Mothering an Anxious Son

*Many thanks to my son, for allowing me to share the part of his story that intersects with mine.

From birth, my first-born son has been an anxious soul—

At two months old, he screamed till he turned blue whenever I attempted to set him down to get some work done. So, I held him 24/7 and developed carpel tunnel in both my wrists.

At two years old, it took months of practice, a yellow blankie, and a merciful nursery worker to finally get him to stay more than five minutes in church childcare.

At five, he sat in the corner of the new Sunday School class, head between his knees, sobbing, until a tender teacher came close, and he spilled “about the abusive people and our abusive church we used to go to. . .” His dad and I learned then that he was an observant thinker, already aware that the world is unsafe.

At seven, he sat in the church gym clinging to my hand, quivering, and refusing to run around the AWANA circle. In desperation, I grabbed his fingers and ran hand-in-hand with him around the circle, tears streaming down his face.

Slowly, with me right beside him, he began stepping into the world, always looking back to make sure I was near.

But then at eight, when I was at the park with a friend, he came flying over to my side, pointing to the long-haired, tattoo-covered man sitting on the park bench scrolling on his cell phone. Shaking, breathless, my son pulled me towards our minivan, rasping, “That man has a gun, mom, he’s going to kill us!”  No amount of pointing out the obvious—the guy’s cell phone was not a gun—could change his mind.

And then came the storm phobia—whenever the tornado sirens roared, he pulled on his football helmet and huddled in the basement, tense, alert as a startled deer in the forest, convinced death was imminent.

In middle school, he carried both phenomenal athletic talent and phenomenal fear with him—petrified of not meeting his own expectations, he experienced extreme highs and lows. His coaches (and his parents) alternated between confusion (How could such a talented kid perform so well one minute and so terribly the next?!), impatience (‘Just buck up and get over this, right?!’), and then resorted to reasoning with his fears (‘You are the best quarterback . . . the best runner. . . look at what you have done?! There’s no reason to fear!’)

Nothing worked.

As a mother struggling to understand her son’s intense, irrational fears, I often felt helpless. I wondered what I might have done wrong to open the door to his struggle—was he traumatized when my sister, separated from her husband, lived in our basement? Or was he damaged by the things he saw in our low-income neighborhood—the woman being stuffed in a trunk? The SWAT team surrounding the block after a domestic incident involving threats and guns? The drunk guy wandering around knocking on doors? The sexual predator that roamed our neighborhood and abused the girl across the street? Or did I harm him by not teaching him how to identify and manage the physical effects of panic and fear soon enough?

I have since learned that: “Fear and anxiety express our fragility . . .  The world is a scary place, and we are finite and weak people. Our power is very limited. Other than personal faith and obedience, we control very little” (Ed Welch).  

And some of us, like my son, are born acutely aware of their fragility in an unsafe world. So, from a young age, he tried to find refuge for his anxious heart, body, and mind in the only ways he knew how—

He tried keeping those he trusted close at hand so he was never alone. He kept tabs on the weather, always plotting and planning his days and activities around keeping safe from potential storms. He argued—passionately, intensely—that his family should alleviate his fears by following his plans.

When he experienced success in sports, he tried eating as healthy as possible to make sure he was the best athlete possible. He tried eating less, which made him weak and exhausted, so then he tried eating more to get stronger. He tried making sure he got enough sleep, the right training and coaching. He compared himself to other football players, other runners, forever looking for the ‘perfect plan’ in order to avoid what he feared most—failure to meet his own goals and expectations.

Control became the antidote to his fear.

But control is a horrible master who steals your joy and ultimately betrays you.

Mercifully:  

 “Jesus has words of comfort for the fearful. He says, ‘Fear not, little flock,’ . . . These words are an invitation to trust Jesus as he continually expresses his compassion for the poor and the powerless . . .  If there is anything close to a command about fear in Scripture, it would be this—when you are afraid—and you will be—turn to Jesus.  

“Turning to God and trusting him in times of anxiety is a spiritual skill, and it is less automatic than you think. You need to practice it, and with practice, you will be able to turn to Jesus more quickly in ways that actually erode anxieties. Progress will seem slow. The ways of God are that we gradually grow in meaningful trust and confidence in him. If anxieties were immediately extinguished, you would turn to him less, which would be to your detriment.

“This is God’s will in your lives. Your aim is to speak these words in the midst of worries: “When I am afraid, I will trust in you” (Psalm 56:3). Speak your anxieties to him rather than try to solve them, which can lead to even more intense anxiety.”*

Now, as a young teen, my son still struggles deeply with fear, but instead of turning to control, he’s learning to speak his anxieties to God and grow in trusting that a strong and loving Jesus is close. He’s learning to ask: “What has God put in front of me to do today?” rather than follow his fears into the future. As his mother, I’ve learned that I can’t take away his anxiety or do anything to help him trust Jesus faster, but I can walk beside him and point him to the only safe place I know—Jesus.

And when he does give into fear, we’re both learning to accept that God’s grace is new every morning.

Becca B.

*Welch, Ed. A Small Book about Why We Hide: How Jesus Rescues Us from Insecurity, Regret, Failure, and Shame. (You can purchase Welch’s book here.)

6 thoughts on “Mothering an Anxious Son

  1. mwsrjones says:

    “The ways of God are that we gradually grow in meaningful trust and confidence in him. If anxieties were immediately extinguished, you would turn to him less, which would be to your detriment.“
    It is my honor and not my shame to be so needy of him. I keep telling myself this.
    I loved your heart-honest transparency in this post and so thankful we have a Redeemer Who turns ashes into beauty and gives strength in exchange for fear. Love you guys so much. Thank you for sharing this ♥️

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Dave Lerner says:

    M is a very brave young man, and lucky to have such a strong ,&. Loving support from his family
    The fact he has began to trust in himself is a huge strap forward

    Dave Lerner

    Like

  3. renewyourview says:

    I too struggled with fear and anxiety as a child as well as growing up. It is so very crippling and horrible! What helped me was the Word of God and holding on to the fact that although I can’t control everything – God can and will. Sigh I also had to learn to trust Him as my protector….I still struggle sometimes but God’s love and Holy Spirit are always there to pick me back up! Thanks so very much for sharing your story 😊

    Like

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