Perhaps you've had parenting days like me...days when a media post, or a revelation from a child about the realities of their high school environment, or something in the day's news cycle...grips your heart with a fear that almost takes your breath away. You ask yourself (and God!) "How can I possibly raise a healthy, faithful child in this current environment!? Everything evil in the world is at their fingertips -- or more accurately, in the palm of their hands. No matter what I do, I can't keep them from it." In that moment, all you want to do is grab your children and tuck them away from the world forever. Fear spurs a desire to react immediately and drastically.
Several years ago, on a day just like that, I returned from a walk where I had been sharing those very feelings with the Lord. I grabbed my Bible and turned to the Psalms. A verse that had never really "landed" in my heart before caught my attention. Psalm 37:8 Do not fret -- it leads only to evil. It struck me in that moment how much of my reactive (often unhelpful) behavior comes from a place of fear. I fear the pain that the world can bring to me and to those I love. I fear losing things that important to me -- my rights, my influence, my resources. Mostly, these days, I just generally fear that the world is spinning out of control in a way that I cannot stop. When I let those fears take root in my heart, I am almost guaranteed to respond poorly.
Fear is a complex emotion. It is partly biological. Partly cognitive. In the first moments of a fear response the brain's amygdala revs up, preparing us for fight or flight in response to whatever is signaling "danger". At the same time, the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that thinks reasonably and rationally, goes a bit "offline". Stress hormones flood our system, contributing to an excessively "upset" feeling. When flooded with fear, our very biology can impair our ability to make good decisions and will increase our reactivity. Unfortunately, in the daily decisions of parenting, these extreme responses often don't play well. "You'll never be allowed to see that person again!" "I will never allow you to get a cellphone." "You can only be friends with people who share our beliefs." In my experience, children know when our reactions come more from fear than from a place of reasonable wisdom, and they will much more readily reject instruction that comes from the former.
While not an encouragement to abdicate parental decision-making related to any of the above situations, successful parenting will require moving out of a fear response and into a state of more relative calm -- giving that cerebral cortex what it needs to kick back in and influence our responses. We do this by moving our attention off of the thing that is causing us to be afraid, not by ruminating on it. A number of studies have shown that by slowing down, breathing deeply, and mindfully meditating, we can calm an over-active amygdala and reduce our fear responses. Of course to regular readers of scripture, this comes as no surprise at all! Philippians 4 comes immediately to mind. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus....Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable...think about such things. Psalm 37 also gives some helpful direction here, for those moments when the evil in this world seems too close and threatening. Instead of playing out worst-case-scenarios in our heads, King David suggests that we direct our thoughts to these activities: Trust in the Lord (37:3); Take delight in the Lord (37:4); Commit your way to the Lord (37:5); Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him (37:7); Hope in the Lord (37:34) and finally, his summary statement: The salvation of the righteous comes from the Lord; he is their stronghold in time of trouble. The Lord helps them and delivers them; he delivers them from the wicked and saves them, because they have taken refuge in him. (37:39-40)
Next time a parenting situation arises that brings a lot of emotion and makes you want to respond in the extreme, consider taking a few moments to ask yourself, "Is fear intensifying my reaction?" If so, take some time with the Lord and ask Him to help you calm your anxieties, so that wisdom can prevail over worry.