Anxiety in the In-Between Stages of Our Lives
Healthy Strategies for Coping with Transitions
by Rhett Smith
In August of 2008 my wife and I found ourselves driving across the hot desert with our one-year old daughter as we made the 1,400-mile trek from Los Angeles to Dallas. The move was the culmination of a decision-making process that had begun in the fall of 2006, as we felt God encouraging us to make some changes in our lives. But here we are in the Spring of 2012 and all the hopes that we felt like that change would bring about in our lives feels so unsettled in many ways. Though we changed location, the transition didn’t lead to other changes we were hoping for in our lifestyle.
Why is that?
When I was doing research for my new book, The Anxious Christian: Can God Use Your Anxiety for Good. 1 I came across a wonderful book by William Bridges, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. 2 I soon discovered that my wife and I had prepared our lives for a change, but we failed to adequately take into account the transition itself. Bridges explains the difference between change and transition when he writes:
Our society confuses them constantly, leading us to imagine that transition is just another word for change. But it isn’t…Change is situational. Transition, on the other hand, is psychological. It is not those events, but rather the inner re-orientation and self-redefinition that you have to go through in order to incorporate any of those changes into your life. Without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture. Unless transition happens, that change doesn’t work, because it doesn’t ‘take.’ Whatever word we use, our society talks a lot about change; but it seldom deals with transition. 3
I suspect that if you are like me, you prepare for lots of changes in your lives, the lives of your family members, and the lives of the kids you serve in ministry. But we may come up short in thinking best how to prepare for the transitions that those changes bring about. For example:
- As parents and youth leaders we tend to talk to our kids a lot about the change of moving from high school into college, yet we don’t properly prepare them for the transition that awaits them. Change is going to college. But the transition involves tasks like learning to deal with peer pressure, self-managing projects at school, taking responsibility for one’s actions, dealing with confusion over majors and career choices, navigating sexuality on campus, or the constant wondering of where God fits into a college student’s life.
- As youth leaders we talk to our kids about the change that divorce brings about in their lives, but we don’t adequately address the transition they encounter. Change is the divorce itself. But transition encapsulates the emotions that a kid might experience of feeling unloved, the disorientation of shuttling between two different homes, and the identity confusion of constantly questioning where they fit in and belong.
- As parents and youth leaders we talk about the change of kids needing to “own” their faith as they become older, but we don’t talk about the transition that is involved. Change is making a decision about whether to go to church or not. Transition involves the struggle that many experience as they sort through what their essential theological beliefs are and how they are to be practiced; it involves the self-differentiation that it takes to stand up for what you believe when lots of your friends may be challenging those beliefs; it involves the restless wandering of trying to find a faith community where one can belong.
Why is having a proper understanding of change and transition so important?
Because it is in the transition, and in those in-between spaces, where so many kids experience anxiety. And when it is not faced, anxiety often leads to a lot of other issues in kids’ lives such as depression, anger, withdrawing, cutting, and even suicide.
The good news for us is that we are a transitional people, continually journeying through the wilderness as God draws us nearer and leads us to where he wants us to be. This journey through the wilderness is one filled with anxiety, but it has the power to lead us closer to God as we lean into our anxiety in hopes that God may transform it or rescue us from it.
A freshman college student may have recently made the change of leaving high school and entering college, but there is a world of transitions awaiting her. And it is on that journey through college that she will face many transitions that will create anxiety.
Another helpful way to frame idea of transitions and the anxiety that accompanies it is through the paradigm Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann writes about in The Message of the Psalms. 4 Brueggemann writes that our journey in the life of faith is embodied by a steady movement from orientation, to disorientation, to new orientation. If we look back at the college student for a moment we can see that she has moved from a place of orientation (high school: where she experienced security in knowing) to disorientation (entering college: insecurity in not knowing), and will hopefully find a new orientation (life meaning that is anchored to the person of Jesus Christ) as she faces her anxiety and navigates through this transition.
As a person of faith and a parent of two young children I am best helped by the imagery displayed in Exodus 17:1 where one translation reminds me that God led his people out of the wilderness as they “journeyed by stages” (NRSV). I like this idea of journeying by stages as God leads his people on a stage-by-stage journey. The change is the movement from one stage to the next, but the transition is all that accompanies that journey between two places…fear, insecurity, lack of trust, disconnection, etc. And when kids find themselves between two stages of their journey, there is a great sense of anxiety in their lives as they have to decide whether or not to deal with the disorientation the journey has thrust upon them.
Strategies for Journeying With Our Kids Through Anxiety
I am a big believer in systems theory so I find it highly unlikely that there are anxious kids without anxious parents. 5 As I think about strategies to help our kids navigate the anxiety of their transition, I have purposefully chosen some exercises that involve the participation of both parent and child. My belief is that when parents engage their kids in these practices it will have the effect of not only helping their kids cope with their anxiety, but also help the parents cope in the process. Youth leaders and other caring adults can utilize most of these exercises as well.
