It is not uncommon for me to meet young children who are already exhibiting signs of anxiety. Anxiety that they are not good enough, anxiety that they will not meet expectations, and a general fear of the unknown. Often the nature of their anxiety appears silly to adults who know that these childlike fears are perhaps unfounded or insignificant in the grander scheme of things. We as adults quickly forget the enormity of being afraid to enter into one's kindergarten class for the first time, or sing up front during a Sunday School program (though many of us wouldn't jump at the chance to do this either!).
A child's fears are very real, every bit as real as our adult fears. They cannot simply be dismissed, distracted or bribed to disappear. It may seem that the promise of a treat has dealt with the fear, but in reality the fear has not been addressed. The fear has simply been stuffed down. Stuffed down to join the pile of other fears that churn around beneath the surface.
Perhaps instead of dismissing the fears of children, we might make space to hear their fears. Perhaps instead of turning our children's heads away from their fears, we might help them to hold their fears, to examine them. One way to do this is with our imagination. If I am my fear, what do I look like? Am I a turtle pulled deep within my shell, or am I a wolf baring my teeth? If given the opportunity to speak, what does my fear say? Perhaps there is something that I might do for my fear that would help it to feel less afraid. Maybe my turtle needs a hug, or my wolf needs to know that God will not leave him alone. Invite your child to use their imagination to have a conversation with their fear. Perhaps invite God, Jesus, or the Spirit to join the conversation as well. Fear is a cherished part of the self, not something bad to be scolded or locked away. Why not listen to the fears of the young so that they may learn to hear their own fears, acknowledge them, converse with them, and work through them? Because fear stuffed down and locked away will eventually break free.