I once saw a Family Circus cartoon that showed three children leaning on the edge of their parents’ bed, watching them while they slept. The caption underneath was one child’s remark: “They look so sweet and peaceful when they’re asleep. You wonder how they could ever yell at us during the day.” Do you ever wonder if this happens in your home? That your kids think of you as a mean mom? That your failures as a mother define you and determine your children’s future?
When you add the feeling (or reality) of a mothering failure to the exhaustion, the endless work, and the temptation to compare yourself to other moms, you have a perfect motherhood storm.
This happened to me countless times when I was raising my children. I would fail in my mothering—either by something I did, or something I didn’t do—and I was sure it was a sign I would ultimately fail. That was it. My kids would never “turn out.” I had ruined them forever.
I remember one time I got angry at one of my daughters. Although I had repented before God and asked my daughter’s forgiveness, I still felt terrible. I berated myself for treating my child in such a manner. I was convinced the damage was irreparable.
But my husband encouraged me: “Because of your humility in asking her to forgive you, she feels close to you now than before.” And he was right. This daughter and I were experiencing the sweet closeness that follows repentance in a relationship.
Now I’m not issuing a free pass to sin! I am not saying, “It’s okay to be unkind to your children. They’re tough. They can handle it.” Sin is always the wrong choice. It does have consequences. So by the power of the Holy Spirit, we must work tirelessly to eradicate it from our lives (Rom. 8:13). When we sin we must not make excuses, we must confess our sin to God and humbly ask our children for forgiveness.
But we must not succumb to despair or live with low-grade condemnation or guilt. This maligns the gospel and does not produce the fruit of repentance or serve our children. Rather we must return to Scripture. We must remind ourselves of the truth that God is faithful and just to forgive us from our sins and to cleanse us from unrighteousness (1 John 1:9), that he is busy conforming us to the image of His Son (Rom 8:29), and that he works all things (even our mothering failures!), for our good and the good of our children (Rom 8:28).
Then there is mommy-guilt. Few emotions put a stranglehold on our mothering joy like feeling guilty and condemned over our sins and shortcomings.
Guilt has a thousand little voices that whisper in your ear all day long: You’re a failure. You’re going to ruin your kids. How could you do that? How could you NOT do that? Look at all those other moms. They are doing a much better job that you are.
It’s like the radio in our head is set on a guilt frequency and we can’t tune it out. As moms we need biblical truth to cut through the voices of guilt if we are going to maintain our joy.
How do we deal with mommy-guilt? First, we need to learn the difference between biblical guilt and self-imposed guilt.
Scripture’s parenting commands are simple: Teach. Discipline. Love. (Dt. 6.7, Pr. 13:24, Tit. 2:4) If I have fallen short of these commands (which I do all the time!) then I must approach the throne of grace. We’ll talk more about this in the next post.
But genuine guilt often gets mixed up with self-imposed guilt. You see, we’ve got this bad habit of making our own Mother’s Rulebook and adding to it all the time. We read an article about the dangers of such and such, talk to a mom who does this, that, and the other thing, and we scribble down another rule. No sooner have we added one rule than we break three more. Citizen’s arrest! Citizen’s arrest!
When the motherhood bar is set at cultural approval or another mom’s abilities, we’re going to feel the constant condemnation of falling short. So how do we deal with the demoralizing emotions of self-imposed guilt? Again, Scriptures answers are simple.
Trust – God has given me to my children and my children to me. He didn’t match moms and kids like a game of Memory and lose a couple under the couch. He put each child and mother together in perfect love and wisdom. When I view motherhood through the lens of God’s sovereignty the whole scene changes. God designed me to be the ideal mother for my children. There are not some moms who are better suited for motherhood and others who just get by. If you are a mom, you are the one person best suited to your child. God has given you just the right gift-set, the strengths and abilities, and the over-abundant grace to parent your child. Through Christ, you lack nothing your child needs you to give.
Obey – God’s commands are not burdensome (1 Jn. 5:3). We have a mothering responsibility, but it is not burdensome. The rest and peace we long for is found when we simply follow Christ, resisting the distractions of man-made rules or cultural commands and single-mindedly striving to obey God’s law by God’s grace. Through faithful obedience to God’s Word, we will receive power, conviction, mercy, grace, peace, joy and all the best mothering emotions.
