, picked up my briefcase (just work inside), and continued on to my office.
3. Talk with Your Child about "Freeze"
The third most common response to fear. This is the one that gets far less media coverage: freeze.
Thankfully, children’s movies sometimes show what freeze looks like. So, look for opportunities to discuss it with your child. If your child is old enough to distinguish between fantasy and real-life, you’ll find some great examples in The Incredibles, Frozen, and the new Call of the Wild for older kids.
Important: explain why freeze is the worst response to most (not all) fearful situations. Then again, you’ll find two counterexamples when freeze is best here.
4. Talk with Your Child about the Very Best Response to Fear: Focus.
Scripture says God hates cowardice, but He also despises bravado. The last thing we want to do is tell our child to jump from fear straight to courage. Instead, we need to show them how to bridge the gap with focused truth.
So, how do you help your child focus? The two fastest ways are...
5. Recite and review Psalm 23’s five Very Important Promise words: “I will fear no evil.” And...
6. Create a physical way to differentiate between internal fear and external reality.
7. Read this inspiring real-life story to your family during dinner...
Jonathan’s New Focus
Our family of five was busy one evening. We were trying to complete all of our before-bed rituals. At least we were trying to complete them all, that is, until my wife, Renee, stopped me in the hall.
Renee gave me that “I think it’s time you had a talk with Jonathan” look. I knew exactly what she meant. Our seven-year-old son Jonathan had just verbalized for the eighth or tenth time in as many days that he was afraid of thinking about the dreaded “slime monster” after slipping into bed.
I had to admit, the slime monster was a particularly disgusting creature. It had slipped into the storyline of an otherwise winsome children’s public television program two weeks earlier. Just the thought of its ugly face still gave Jonathan the creeps.
Unfortunately, thoughts of the slime monster usually didn’t bother Jonathan until late at night, after Renee and I had slipped into bed. Not that Jonathan wailed and moaned asking us to rescue him each and every time. It’s just that we always felt like checking on him, knowing half the time he’d be lying there in bed wide-eyed and scared half out of his wits.
That night, as I tucked Jonathan into bed, I started talking about the dreaded slime monster. Contrary to what some might guess, I knew talking about the creature would help Jonathan not think about it.
“Jonathan,” I said as I messed up his hair and stroked his face. “You know that ugly slime monster? Well, the next time you think about it, I want you to do two things.”
I paused. Jonathan is a whiz at math. If I told him one thing, I knew he’d beg me to tell him the other.
“Whenever you think about that old monster, I want you to sit up in bed and slap your mattress.” I whacked the mattress twice for effect, then had him sit up and do it a couple times himself.
“No, harder Jonathan. I want you to really whack your mattress.” Pause. “Then, tell yourself, ‘This is real. That stupid slime monster isn’t even a little bit real.'”
Jonathan’s eyes brightened. I had him practice the whole routine two more times, until he really had it down.
Then Jonathan asked, “What’s next?”
“Well, then I want you to focus on five Very Important Promise words.” I walked over to his dresser, picked up his Bible, and turned to the middle.
“Remember Psalm 23 you’ve started to memorize for Sunday school?”
“Well, listen for five Very Important Promise words as I read this psalm.” I read from verse one to the middle, where the psalmist boldly declares: “I will fear no evil.”
I counted out those five VIP words on the fingers of my left hand, then had Jonathan repeat them half a dozen times, counting them out on my fingers.
I explained that we should fear no evil because of the next five VIP words: “for you [Lord] are with me.”. Then I read the rest of Psalm 23. Jonathan listened intently, more relaxed than I’d seen him in bed for nearly two weeks.
“Okay, Jonathan. What are you going to focus on the next time you think about that ugly slime monster?”
On cue, Jonathan sat up, whacked his mattress twice, recited the first five VIP words from Psalm 23, and snuggled back under his blankets. I gave him a high five, prayed with him, gave him a good night kiss, and tucked him in for the night.
Renee and I stayed up late that evening. But before calling it a night, I checked on Jonathan. He was sound asleep.
Jonathan’s first words when he woke up? “I will fear no evil!”
You should have seen his smile.
Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Sai De Silva
David Sanford’s book and Bible projects have been published by Zondervan, Tyndale, Thomas Nelson, Doubleday, Barbour, and Amazon. His newest book is Life Map Devotional for Men published concurrently with his wife Renee’s new book, Life Map Devotional for Women.