Strategy #1:Talk About It
You might be amazed to see how helpful it is for people to just talk about their anxiety. If I can generalize for a moment, I would suggest that many in the Christian community at some point or another have met resistance from well-intending Christians when they mentioned their anxiety. Pastoral care must go beyond just telling someone “not to be anxious” because the Bible says so. Help your kids talk about what they are feeling.
My own experience as a therapist has reminded me just how big of a deficit there is in our understanding and expression of our emotions, especially for boys. It’s fairly typical that when I ask a guy in therapy how he is feeling, I get a blank stare in return. Talking about our feelings, especially anxiety, helps us build a vocabulary that enables us to better understand how we feel, as well as connecting us with the listener. As we connect with the listener it has the power of helping us not feel so alone. Here are a couple of tips:
- To help a kid better understand how they are feeling, put a list of words on a page and have them circle which words describe them. 6
- Model with/to your kids an ability to express your own feelings and a willingness to talk about your own struggles, such as anxiety. Talk to them about what makes you feel anxious. Let them know it’s okay to be anxious about things.
Strategy #2: Ask Questions & Listen
Anxiety can be a catalyst for growth in our lives, and it is a tool that God uses to speak to us. But it’s hard to know what God is saying and what God wants us to do with our anxiety if we can’t listen. If a kid is dealing with anxiety, one of the strategies may require you helping them ask questions of their anxiety, and then slowing down enough to hear what God might be saying to them in the midst of it. Any time I have anxiety I find myself asking God, “What are you saying to me in my anxiety? What are you trying to teach me? How do you want me to respond to it?” Or, “Why am I anxious? Is there something in my life that needs changing?” Here are a couple of tips:
- Help your kid develop a list of questions they can ask God when they are feeling anxious, or when they find themselves struggling with a transition.
- As a parent, model practices such as Sabbath, silence, and being still as a means to create space to hear God speak.
Strategy #3: Co-Create Meaning
In Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, he tells a great story about a father who realized that he had not created a better story for his family to live for. The father laments the various issues in his family, but ultimately comes to the realization that as he created opportunities for his family (i.e. raising money and building a house for a less fortunate family), they became more engaged with one another, and began to see that their lives had a new meaning that seemed to be invisible before. As kids make changes, go through transitions, and experience anxiety, they are often wondering what it all means. They may not phrase it this way, but questions like, “Who am I? What am I to do? How am I to be loved?” and “How do I become all that God has created me to be?” are resounding in some form or another in their mind. Here are a couple of tips:
- Model practices that point your kids towards a life that is anchored in Christ. For example, it might be redefining “success,” talking about how you spend money, or by not putting emphasis on looks, clothes and exterior items. Help your kids see that meaning derives from a life in Christ.
- Co-create a family story with your spouse and kids. Talk about what kind of story you have all been living, and whether or not it carries the meaning you desire. Then write together a new family story that has its meaning centered in Christ.
Strategy #4: Practice Self-Care
Caring for ourselves is often one of the most difficult things we can learn. One of the verses that has captured my attention over the last year is found in Luke 10:27:
“He answered: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
I have been learning to use this verse as a model for self-care. One of the ways that I love myself is to take care of myself, specifically my heart, soul, strength and mind. If I don’t take care of myself, I wonder if I really love myself, and ultimately it leads me to a place of not being able to love my neighbor. Someone who doesn’t practice self-care has nothing to offer their neighbor. They become an empty well with no living water flowing out of it. Here are some questions to ask yourself:
- What is one thing I can experiment with this month that is about my heart (heart=emotional/relational connection)? Maybe it’s a date night, or family game night, or coffee with a friend.
- What is one thing I can experiment with this month that is about my soul (soul=spiritual connection)? Maybe it’s reading a devotional, time in prayer, or sitting in silence.
- What is one thing I can experiment with this month that is about my strength (strength=physical/health)? Maybe it’s running, going for a walk, or eating healthy.
- What is one thing I can experiment with this month that is about my mind (mind=intellect)? Maybe it’s a hobby, or reading a book, or a deep conversation with a friend.
As we journey through life, we are going to experience changes that thrust us into a myriad of expected and unexpected transitions. But in those transitions when anxiety is most acute, we can practice some healthy strategies that allow us to give God our anxiety so that it can be transformed for positive growth in our lives and the lives of our kids.
- Create some space on the calendar this month for the family to play together (e.g. going to the zoo, movies, a sporting event, or the park), and use some of that casual time to begin asking your kids about their dreams for the family. This is a good time to brainstorm ideas and dream out loud together about creating a new story and brining more meaning to your family.
- As a parent, pay close attention this month to the emotions of your kids. Look for an opportunity to share with them your own struggles in life (age appropriately), by using feeling words that help explain your struggle. This is an opportunity to share, not preach or lecture.
- Using the four-fold model presented above on self-care, sit down as a family and talk about the ways that you can all assist each other in caring for yourselves, and therefore the family and others. Again, this is a brainstorming exercise that can be used to empower your kids to have a voice. Don’t use it as a time to tell them what to do. Rather, use it as a time to explore ideas together.