When we trust and obey, we get freedom from guilt and freedom to grow. Instead of retreating in resentment or flaunting our flaws, we are free to appreciate the gifts of other moms, free to get their help and advice. And only the guilt-free mother can laugh. We can laugh at ourselves, our mistakes and our shortcomings, and we can invite our children to laugh along with us. Who doesn’t want a mom who laughs?
As I watch my daughters care for their children, I am freshly amazed by the demands of motherhood. Mothers must daily sacrifice their own comforts and pleasures in order to devote themselves to menial, repetitive, and (appearances might say), futile tasks.
So we should not be surprised that our mommy-emotions are so easily depleted, as if someone pulled the plug on our happiness and all we hear is the gurgling noise as the last of it goes down the drain.
Christopher Ash once said that “it is not suffering that destroys a person but suffering without a purpose.” The same can be said about motherhood: It is not motherhood that destroys your happiness but motherhood without a purpose.
You know what it’s like. When you have a clear sense of purpose, when you believe that God has called you to a task, that it glorifies him, that he is at work, then you have the stamina to endure hardship, the strength to overcome obstacles, joy and peace even when the going gets tough.
But if we’ve become resentful of the demands of motherhood, discouraged and depressed in our routine, irritated and impatient with our children, chances are, we’ve lost sight of our God-given purpose as a mother.
Few things are easier to forget than a biblical conviction of the importance of motherhood. All it takes is a prick of doubt: What’s the point of all this? Why don’t I feel fulfilled? Why work so hard to train my children if I don’t seem to make any progress? What’s the use of repenting if I’m only going to sin again? Is it fake to put on a happy face when I feel so miserable inside?
So many of these questions flow out of the selfish cesspool of our culture, which tries to measure success in motherhood by personal fulfillment. We must be wise and alert to the unbiblical thinking that breeds unhappy questions such as these.
When we allow these questions to fester, without applying truth from God’s Word, we will inevitably lose the joy, contentment, and strength that flow from a firm biblical conviction of the significance of our mothering task.
For me, when I was struggling with my emotions as a mother, it was often because I had lost sight of my purpose. That is why, in the early years of mothering, I read every good, biblical book on mothering that I could get my hands on. I needed constant infusions of truth in order to survive emotionally.
“We are naturally prone to keep slipping into not knowing what we know,” adds Christopher Ash, which is why we must constantly, daily, hourly remind ourselves of what we do know to be true about motherhood.
We know that children are a blessing and a heritage from the Lord, an undeserved gift from God to increase our delight in him (Ps. 127:3).
We know that God has called mothers to train up their children in the way they should go, to discipline and instruct them, to love them tenderly (Prov. 22:6, Eph. 6:4, Tit. 2:4).
We know that those who sow in tears will reap with joy, that those who are faithful to do good will see God act on their behalf, that those who water and tend will see fruit that God gives (Ps. 126:5, Ps. 37:3).
We know that whatever we do for the least of these, we do for him. Motherhood is for him. Motherhood has dignity and glory because of the dignity and glory of the One for whom we mother. When we care for our children, we do it for our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ (Matt 10:43).
These are the truths we must not slip into not knowing. When we remind ourselves every day, in every way we can, of God’s purpose for our mothering, we’ll find the empty tub of our mothering emotions filling up and overflowing with joy.
Y’all are coming up huge with your comments for our book on emotions. Thank you!
We’re learning (no surprise!) that many of you struggle with your feelings as a mother. We just finished a series on helping our children with their emotions, but what about our emotions?
Children bring out love, tenderness, joy, impatience, fear, anger, frustration, despair, and guilt like no one else in our lives. Not to mention that we do this job in isolation, with fluctuating hormones, and sleep deprived. Motherhood is an emotional pressure cooker.
Here’s how you describe it:
“Something about the sound of my baby’s shouting causes such an irritability to rise up in me.”
“Emotions plague me, and as a result, my household. My poor parents had no clue, leaving me with no clue. So here I am, feeling like I am setting up my kids for failure.”
“I feel so guilty, and fear that my relationship with my seventeen year old son will be damaged beyond repair because I lack self-control and lose my temper.”
