"What if all the other kids don't like me?" is a question that has come up at bedtime the night before school starts. "What if I try out, and I don't make the team?" These are normal worries and concerns kids face. Adults face them as well, but we pretend to be more sophisticated about it. At the end of the day, we are insecure about our popularity among coworkers. We stress over "making the team," or in our case, getting the job.
Children are humans, though this fact can be difficult to remember when they are in middle school! Humans are flawed in many ways. Regardless of our age, we struggle to do the right thing, and this is exacerbated by the fact that we live in a fallen world with plenty of bad influences, struggles, and sin. Out of this brokenness, we experience stress and anxiety, and we can cope with these struggles with more brokenness.
Raising kids, especially kids adopted out of an abusive background, has challenged us on the issue of coping with life's stresses. When emotions run high, our functionality in daily tasks diminishes. We notice that two of our kids really struggle in this area. When they are stressed, anxious, happy, or excited they can forget how to put on a shirt. They may not be able to tie their shoes. They may not be able to write legibly. Literally, they can regress developmentally to half their age in the blink of an eye.
How do we teach them to cope? How do we cope? Emotions and stress are part of our normal experience, but what is a normal, healthy response to these things? People often turn to gimmicks. They put a rubber band around their wrist and pop it every time they worry. They may eat chocolate. They may bite fingernails. They may lash out at others. They may drink alcohol. They may squeeze a stress ball. We often act out in unhealthy ways or turn to tangible comforts to cope with stress and heightened emotions.
Truth, not gimmicks, is ultimately the best way to cope with stress and anxiety.
Most of the things we worry about never come to pass. Unfortunately, we can be preoccupied with these worries. Excitement can operate the same way. We can get excited about an upcoming event or moment and build up in our minds what we think it will be like, though it may never come to pass as we imagine. We become distracted by the anxiety of a future stress or opportunity, and we lose touch with the here and now. How do we combat this?
We can contrast our worries with truth. The simplest way to do this is to write down the things that cause us anxiety or nervous anticipation. The list needs to include everything we worry about. Can I pay the bills? Will those storms come our way? Will my child get hurt today? Will the kids at school like me? Whatever it is, we need to write it down. Then put a date by it.
Two weeks later, we can review that list and contrast those worries with what actually happened. Ninety percent of the items on the list either did not happen or did not happen to the degree we expected. Truth is crucial. Jesus said the truth will set us free (John 8:30-32). The freedom He spoke of is freedom from sin, freedom from the world's way of doing things, and freedom from broken ways of coping with life. The truth is something for which Christians can ask and have.
Psalm 25:5 is part of a prayer that deals with the stress of conflict in life. This verse asks God, "Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all the day long." Jesus even prayed that we would be cleansed ("sanctified") by the truth, and then he specified that God's Word is the truth (John 17:17). Our tendency is to exchange the truth of God for a lie (Romans 1:25), so we must be on guard.
Name and Claim both the Problem and the Truth
I do not ascribe to "name it and claim it, blab it and grab it" theology. That's not what I'm talking about here. We have tried to consistently help our children identify the truth in the midst of their anxiety. We make them identify what they are worried about. We make them talk through why they are worried about it and how they imagine this concern will pan out. Through those discussions, we are able to point out what is real versus false ideas they created on their own. We also remind them of ultimate truths that do not change. Even if all the kids at school did not like them, this does not change how valuable and loved they are at home. We remind our kids that they meant enough to God that He was willing to give up His own Son for them (Romans 8:32) and that nothing can separate them from His love (Romans 8:37-39). We remind them that we love them regardless of their popularity at school.
Follow Up Is Important
We revisit the worries. Two weeks into the new school year, we assess if the other kids at school like them or not. Of course, our children discover that the kids at school did not hate them as anticipated. With enough of these experiences, slowly our children begin to trust what we say on such issues, and they gain more confidence. The same goes for us. We have to revisit our own worries to see what did or did not come to pass.
Our children often don't want to talk about their anxiety. They hope that if they ignore it, then it will go away. However, the opposite happens, and they struggle to function. Grownups are no different. We cannot ignore the problems away when the problems won't ignore us. We can be quite blunt with our kids, and ourselves, in this area. We hope to teach them to identify the problem so they can handle it instead of the problem handling them.
God desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). He knows the power of truth. Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes to the Father except by Him. The Truth put on flesh and dwelt among us, because He loves us. He wants to set us free from the anxiety and disfunction of our brokenness. I pray daily for the wisdom to lead my children to this freedom. I pray I model it for them as well.