Editor’s Note: We’re going to approach this “feelings” series chronologically, starting with very young children. Today Janelle kicks us off by talking about how we can help our toddlers begin to learn how to handle their emotions.
My oldest daughter, Caly, was emotional from day one. If I didn’t want her to cry I had to hold her or turn the vacuum cleaner on outside her room. Those were my only two options. She cried in the car, she cried in her crib, she cried all the time.
This was certainly a sign of things to come. As a toddler and preschooler, Caly was the most emotional little girl I have ever met. We’re talking meltdowns over her dollhouse being moved to a different room, freak-outs from watching Baby Einstein, inconsolable weeping long after her cousin returned the toy she grabbed, every day, all day long.
Caly was the first girl of all the cousins. Up until she was born, my sisters had only boys. And even though my sisters and I were plenty emotional growing up, none of us had ever encountered a girl quite as emotional as my Caly.
Emotional Caly made for extra-emotional Mommy. Oftentimes I cried right along with her, and some days I wanted to scream with her, too. Besides being my shoulder to cry on, my mom also helped me keep my eyes on a single mothering goal: teach Caly self-control.
As soon as she was old enough, Mike and I began to train Caly to control her emotions. Whenever she would start to overreact (read all day long!) we would calmly instruct her to place her hand on her mouth and quiet down. This simple, specific action helped her regain her composure and made self-control an obedience issue. Then we would explain what self-control should look like and instruct her to remove her hand and respond in a self-controlled manner (e.g. ask kindly, play cheerfully, stop crying, etc.).
We didn’t ask her much about what she was feeling. We didn’t have long conversations exploring her emotions. We didn’t try to reason with her. We didn’t plead or manipulate, cajole or bribe. We didn’t even talk a whole lot about how emotions are a gift from God or about their God-given purpose. We were not angry or harsh. We were deliberately calm and tender in how we spoke to her. But we were firm and united in teaching this little girl one simple truth: God wanted Caly to learn to control her emotions.
It may seem like we were stifling a young girl’s budding emotions, but our goal was quite the opposite. We wanted to teach Caly how to control and handle her feelings so that she would be able to experience and express her emotions in the way God intended—as a gift from him for his glory.
The first step was to help her build a wall: “A man [or a little girl] without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Prov. 25:28).
Caly was a living illustration of this verse, her little soul an exposed and ransacked city, completely overrun by her barbarian emotions because she had no solid, protective, wall of self-control.
Emotional walls are usually thought of negatively these days. We think of them as barriers erected by emotional insecure or hurting people who try to block themselves off from others or from feeling anything at all. Walls=bad. So goes the conventional wisdom, and in many cases this is probably true.
But a wall of self-control is not like the Berlin Wall, erected to entrap and exclude. It is a wall like that of an ancient city or of a beautiful estate that needs protection in order for the inhabitants to dwell in peace.
Self-control is the wall behind which godly emotions flourish.
We have watched this happen in our little girl’s life. Caly is eight now, and she has learned how to handle her emotions. Not that she doesn’t still struggle at times, but she is a different girl than she used to be.
She is not a repressed or unemotional child, but happy and expressive. She feels things strongly and deeply, and is especially sensitive to the things of God. She prays often, has an insatiable hunger to read her Bible, confesses her sin frequently, grieves over her own sin and the sin of others, gets excited about sharing and loving others and encouraging her siblings and cousins to do the same.
I believe her emotions toward God are so strong because, by the grace of God, they have been able to flourish behind a strong wall of self-control. Behind that solid wall—which was arduous to build, and maybe not so attractive to look at—a garden of godly feelings has grown up in sweet safety and protection.
How grateful this weak and desperate mom is for the wisdom from God’s Word that teaches us how to help our little ones earn to handle their emotions.
Q: My friends and I were wondering if you’ve ever done a series on how we as Christian mums can be helping our children, girls particularly, in dealing with their emotions. It can be such a roller coaster ride and our girls are only 5! I’d love to help them grow in godliness in this area (even as little ones) and how my friends and I can help (ourselves &) our daughters understand their emotions. ~Jodie
A. Great question, Jodie! As a mom of three daughters, I’m a repeat rider on that roller coaster that is a girl’s emotions. Not to mention my daughters have six girls between them now so this is an issue we talk about a lot.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd Jones once observed that “one the greatest problems in our life is the right handling of our feelings and emotions.” I would add that this can be one of the greatest problems in our mothering, too!