“I longed for my child to regain his composure and have some self-control while I was losing my own.”
“Sometimes I’m feeling overly emotional and one toddler tantrum throws me over the edge. I usually reserve the cry-sesh for when the babies are napping but is it wrong to feel so much better after releasing that pent up emotion?”
We should have it all together by now! But instead our emotions are more confusing and overwhelming than ever. We can’t handle our own feelings much less teach our children. We never had godly role models to show us the way.
How do we get a grip on our mommy emotions? Can we learn how to handle stressful moments with peace and poise? Is it possible to be free from guilt? Can we understand and even overcome our powerful emotions?
Scripture’s solutions are in plain view, if we know where to look. So let’s take a look together, shall we?
God did not curse us with emotions to make motherhood more difficult and confusing. He gifted us with emotions so that we could experience motherhood to the fullest, be a blessing to our family, and most of all, enjoy and delight in Him.
By the grace of God, our emotions can enrich our lives instead of darken them:
~We can find the “way of escape” when all we want to do is scream.
~Instead of lashing out, we can learn how to respond with kindness and grace.
~We can have peace, even in the chaotic hour before dinner or during the tense, late-night sessions with our teenager.
Motherhood, to borrow the words of JI Packer, will never be “a joyride” but when we learn to biblically handle our emotions, it “will become increasingly a joy road.”
We’ve started work on a new book about emotions and we want to hear from you! Please send us any thoughts or questions you have, short or long.
What frustrates or confuses you most about your emotions?
When or with whom do you have the most difficult time controlling your emotions?
What is one question or concern about the topic of feelings that you most wish someone would address?
And yes, there is something in it for you…we just don’t know what yet. Hopefully some blog posts on this topic, and if your comment or story becomes part of our book, we look forward to sending you signed copy as a thank you gift.
In almost ten years of blogging, you have never let us down! Thank you for so generously sharing your thoughts, questions, and ideas.
It’s time to conclude our little series on helping children handle their emotions. We’ve put all of the posts together for you in one printable document. Hope you find it useful!
We leave you with this thought from Rachel Jankovic—she’s talking about little girls here but this wisdom can apply to all children. May God give us much grace to teach our children how to handle their emotions!
“We tell our girls that their feelings are like horses—beautiful, spirited horses. But they are the riders. We tell them that God gave them this horse when they were born, and they will ride it their whole life…When our emotions act up, it is like the horse trying to jump the fence…A good rider knows what to do when the horse tries to bolt—you pull on the reins! Turn the horse’s head! Get back on the path!...
There is nothing wrong with the emotions. If we have a little rider who is woefully unprepared to control her horse, well then, we had better start with some pretty serious riding lessons. Talk to your daughters about how they might feel, and what you want to see when they do. Give them some practical handholds; be a coach. Anticipate moments that might be hard, when the horse might bolt, and help them learn to anticipate it too…Encourage. Give lots of praise when you see her overcoming little emotional temptations…The goal is not to cripple the horse, but equip the rider.”
As a young woman, and into my adult years, I struggled from time to time with feelings of depression. Sometimes it was triggered by the trials of teenage life and sometimes it seemed to have no source at all.
My parents helped me through. They talked to me about the truths Mom mentioned in the last post. And they taught me how to fight with faith, and see the “way of escape” (1 Cor. 10:13) when tempted to despondency. Here are a few practical ways they helped me handle bad feelings that can help your teen too.
Get practical – Of course we must address the spiritual source of bad feelings, but we cannot ignore other factors. Does your son need more sleep? Could your daughter use help tracking her monthly cycle? Maybe they need a break from video games or social media. More time out doors or with family and friends might do a world of good. Or it could be they are bored and need a task or a project to fill their time. Practical changes can go a long way to minimize temptation.
Do the Next Thing – One of best ways to handle bad feelings is to refuse to give into them. When it comes to depression, this means compassionately but firmly helping your teen get out of bed, go somewhere, serve someone. Few things dispel bad feelings faster than simply doing the next thing. Whatever we can do to help our teen forget about how they feel, and focus on someone else for a little while, will strike a blow against depression.
