It’s 11:00 at night. I’m about to head to bed when my daughter comes into the family room and bursts into tears. I don’t have to ask her what’s the matter. I already know. It’s been the same problem for several months. She’s afraid she won’t be able to get to sleep, which of course, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. During the day, she’s tormented by fears she won’t sleep at night. At night, these fears engulf her, keeping her up for hours. Her grades are suffering. Our home life is suffering. And, her relationship with God is stressed to its limit.
“Why doesn’t God take these thoughts away?” she asks me for the hundredth time. “Does He really care about me?” As a mother, I feel my daughter’s anguish like it’s my own. And, I’ve tried everything I can think of to help her. I’ve listened to her; prayed for her; tried to distract her; and given her my best advice – to memorize Scripture and recite it when negative thoughts plague her. All these things worked for a while. But now, we’re wondering if a Christian counselor might help? Or, should I go to our family doctor and ask for sleeping pills?
What would you do in this situation?
Before you answer, consider this. In 2011, the Barna Group conducted a study that analyzed reasons young adults leave the Christian faith. Some of the reasons you’ve likely heard: young people experience Christianity as shallow; churches seem antagonistic to science; and the church is judgmental when it comes to sexual issues. But, one reason might surprise you: churches are overprotective. Young people want their faith to connect with the world they live in, but often Christian parents and leaders keep them insulated from it.
Recently, I discussed this issue with Elizabeth Urbanowicz, a veteran teacher at a Christian elementary school in the Chicago suburbs, where I serve on the board. We have some absolutely amazing families at our school, who have raised some exemplary children. But, our community is also susceptible to this overprotection that Barna says is so rampant in America. In fact, Elizabeth said overprotection is one of the main ways she sees parents unwittingly hinder their children’s spiritual growth. With that in mind, I asked her to share four top ways she sees parents do this with examples of how parents might respond instead. (Also, if you want to see how I responded to my daughter, keep reading to the end!):
Four Ways to Hinder Children’s Spiritual Growth
1. Be quick to cry “Bullying!”
Our culture constantly blows the bullying whistle. I’ve had parents complain to me that their child is being bullied simply because another student gave him a mean look on the playground. This is not bullying. It’s what you can expect from eight-year-olds with a sin nature. Unless a child is repeatedly mistreated by another child, parents should avoid swooping in and smoothing things over. Use this as an opportunity to train your child to turn the other cheek, love his enemy, and pray for those who mistreat him (Matthew 5:38-45).
When I was in second grade the boy who sat next to me continually taunted me and accused me of things I didn’t do – and many times, my teacher believed him. Instead of demanding that my seat be changed, my mom continually prayed with me that God would be at work in this boy’s heart. She even invited him over for a play-date. The injustice of this situation was not resolved, but my mom allowed space for the Lord to prove Himself to be my protector.
2. Build self-esteem in non-biblical ways
We live in a culture that awards athletic trophies to those who warm the bench and score for the opposing team! We fear that children who don’t feel they are great at everything will become depressed. This is not biblical. God gifts every person uniquely for His purposes (Exodus 31:1-6, 1 Corinthians 12:12-26). If your child is not a superstar athlete, musician, or scholar, don’t falsely puff her up or try to point out ways in which the superstars fail. This will hinder her from seeing God’s image in each individual, as well as in herself.
In elementary school, I played the violin and I was terrible. There was a boy in my church who began playing his violin at Carnegie Hall at age nine. Whenever we practiced together at church I felt horribly inferior. After practice one day, the violinist at our church said, “Don’t worry, Elizabeth. You can sing much better than Daniel.” My mom overheard the comment and addressed it once we got home. She explained that God had gifted Daniel musically and that was something we should celebrate. Comparing myself to him in singing was just an attempt to make me feel better, but it did not honor God. I never became a great violinist, but I did learn to see God’s masterful design in other peoples’ gifts and talents.
3. Be your child’s agent, instead of his coach
Our culture teaches parents that they are to be their child’s agent – demanding change in any situation that is challenging or does not perfectly meet his or her needs. If your child has come to know Jesus as his redeemer, he already has an advocate (1 John 2:1). What he needs is a coach – someone to walk with him through the ups and downs of life, training him to see everything through the lens of Scripture.
I recently observed parents of a student coach their child through a difficult season. This sweet, talented nine-year-old has learning disabilities that have caused her to struggle academically. Her parents spoke openly with her about her learning disabilities. Yet, they framed the discussion with reminders that God does not make any mistakes and He has promised to work all things together for good. When this student was in my class, the parents did not take on the role of agent, demanding that the curriculum or instruction be modified to boost their daughter’s self-esteem. Instead, they came alongside, infusing her with the courage and support to persevere. At the end of that school year, this student spoke in front of the entire student body at chapel, sharing how she had seen God help her through her academic struggles. She said, “God is my rock and I know I can trust Him.” Through her struggles, she had experienced God’s faithfulness first-hand.
4. Keep your child within his comfort zone
Our culture of protection preaches that we should never be required to do something that makes us feel uncomfortable. I have had many parents ask that their child be excused from a certain assignment or school activity because it causes anxiety. However, Scripture shows us that God continually calls us out of our comfort zones – just look at the account of Moses (Exodus 3-4:17). If you never allow your child to be pushed outside of his comfort zone, he will miss out on the opportunity to see God’s power made perfect in his weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
At age 14, I went on a month-long mission trip to Africa. I had never before been away from my parents for more than two nights and, when the week of departure arrived, I was paralyzed by fear. I cried and begged my parents to let me cancel the trip. Instead, they prayed with me and pointed me to God’s promises. On that trip, I experienced God’s peace that passes all understanding for the first time. And, I saw Him change lives through the power of the gospel. Had my parents given in to my anxiety, I would have missed out on one of the most spiritually formative experiences of my life.
These four points Elizabeth outlined are spot on, and when it cam to my daughter’s insomnia, I almost fell into the trap of being overprotective. I thought seriously about counseling and sleeping pills – and talked to my husband about it. But, we both knew our daughter’s problem wasn’t caused by some deeper problem that needed therapy. Her problems started over Christmas break when her sleep schedule was disrupted, and then she succumbed to an unhelpful pattern of thinking. Though counseling can certainly help some situations, this didn’t seem like one of them. We also concluded that trying to fix her problem with drugs would set a dangerous precedent.
So, I sat down with my daughter and firmly, but lovingly, told her that we weren’t going to pursue those options. God had allowed this struggle to come into her life and had given her an entire arsenal of weapons to beat it. (Eph. 6:10-18) So, I was confident that she could overcome this, but she needed to look to God – not to me, not to a counselor, and not to sleeping pills.
The change in her was immediate. She said okay, straightened up and walked out of the room. Several days went by with no incident, so I somewhat hesitantly asked her how she was doing, not wanting to break the streak. She replied that she was doing okay. She realized her negative thoughts are just something she’s going to have to battle, and that God wasn’t going to give her a quick fix. Now, several months later, she views overcoming this struggle as one of the greatest character- and faith-building experiences of her young, teenage life.
I am so grateful my husband and I resisted the urge to try and fix our daughter’s problem. Looking back, I realize we would have exacerbated her problem, not solved it. And, we would have robbed her of an opportunity for spiritual growth.*
*All stories involving my children are shared with their permission.