“Dear God, please help me not to worry at school tomorrow.”
My son spoke this prayer every night, lying in bed with his eyes clenched and hands clasped. My heart ached with each repeated plea as I watched him struggle to overcome the frightening monster of anxiety that had gripped him his entire young life.
Born a physically healthy baby, he came into the world with an anxious soul.
He was happy and cuddly when in my arms, yet often fretful and clingy if too far from me. At just a few months old, he was plagued with night terrors that caused hours of inconsolable crying. Separation anxiety tormented him as a toddler, and every morning he would cling to me desperately as I tried to leave for work.
Throughout his young life, his mind continued to race and night terrors kept him awake. We searched desperately for a solution. He started counseling at five years old to find coping skills.
After eight long years, my son was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. He was prescribed medication, and finally, we began to see improvement. The overwhelming angst was eased. Sleep came a little easier.
FINDING HOPE IN GOD
God does not desire us to worry. Scripture is littered with encouragements to release worry and trust in God (Matt. 6:34, Luke 12:25). He does not want his children to suffer. God told his prophet Isaiah to “Say to those with fearful hearts, ‘Be strong, do not fear; your God will come’” (Isa. 35:4).
But how do you help a child who has fought clinical anxiety since the day he was born? How do you encourage a fearful eight-year-old to trust in the promises of God? How could I help my son beyond what medicine could provide?
These are the questions I wrestled deeply with. I knew that while I could hold, calm, love, and encourage my son, at the end of the day I was not the answer. He needed the anchor of God to keep him secure in what would become a lifelong battle.
I used what I knew about God’s quieting love (Zeph. 3:17) and implemented techniques to help my son hold on to his belief that God was listening to his prayers, to encourage him to find comfort in God, to pursue thankfulness in all circumstances, and to find lasting peace in God.
GOD IS ALWAYS LISTENING
Even before my son was old enough to fully understand his relationship with God, I encouraged him to find comfort in praying to God. Day or night, at home or school, I challenged him to talk to God as if he was an imaginary friend who would always listen. “Cast all your anxieties on him,” Peter writes, “because he cares for you” (1 Pet. 5:7).
In moments of anxiousness, which would often occur at the end of a long school day, I instructed my son to tell God how he was feeling and to ask God to help him recognize signs that the day was coming to a close (i.e., was there a last subject that indicated the day was almost over?)
As he became familiar with these signs that marked the end of the day, his worrisome prayers turned into giving thanks for these markers:
“Thank you, God, for helping me through until Reading class was over. Now there’s only 30 minutes left to see mommy!”
THE LORD WILL RENEW YOUR MIND
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” Paul told the Philippian church (Phil. 4:6-7).
My son needed ways to quiet his thoughts and renew his mind, especially at night. So we came up with an imagery technique that at his tender youngest of ages he was able to do. He still uses it today.
As he laid down to go to bed, I would encourage him to imagine Jesus’ white robe. White is a serene color that is calming and simple to focus on. I’d tell him to imagine he was walking up to Jesus to hug him and the only thing he could see was the whiteness of the robe. He wasn’t allowed to have any other thoughts enter his mind. I would gently remind him over and over to keep thinking of the hug from Jesus and the whiteness in front of him.
It took practice, but he became good at this and eventually didn’t need my instruction. He later told me how, as simple as it was, it somehow helped him calm his mind.
“Be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God” (Rom. 12:2).
Despite the anxiety, my son was a happy boy. He had friends. He participated in sports and team activities. He did well in school. And it was in these positive aspects of his life that I reinforced the goodness of God. I was able to point out to him that giving thanks for those good and joyful times not only honored God, but also reminded him that life was okay.
It was not easy, and sometimes he would give thanks while not truly believing the words he said. However, as he consciously recognized the good and chose to not dwell on fear, his mood would often start to shift.
The very act of thankfulness set up a sort of framework for my son. Whether he was upset at school, having a meltdown at night, or just chewing over his nagging thoughts, I frequently had him create a list of positive things in his life. If I detected a lightening of his mood, I would say, “See, that’s God in your heart making things better!”
“Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever!” (Ps. 107:1).
A PIECE OF GOD
I realized when my son was four years old that he needed something tangible to hold that would give him reassurance of God’s peace and presence. So I had a soft doll made that looked like a little boy but had angel wings. It had a heart on the chest and one on the hand.
When I gave the doll to him, I pointed out the heart on the doll’s chest and said that was to always remind him that God loved him. I kissed the heart on the doll’s hand and told him that no matter where I was, he always had a kiss from me.
My son kept the doll close for years, and it remains on a shelf in his closet today.
Although he doesn’t carry the doll around anymore, he still finds comfort in a tactile way. He wears a cross necklace, and if you watch him long enough, you’ll see him roll the cross on the chain repetitively. When asked about it, he’ll admit not realizing he does it and explain that it’s soothing.
There is nothing necessarily spiritual about these items, yet they serve as tangible reminders to an anxious soul that God is good, and he is near. Whether it’s an angel doll or cross necklace, the peace of God can come from a piece of God.
“I am leaving you with a gift—peace of mind and heart” (John 14:27).
THE PEACE OF GOD
My son is now twenty. His clinical anxiety will always be a part of his life, and my heart will always ache when his anxiety gives him trouble. In these moments, our conversations are painfully reminiscent of my little boy and his struggles years before.
But one evening as we talked about how he was doing, I felt relief wash over me when he said, “Do you know that song that says ‘my fear doesn’t stand a chance when I stand in your love?’” I nodded.
“I’m okay, mom,” he said. “I know God’s with me in this.”
Elin Phillips lives in central Texas and is a wife and mother to two college-age sons. Having taught elementary English and Reading, writing remains a passion and creative outlet. Her writing focuses on God’s truths that he’s taught her through her struggles, including multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, extra pulmonary tuberculosis, and her younger son’s lifelong fight against generalized anxiety disorder. After having to retire from teaching, she continued her love of children through the creation of the nonprofits My Heart Guardian Angel Dolls and the Pediatric Multiple Sclerosis Alliance.