“Try it,” challenges Elisabeth Elliot. “When, in the face of powerful temptation to do wrong, there is the swift, hard renunciation—I will not—it will be followed by the sudden loosing of the bonds of self, the yes to God that lets in sunlight, sets us singing and all freedom’s bells clanging for joy.”
Obey - Sometimes selfishness causes a teen to withdraw, and become lazy and morose. I remember I used to feel so tired after a long day of school and work that I would sit at the dinner table with my head in my hand, barely talking. My parents weren’t having any of that. If they could interact cheerfully at the dinner table, so could I. Of course, I had no idea yet what “tired” felt like, and I’m so grateful my parents did not indulge my selfishness.
Elisabeth Elliot again: “Obedience to God is always possible. It’s a deadly error to fall into the notion that when feelings are extremely strong we can do nothing but act on them.”
Persevere – Negative feelings don’t dissipate over night. We need to help our teens to persevere. Just because they don’t feel better right away doesn’t mean they aren’t on the right track, and it doesn’t mean they won’t feel better eventually. God is teaching them to endure, to be faithful, and to live by His Word and not by their feelings. These are valuable lessons in the Christian life. Remember, you are not only solving today’s bad feelings, you are teaching your teen how to handle bad feelings for the rest of their lives.
“And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.” ~2 Corinthians 9:8
Growing up means experiencing lots of negative emotions; and not understanding why or what you’re supposed to do with those feelings can make them all the more confusing.
Keep a close eye on your teenager’s emotions. As they enter puberty begin to watch for changes in their emotions, unexpected outbursts or unusual weepiness. Look for patterns. Pray for wisdom. Pray that God would use these negative emotions to draw your son or daughter to Himself.
Talking to our teens about where these feelings come from and how to deal with them can make all the difference. Here are a few thoughts:
Bad Feelings Work for Good – remember, feelings are a gift from God, even bad feelings. Just as physical pain reveals the source of a cut or disease, so bad feelings tell us something’s wrong. Sometimes they show us our need for repentance. Other times, bad feelings—from a difficult situation or seemingly nowhere at all—drive us to God in desperation and prayer. And that’s a good thing! Bad feelings alert us to problems, draw us to God, and position us for grace. This can give our teenagers hope and encouragement as they grapple with negative emotions. God uses bad emotions for good things in our lives.
Bad Feelings Don’t Equal Truth – Our feelings—good and bad—are to help us glorify God, not replace God’s Word as the authority in our lives. Bad feelings may feel more true to a teenager than God’s Word but we need to help them understand that is a lie. Feelings don’t equal truth and we must not allow them to rule our lives. So if they feel depressed or anxious or fearful we can expose the lies which feed these feelings and point them to the truth of God’s Word. And just because they don’t feel like serving or obeying or entering into the family conversation doesn’t mean those feelings should be allowed to rule their lives.
Bad Feelings Have a Source– To help undercut the authority of bad feelings, demystify them by helping your children pinpoint their source(s). Is it that time of the month or are they overly tired? Did their bad feelings start with that comment someone made at school or with the announcement of that big test next week? What desires underlie their bad feelings—in other words, what would make their bad feelings go away? Teenagers are susceptible to strong cravings, and now is the time (not when they are a toddler!) to help them understand why they feel depressed.
More thoughts on helping teens handle bad feelings next week.
When my son Jack was a little tyke, one of his favorite activities was dragging my in-law’s Cavalier Spaniel, Bailey, around the yard on a leash.
Poor Bailey! You could tell he’d rather be snoozing on the rug, but what choice did he have? He was on the leash, and Jack was running in circles, so Bailey ran in circles.
Teenagers often act like Bailey on a leash: they follow their feelings around in circles when they should be holding the leash instead.
When children enter puberty they also enter a whole new emotional landscape. Their emotions are going crazy. Their desires are stronger. Their feelings of exhilaration are higher and their feelings of despair are lower. In other words, their emotions are draggin’ them ‘round and ‘round the backyard.
To apply Martyn Lloyd-Jones: “Oh the havoc that is wrought and the tragedy, the misery and the wretchedness that are to be found in the [family] simply because [teenagers] do not know how to handle their own feelings!”
We need to teach our teens to become feelings handlers instead of feelings followers.
