Secular Parenting for an Anxious Child

Posted: April 13, 2015 in anxiety, atheism, fear, parenting, religion
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Having a child who suffers from an anxiety disorder makes for some interesting challenges. Potty training, for example, was an erroneously slow and tedious process. Even now, at six years old, it is a struggle to get my son to enter the bathroom alone. Every day seems to bring with it a new fear, a new worry, a new terror. Often, he does not even understand what it is that has caused him to feel so fearful and he cannot articulate his worries or concerns.

When fear strikes, he wants to run. He lashes out at those who try to speak with him – especially strangers. Like working with a startled animal, it takes patience and respect to maintain his trust and safety. He needs enough space to overcome the smothering sensation of too much attention, but he also needs someone right there, ready to take his hand and keep him from running headlong into a street.

As he grows and learns and develops, his fears become more complex. A religious individual would resort to prayer, blessings, trust in God, etc. The parent would share comforting stories of a heavenly father who sees all and intervenes on our behalf, of life after death, of heavenly rewards, of a Holy Spirit who lives in our hearts and soothes our ills… For many, faith is the answer to everything. Faith allows people to put aside their fears and believe in a being who watches over all things and has designed the world around us so that everything will work out for our good.

Of all the aspects of religion, I miss this the most. It is an easy answer to all life’s problems. A wrong answer… but easy. I miss it, not because I wish to comfort myself, but because I wish to comfort my child. I want to be able to assuage his fears and reassure him that everything will be alright. However, many of his fears have a legitimate foundation, and while I abhor seeing him in pain and anguish, I would feel absolutely horrid if I lied to him and told him he had nothing to fear.

Fear of death is a simple recurring topic between us. In particular, my son is afraid of MY death. The first time this fear was voiced, I was still a believer, and I told my son the go-to comforting answer that yes, mommy will die someday, but her spirit will live on and you will see her again in heaven. The story seemed to console him and the topic did not come up again until nearly a year later. He remembered what I’d told him about God, and when I didn’t again share this story or elaborate on it, he asked me if I’d lied to him.

“No,” I said. “Many people in the world believe there is a God and a heaven and that we will be with Him when we die, but we don’t know if it is true. Nobody really KNOWS what happens after we die, and nobody who believes in God really agrees on what He is like or what heaven is like.”

I did not go into much detail beyond that – he is, after all, only six (five at the time of this conversation) – and turned the conversation back to his main concern, death. I realized that it was impossible for me to provide an answer that would be both fully honest and fully comforting. I also realized that while I could not take away my son’s fear of death, there are aspects of death I could make less frightening for him. I explained that people usually don’t die until they are very, very old and at that point they are in a lot of pain and have lived a very fulfilling life. I explained that “my” death was likely a long way off, so far in the future that at this point he wouldn’t be able to comprehend it and it would feel like forever. I explained that if I were to somehow die while he was still young that there would always be somebody there to help take care of him – his grandparents, his aunts, etc.

An interesting change resulted from this conversation. As he asked questions and I provided honest answers, we delved into many details that never would have been discussed had I resorted to a story about God and heaven. His fear did not disappear. In fact, he had quite a heartfelt cry over the thought that his mother might someday be gone and that there was no guarantee when that “someday” might be. But as we discussed the aspects of death and it’s inherent uncertainty, there was a very clear difference in my son’s emotions. Rather than a typical panicked response, he seemed more calm. Sad… but calm.

I don’t want to raise a child who is blind to the realities of mortality and suffering. It pains me to see him hurting, afraid, sad, troubled… but I’ve come to realize that the vivid turmoil in my child’s heart is a GOOD sign. He will grow up aware. He will grow up passionate. He will grow up caring. He will grow up involved. He will grow up with a desire to make a difference. He will grow up knowing that any improvement that is to be had must come from US, because there are no blessings pouring down from an invisible deity. He will grow up knowing that ACTION begets change, not prayer.

Just as I can assure my son that there are no monsters hiding under his bed or in his closet, I can dispense with the fantasy of God. While I miss the ease with which I could provide comfort with stories of angels and guardian spirits, discussing reality on a six-year-old level of understanding has strengthened our relationship and provided wonderful opportunities to develop actual coping skills and mechanisms for easing anxiety. It certainly isn’t perfect, but it’s what we have, and we’re making the best of it. And I’d rather have that than a thousand fairy tales.


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