“Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? And why worry about your clothing? Look at the lilies of the field and how they grow. They don’t work or make their clothing, yet Solomon in all his glory was not dressed as beautifully as they are.” (Matthew 6:27-29)
Growing up, worry was practically a family member in our house. It was always there, and if it wasn’t, we pretty much went looking for it. There was nearly constant worry over money, health, political outcomes, the weather, school, church, friends, other people’s problems, the eventual end of the world, you name it.
Today, worry is still my constant companion and natural battle plan for life. It’s completely ingrained in me that the first response to a problem – possible or actual – is to worry. If I have a sore throat and Google my symptoms, I am that person who concludes from WebMD that I have a rare disease which will lead to the immediate need for thyroid removal (with the obvious next step of finding a message board for thyroid removal support).
What’s the problem with worry? It’s not productive. It simply gives us a false sense of control so we can feel like we are doing something when there isn’t actually something we can do. Aside from being a waste of time and energy in a practical sense, worry is a spiritual problem in that it is the antithesis of prayerful trust in God.
“Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)
While I am certain that worry is a partially genetic trait, it is undoubtedly an environmentally learned behavior as well; worry is highly contagious. We can easily spread it to our children without realizing it, leaving them with the spiritual consequences for life.
As much as I continue to pray, I must confess that I don’t see myself conquering the problem before it has a chance to impact my kids. My focus is now on containing my “disease” so it doesn’t spread, rather than curing the disease itself (for better or worse).
If you’re a worrier, here are 5 ways you may be teaching your kids to worry without realizing it.
1. You say “I’m worried” (or a derivative of that).
This might sound obvious, but if you’re a worrier, you probably don’t even realize how often you say the words “I’m worried that…” or “I’m scared that…” or “I’m stressed that…” It’s just part of the worrier’s natural lingo. Every time we use “worry words” in front of our kids, we are 1) implicitly giving credibility to worry as an approach to life and 2) placing importance on the activity of worry (since by saying it we are indicating it’s important enough to discuss).
Be cognizant of the words you choose. It really does matter.
2. You are visibly preoccupied.
In order to worry, you have to mentally place yourself in the future; by its nature, worry is the thought of something that hasn’t happened yet. When you are not present mentally, it’s usually very apparent to others. I have to catch myself in this area a lot. If I’m not being present with my kids, I basically go into auto-responder mode. They do something funny, I reply robotically, “that’s funny.” They fight, I reply robotically, “stop fighting.” It won’t be long before they’ll be old enough to decipher that the hazy robotic look on mommy’s face means I am preoccupied with some kind of worry.
As soon as you realize you are preoccupied while with your kids, make the conscious decision to engage with them at that moment.
3. You demonstrate nervous habits.
Nervous habits like nail biting or lip biting are a dead give-away that someone is in worry mode. I am a ferocious nail biter and have been since I was a small child. My 3-year-old daughter recently asked me, “mommy, why are your fingers in your mouth?” Not five seconds after that, she put her fingers in her mouth like I had. Kids truly pick up almost everything they see us do.
Identify your own nervous habits and avoid them in front of your kids. Yes, much easier said than done. Awareness, however, is an important first step.
4. You regularly talk about the future with uncertainty.
Growing up, my family could hardly talk about something as simple as Friday night’s high school football game without a cautionary, “Lord willing” attached to the likelihood of our attendance. The phrase “Lord willing” comes from James 4:13-17.
“Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord’s will, we will live and do this or that.’ As it is, you boast in your arrogant schemes. All such boasting is evil. If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”
It is a biblical notion to temper your expectations of the future with the caveat of God’s will. However, the context of James 4:13-17 is that we need to humble our expectations in relation to God’s plan, not that we need to live in fear of what might happen (“Lord willing we will make it to the football game” always implied “because we might get into a terrible car accident and die”).
If you find yourself modifying statements about the future with, “if (whatever) doesn’t happen” (the close cousin of a fearful “Lord willing”), evaluate why. There may be legitimate reasons, but if it is only out of your personal anxiety, work to eliminate these caveats from your language.
5. You give anxiety more attention/explanation than necessary.
Let’s be realistic. Even if you go to great lengths to shield your kids from the impact of your worrying, there will still be times when it comes to light. For example, I am very claustrophobic and avoid elevators at all cost. (For no apparent reason, there was one summer afternoon in 2005 when I got in an elevator and suddenly felt an extraordinary fear of being trapped inside. It never went away.) My kids will eventually figure this out. But I certainly don’t need to drone on and on to them about how scary I think elevators are and why. I can choose to simply take stairs when necessary because I “prefer them.”
Much of the time, our worries are exaggerated, unfounded or irrational. Avoid the temptation to elaborate to the extent of placing the same seeds in your kids’ heads.
Did you grow up in a worrying home? What ways were you “taught” to worry?