For starters, we must explain that feelings are good not bad, normal not strange. Feelings are a gift from God. He made us to feel, and to feel strongly. Part of becoming an adult is experiencing deeper and more profound emotions. But growing into maturity also means learning how to handle our emotions not follow them. In other words, we need to help our teens understand which end of the leash their feelings belong.
Feelings must be led and guided by the truth, not drag us around in self-destructive circles. We are not to follow our feelings into foolishness. Proverbs tells us where “the way that seems right” (Prov. 14:12) to a teenager ends up and its not a pretty place.
So when out teenagers live from one exhilarating experience to another and refuse to leave their room in between, when they believe that their feelings for someone of the opposite sex are a sure sign he or she is “the one,” when they sulk at dinner or hang out with ungodly friends because they make them “feel good about themselves,” we need to help them understand their feelings have gotten the wrong end of the leash.
Humbly, and without condescension, with plenty of examples from our own life, we need to talk to our teens about the consequences of following their feelings. My mom never made us feel stupid or ashamed. She understood these feelings were normal. And she often used questions (instead of a lecture) to encourage us to consider where following our feelings would lead.
Most helpful of all, Mom taught us to interpret our feelings biblically. She encouraged us that the passion and energy of youth was a gift from God to propel us take godly risks of obedience and love in a hostile world, not rush headlong into foolishness. Our infatuations were pointers to the desires God one day would fulfill in marriage, and we must not spoil his good gift by awakening love before its proper time (Song of Sol. 8:4). And our negative feelings were not to be indulged, but were warnings from God to repent, a sign of his kindness and protection.
By engaging us in constant conversation about the importance of handling our feelings, my mom taught us to appreciate and deal with our changing emotions.
As the mother of four adult children, all of whom were teenagers at one time, I’ve had hundreds (probably thousands) of conversations, many of which were about emotions. Most of these were meaningful and memorable talks. But, like all sinful parents and teens, we had difficult conversations as well; and over the years (I hope!) I learned a lot from my mistakes.
The following is a list of seven “reminders” that served me in those challenging conversations. These are not rules, but guidelines drawn from Scripture that guided me as I tried to navigate these talks in a God-glorifying way. I’ve included key quotes and verses that have inspired these thoughts.
In prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit, may I encourage you to…
1) Communicate humbly with your teen.
“Teens will quickly detect Mom’s, Dad’s genuineness by their humility. Let us recall that we are weak people speaking to other weak people, who simply happen to be younger than us.” Rick Horne
“The most helpful thing to remember is that your teenager is more like you than unlike you…. There are very few struggles in the life of my teenager that I don’t recognize in my own heart as well…. Come [to the conversation] as a fellow sinner.” Paul David Tripp
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. Romans 3:23
2) Postpone talking if you’re angry.
Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. Ephesians 4:29
And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will. 2 Timothy 2:24-26
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. James 1:19-20
3) Postpone talking if your teen is angry.
“There are times when serious injury is done by urging the claims of religion. Your child is angry. His flushed cheeks and violent motions show the sinful irritation of his mind. Shall the mother now converse with him upon the wickedness of these feelings and God’s displeasure? No! It is unseasonable.” John S.C. Abbott
The beginning of strife is like letting out water, so quit before the quarrel breaks out. Proverbs 17:14
4) Don’t talk too long.
“Guard against long and tedious conversations on religious subjects. The mind of a child cannot be fixed for any great length of time upon one subject without exhaustion. Every word that is uttered, after there are manifestations of weariness, will do more harm than good.” John S.C. Abbott
When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.Proverbs 10:19
5) Correct only what you must; overlook what you can.
I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. John 16:12
Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense. Proverbs 19:11
6) Acknowledge your own sin.
“Even if you are only 10 percent to blame for a given conflict, Jesus’ words from Matthew 7 apply to you as much as if you had been 90 percent to blame. You need to acknowledge 100 percent of your 10 percent. The point of Jesus’ teaching is that the first and most important thing for you to realize in any conflict is how your own blindness and sin contributed to the problem.” Rick Horne
Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when there is the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. Matthew 7:3-5
7) Don’t let the conversation end until you have encouraged your teen.
But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Hebrews 3:13
Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul. Proverbs 16:24