Moms are professional problem solvers, but sometimes a young girl’s emotions can be overwhelming: Our teenage daughter’s mood swings come and go like dark clouds over our home or our preschooler dissolves into tears over a hang nail and gets scared by reading Winnie-the-Pooh.
That’s why it can help—in those moments when little girl’s tears or teenage girl’s mood swings put a damper on the entire household—to first remember that emotions are a gift from God.
God made us emotional beings. He created that one-minute-squealing-with-delight-next-minute-inconsolably-crying-five-year-old and that hormone-riding-girl-come-woman to feel and express emotion.
He did this on purpose, and not as a cruel joke to exasperate mothers. God made us emotional beings so that we might enjoy and glorify him.
Emotions are from God and emotions are for God. Emotions have a purpose. They are to assist and aid us in directing our whole being and our whole lives to the worship of our glorious Savior!
But like everything else about us, our feelings have been corrupted by the fall, and if not “rightly handled” they cause all kinds of problems. If we are inclined to coddle our child’s emotions (giving them too much attention or credibility) or if we try to ignore our child’s emotions, either way they (and we!) will experience the consequences.
As Martyn Lloyd-Jones laments: “Oh the havoc that is wrought, and the tragedy, the misery and the wretchedness that are to be found in the world simply because people do not know how to handle their own feelings!”
Havoc. Misery. Wretchedness. Yep, to any mother with a teenage girl, this sounds about right. Which is why we must teach our children how to rightly handle their emotions. We must help our kids, at every stage of their development, to understand that their emotions are a gift from God to be rightly directed for his glory.
But God doesn’t simply say to us as moms: “Sorry, I know it’s tricky, but just do your best, OK?!” He gives us biblical strategies for teaching our children how to handle their emotions. So we’re going to take a couple of short posts to consider how God’s Word helps us to help our children rightly handle their emotions.
“If the only thing you have to offer is a broken heart, you offer a broken heart. So in a time of grief, the recognition that this is material for sacrifice has been a very great strength for me. Realizing that nothing I have, nothing I am will be refused on the part of Christ I simply give it to Him as the little boy gave Jesus his five loaves and two fishes—with the same feeling of the disciples when they said, ‘What is the good of that for such a crowd?’ Naturally in almost anything I offer to Christ, my reaction would be, ‘What is the good of that?’ The point is, the use He makes of it is His blessing.”
Caitlin asks: Can you elaborate more on teaching children “emotional self-discipline”? How do you train children to manage their feelings in a way that glorifies God? How early can this training start?
As usual, this is a vast and vital topic, but here are a few thoughts gleaned from Mom over the years.
First of all, emotional self-discipline or self-control is an important quality to teach children. This does not mean we train them to be stoic or unemotional. We teach them that feelings are a delightful gift from God, meant to be enjoyed, but also to be controlled. “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Prov. 25:28). Our job as parents is to help our children build those walls.
Example We must begin with example. From their earliest days, we can model self-control of our own emotions in our lives and in response to our child’s lack of self-control. So instead of panicking when they panic or getting angry when they scream, we demonstrate a self-controlled response to the situation. One of the most effective ways my parents helped my sisters and me to learn emotional self-control (still learning, by the way!) was to model a calm demeanor, and even an affectionate amusement at our melodrama. So if we overreacted to painless fall or harmless comment, they would lovingly joke with us and teach us to laugh at ourselves. By training us not to take ourselves too seriously, they were helping us build a protective wall of self-control against the flood of emotion that flows from innate pride.
Teaching In age-appropriate ways we must teach our children what God’s Word says about the importance of self-control. Memorize Bible verses (Prov. 25:28, 1 Cor. 9:24-27, Gal. 5:22-24, 1 Tim. 2:9, 2 TIm. 1:7, 2 Pet. 1:5-8). Make learning fun through family role play—acting out a right and wrong way to respond. And sing songs about self-control. To Be Like Jesus, the children’s album from Sovereign Grace Music includes two songs about self-control. Seeds of Character by Seeds Worship also includes great Scriptures set to song, including Galatians 5:16-22.
Discipline Obviously if a child responds with strong emotion that is angry or defiant in nature, this requires consistent, loving discipline as well as consistent training. Toddlers need lots of practice to learn self-control. We can train them by insisting on self-control before we give our children what they want. For example, they must stop crying or ask cheerfully if they want the toy, or they must stop screaming if they want to stay in the room and play. Teaching a small child emotional self-control usually requires several intense years of consistent training and discipline. But if we don’t give up, this training will yield much fruit in our child’s life.
