When Anxiety Attacks: Helping Children Navigate Fear, Doubt, & Insecurity

I’m relatively new to the world of college education, having served as an adjunct faculty member and now academic dean for only a few years to date. However, I am quickly becoming familiar with the issues impacting teenagers and young adults. Sadly, they are often presented to me from the chair across my desk. The fears, doubts, and insecurities common among my students are ones that we likely have all faced at some point, but their commonality does not make them any less impactful or taxing. What can best be described as anxiety has a firm grasp on the next generation, and as Christian leaders and parents, we should be paying attention to this trend.

Anxiety is commonly understood as a natural human response to stress or perceived danger characterized by feelings of worry, fear, unease, or dread. As one of the most common mental health disorders, anxiety disorders are estimated to impact nearly 30% of adults at some point in their lives.1 In fact, anxiety’s occurrence is so pervasive, The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation ranked it as the eighth leading cause of disability globally in 2019.2

Anxiety disorders are estimated to impact nearly 30% of adults at some point in their lives

Symptoms of anxiety, which include both physical and psychological challenges, range in intensity from minor to debilitating and, when untreated, can interfere with daily activities, relationships, and overall well-being. Although it is often understood as a condition impacting adults, studies show that anxiety is increasingly common among children, with diagnoses growing significantly between 2016 and 2020, according to the JAMA Network.3 The symptoms of anxiety in children are like those present in adults, impacting their social, emotional, and academic development.

Clearly, anxiety is on the rise. What is less clear, however, is what causes anxiety, how Christians should understand it, and how we can help others, especially children, overcome it. The waters are often murky, but there is a path forward for parents, teachers, and others who wish to help children, teenagers, and young adults thrive despite the anxiety they face.

What is Anxiety and What are its Root Causes?
The difference between anxiety and an anxiety disorder is an important distinction. Whereas the National Library of Medicine defines anxiety as “a feeling of fear, dread, and uneasiness,” it notes that anxiety disorders are “conditions in which [one has] anxiety that does not go away and can get worse over time.”4 Though the two are related, anxiety is something we all experience while an anxiety disorder is a recognized medical condition resulting in anxiety that must be diagnosed by a health professional. For the purposes of this article, we will focus our attention on the emotional response rather than the disorder.

As to what produces anxiety, experts recognize several root causes besides anxiety disorders themselves. Stressful life events (both past and current ones) at work, at school, at home, in finances, in personal relationships, and in the world at large can lead to consistent anxious thoughts. Physiological causes of anxiety include illness, lack of sleep, poor diet, lack of exercise, excessive consumption of caffeine or alcohol, prescription medication side effects, and illegal drug use.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?

As Christians, however, we must consider the possibility of spiritual causes for the anxiety we experience. The testimony of Scripture is unambiguous: worry and anxiety are common but unhelpful and sinful responses to life’s challenges. Jesus noted in Matthew 6:25, “Do not be worried about your life,” Paul counseled in Philippians 4:6,“[Do] not be anxious about anything,” and both affirm that the solution to anxiety is trusting that God is equally sovereign and good. These lapses in faith, whether short or long-term, cause us to act in opposition to our beliefs. As Paul David Tripp speculates, “Perhaps [worry] renders us timid, passive, and doubtful when our theology tells us we have every reason to be courageous, active, and confident.”5

Helping Children, Teens, and Young Adults Face and Overcome Anxiety
Of course, individual causes of anxiety require specific responses, and those seeking to help younger people cope with their anxiety will find some solutions to be more straightforward than others. We can watch our children’s diets and sleep patterns, encouraging healthier choices and eliminating some of the physical causes of anxiety. We should monitor social media usage among the teenagers under our care because studies show a correlation between social media usage and depressive symptoms, anxiety, and loneliness.6 We may consider consulting with a doctor to see if medical assistance is needed in those situations where consistent anxious thoughts plague their minds.

As stated, however, the root cause for anxiety in the life of a Christian often is the gap between our right theology and our errant response to stress and hardship. When the cause for anxiety is a spiritual one, we can help in the following ways:

  1. Listen to Their Concerns with Patience
    We all know how frightening and lonely life can appear when we feel unheard or when we believe there is no one to whom we can turn for help. Conversely, as parents, we are all too familiar with how easy it is to become angry when our children refuse to stay in bed, act out in public, or bring home reports of distracted or inappropriate conduct at school. We can either conclude that they are being ill-tempered and defiant, or we can seek to discover if the behaviors stem from anxiety, worry, or fear. The first steps to helping our children are seeking them out, hearing their struggles, and confirming that we understand what is troubling them. Once we have truly heard them, we can begin to navigate the challenges that are causing the anxiety.
  2. Normalize Anxiety without Affirming It
    The presence of fear and doubt can be suffocating, as can the knowledge that, as Christians, we should be responding to every challenge or hardship with increasing trust in our Heavenly Father. Children especially need their parents, teachers, and pastors to help them remember that, while it is not the right response to fear, worry is a normal reaction in a fallen and broken world in which we are plagued by the presence of sin.
  3. Direct Them to the Truth when They are Believing Lies
    Anxious thoughts grow from faulty perspectives of the world and inaccurate beliefs about God. Our children need us to remind them that their true enemy, Satan, is the father of lies (John 8:44), and as the author of confusion and fear, he wants them to believe his lies so he can have victory. When anxiety comes, remind your children that “God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline” (2 Timothy 1:7). Speak the gospel to them, remind them of God’s providential care, and assure them that they have nothing to fear because God is in control. Yes, you can share with them lessons from your experiences, but do not miss the opportunity to direct them to God’s Word, the source of truth and the truest help in difficult times.
  4. Teach Them that Prayer Works
    When your son wakes you up at night, unable to sleep because of fear, pray with him. When your teenage daughter weeps because of a wounded heart, pray with her. When your son calls you from his college dorm room, shaken, unsure of how to cope with the stresses of school, pray with him. When your adult daughter drops by, hopeless, exhausted, and worried that her newborn will never sleep through the night, pray with her. And when your grown son tells you through his tears that he feels like a failure, not knowing if he can provide for his family, pray with him. Your prayer habits will become your children’s prayer habits because you are their example of the Christian life. What you do, they will do too.

Life is hard. In fact, Jesus promised us as much when he told the disciples, “In the world, you have tribulation” (John 16:33). We cannot protect our children from all of the world’s anxiety-inducing evils and trials. We can, though, teach them to believe that Jesus has overcome the world. We must show them how to trust God through all of life’s challenges, remembering that the key to overcoming fear is to live having “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).

Dr. Jason Barker (MDiv, DMin) has served as a pastor and educator for twenty years. He is the Dean of Academics at Oak Valley College in Rialto, California, and serves as an adjunct faculty member at four other colleges and seminaries. He, his wife, and their four children live in Southern California.