Preparing an anxious child for the Sacraments can be difficult. Here’s how to gently prepare your child for the Sacraments (First Confession, Holy Communion, and Confirmation) so they don’t have to be afraid of grace.
You know that little flutter in your stomach when you’re facing something new or different? That tightness in your chest before you speak to a group, or the clammy feeling on your hands before you take an important test? That’s your body’s typical response to anxiety, and a sign everything is working is just right.
A little bit of anxiety in stressful situations is normal, and believe it or not, it’s helpful, too. This standard response to an outward stressor heightens our senses, preparing our bodies to fight or fly as needed.
For most of us, the experience of anxiety is fleeting. It comes, it goes, and then we move on with our lives. But for other people – those with a clinical anxiety disorder – the sensation is all-consuming, and it can be absolutely crippling for adults and children alike.
Sacramental Preparation and the Anxious Child
Anxiety’s most well-known symptoms are excessive worry and intrusive thoughts. But when anxiety manifests in children, it can mimic other issues. Parents might not know what they’re seeing at first.
Anxiety in our oldest manifested through a desire for structure and order: she needed everything to be within her control. Transitions were problematic and the introduction of new food was a constant fight. Fortunately, the first of many therapists helped us see exactly what was happening. We were able to set out on a journey of recovery, and she’s doing much better now than she was before.
While her behavior was highly indicative of anxiety, we didn’t put the pieces together until she told us about the worry and intrusive thoughts. For nearly two years we couldn’t leave the house when it was cloudy; to this day she screams bloody murder if she’s in any part of the house alone. Our daughter frequently bemoans the presence of “Hell” saying bad things to her; she spends a great deal of time worrying about her sinfulness. She feels her soul is eternally lost.
You can imagine what preparing for her First Penance was like.
When Anxiety Gets in the Way of the Sacraments
Whenever someone asks me what a sacrament is, I always fall back on the old definition from the Baltimore Catechism:
A Sacrament is an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace.
Grace. What a beautiful word. And what a beautiful opportunity we have to grow in holiness and steadfast love of our Lord through these most wonderful gifts.
But for children who struggle with anxiety, it is hard to see the grace shining through the fear. There is too much noise; there are too many voices vying for attention. Our regular human capacity for self-preservation gets railroaded. A normal case of the butterflies becomes a 50 foot stone wall.
In hindsight, I should have realized this would be an issue for our second daughter’s First Reconciliation. On the morning of the sacrament, I watched my typically brave firebrand tremble her way into the confessional. She hid her ashen face in my lap when it was over, soaking my jeans with her sobs. When we got to the car she buckled in and unloaded:
She couldn’t hear the priest; her sins were unforgivable. She’d forgotten a bunch of the prayers and was sure she was going straight to Hell.
I did not teach my daughter that (and for the record, neither did the priest). We had focused on the grace of the Sacrament and the truth of God’s infinite mercy. But anxiety took over somewhere between her sacramental preparation and the time spent in line for her turn.
Excessive worry stole her gratitude.
Intrusive thoughts ripped away her self-worth.
Now that we’ve had this experience, I’m on the lookout for further signs.
She has yet to return to the confessional, and honestly, I’m anticipating some trouble with her First Holy Communion and Confession down the line. Given what little I know about anxiety (I’m still learning), I have certain things I’m on the lookout for now. I also have a plan of action to ease the anxiety of sacramental preparation for the future. Here’s what I’ve learned, and how I plan to move forward from this point on
How Anxiety Affects Sacramental Preparation
A scrupulous soul feels unforgivable, as though the stain of sin will never be washed away. While some who deal with this condition attend confession with alarming regularity, others will never darken the confessional door. Why go if your sins won’t be forgiven? The entire exercise is pointless if you are a forgotten soul. We must guard our anxious kiddos against developing such a tendency. It won’t just impact their reception of the Sacrament of Penance – it might keep them from other sacraments, as well.
As we sat in the pew before her first penance, I could hear my daughter repeating the prayers under her breath. She would ask me over and over the order of the sacrament. I know she knew it, but she was terrified she would make a mistake. Children with anxiety often struggle with a desire for perfection, trying to account for every facet of an experience that could go wrong. The more insistent the desire for control and for perfection the greater the child’s anxiety. Our anxious children will avoid the sacraments out of fear of messing up.
If left unchecked, scrupulosity and perfectionism can move an anxious child toward despair. Scrupulosity’s constant self-criticism coupled with perfectionism impossible standards is enough to tear anybody down. If our anxious children are feeling worthless in general, they’re certainly not going to feel worthy of sacramental grace. They may begin to feel they are not worthy of Jesus’s presence in the Eucharist, or that the Holy Spirit would never alight upon their heads.
How to Prepare an Anxious Child for the Sacraments
Embrace the Sacraments from the Beginning
Start when your children are little. For Reconciliation, bring them with you to confession if you can. Talk about the sacraments and make them as natural as breathing. They are a normal, beautiful part of life for a Catholic, and we need to treat them that way.
Find Resources and Use them Well
Thank God for the Catholic internet: it is a wealth of resources and information for parents raising their children in the faith. There is a multitude of crafts, activities, books, and faith formation websites you can turn to in order to help your child feel at ease with and understand her faith. A few I recommend:
Look to Him and Be Radiant (My friend Katie is a Catholic elementary school teacher – her site is amazing. Really – take a look).
Catholic Icing (Lacy Rabideau was one of the first Catholic bloggers I discovered when our oldest was born a decade ago. She has excellent craft and preparation ideas for First Penance).
Formed (Call your parish to see if your diocese has a subscription. The videos and information on this site are outstanding and worth a look.)
Go Through the Motions Early – and Often
The saying goes that practice makes perfect, but when it comes to the sacramental preparation I believe that practice makes peace. Go visit the confessional; look inside and have a seat in it. Walk through the form of the sacrament as often as possible so it’s not foreign or out of place. If you can, watch video coverage of sacramental preparation for First Communion and Confirmation. Pull out old photos of your own first sacrament experiences. The more you can familiarize your child with the process, the better of she will be.
Head to Scripture and Tradition
Understanding the purpose and origin of the Sacraments is so important, and I can’t stress enough the use of Scripture and the Catechism to help accomplish this. Read the story of the Prodigal Son or the Bread of Life Discourse; find passages that calm anxiety and focus on those with your child. Ask questions, discuss, and act them out. Turn to the New St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism or YouCat to learn the reason behind the Sacraments. Not only will your child feel more comfortable with the idea of the sacraments, she’ll be better prepared to defend her faith.
When our children are hurting, we’ll do anything we can to make things right.
Unfortunately, anxiety isn’t always an easy cross to mitigate, and their pain can make us feel as downtrodden and deflated as our kids.
While there is no substitute for therapeutic treatment (and I encourage parents to seek professional assistance outside the home), there are ways you can help your child learn to cope. Jesus longs for the children to come to him in the Sacraments. With patience, love, and education, we can help them find their way home.