Training Of course, in the beauty of God’s plan, each child is different, and some children are more emotional than others. For example, one of Janelle’s children used to struggle with frequent emotional outbursts that weren’t necessarily defiant in nature, but overly emotional given the circumstances. Janelle and Mike sought advice from Mom and Dad and came up with a plan to help their daughter grow in emotional self-control. When she would overreact, Mike and Janelle would calmly instruct her to place her hand on her mouth and quiet down. This simple, specific action helped her regain her composure and made self-control to an obedience issue. Then Mike and Janelle would explain what self-control should look like, and instruct her to remove her hand and respond in a self-controlled manner (e.g. asking kindly or playing cheerfully, etc.). While this took several years of consistent training, it was well worth it. Janelle’s daughter now displays the sweet fruit of emotional self-control. Our Goal: Protect and
Prepare Self-control protects and prepares our children. It protects them from unbridled emotions which can lead to sin and consequences, and it prepares them to handle the decisions and difficulties of life in a mature and godly manner. Training our children to be self-controlled requires perseverance, but let’s not grow weary in doing good (Gal 6:9). Let’s diligently help our children to build a strong wall of emotional self-control.
Do you ever feel like you don’t know what to say to someone who is suffering? Are you ever tempted to avoid the person who is going through a trial? Do you worry about saying or doing the wrong thing?
In her second breakout session at the Sovereign Grace Pastors Conference, Nancy Guthrie offered some practical advice for how to serve the hurting. This is one of the most helpful talks I have ever heard on this topic and I hope every woman will listen, take notes, and seek to grow in love toward those who are suffering. Nancy offers six ways to walk with people through loss:
1. Overcome the awkwardness to engage
“Sometimes we see people struggling and we want them to come so quickly to resolution, to figure everything out. The truth is, as we minister to other women, we do want them to come to resolution, we do want them to come to some peace, figuring things out. But sometimes I think we are in a much bigger hurry than God is Himself. What a gift it is to other women to be willing to sit—not forever, but at least for a while. To just go, “Wow, this is hard isn’t it?”“
2. Make room for tears and sadness
“Don’t think tears are the problem. Tears are a gift that God gives us to help wash away the deep pain that we feel and experience from living life in the brokenness of this world. There are some things worth crying about. There are some people worth crying about.”
3. Go deeper than deliverance in prayer
10 purposes in the Bible for which God wants to use suffering:
4. Gently challenge sentimentalism and spiritualism with Scriptural truth
“If that is the fruit of the suffering in the people’s lives you minister to, that’s really good fruit: to know God as he is, not what we’ve tried to make him into.”
5. Anticipate the family pressure points.
“Grief puts a lot of pressure on a family.”
6. Help them turn the misery into ministry
“So often we think: when I get this figured out, when I feel better, I can turn toward ministering to other people. I want to say: The way we begin to feel better is to begin to minister to other people uniquely out of our loss.”
You can listen to Nancy’s message, “Learning to Walk with Each Other Through Loss” here.
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).
My son Jude asks lots of questions. As I understand it, this is common for children who have been adopted when they are older, and I totally get it. New country. New language. New parents. I would ask a lot of questions too.
I am eager to answer Jude’s questions about his new world—as best I can anyway. Occasionally he stumps me with questions about how stuff works (“I haven’t a clue, Jude, ask your Dad!”) or like the other day when he asked me why people put up “yucky” Halloween decorations: “Honestly, Jude, that’s a great question, Son, but I have never been able to understand that myself!”
As much as we want to satisfy Jude’s curiosity about his new life, we are also trying to teach him that he can trust us, his parents, to faithfully meet his needs. So sometimes, when he asks the same question over and over again, or asks about insignificant details he’ll find out in a few minutes anyway, I’ll provide the answer my parents often gave to me: “You’ll see.”
“Mommy what’s for dinner?”
“Mommy, what store are we going to next?”
“Mommy, how many more minutes until break time?”
We have worked really hard to be consistent and predictable in our parenting; so while imperfect for sure, Jude knows by now that we will always feed him dinner, we will always come home after going out, and we will (almost) always take a break from school in the mid-morning.
But as I seek to teach Jude that he can trust us, I have begun to see, sadly, how little I sometimes trust my Savior. Jude’s incessant questioning is understandable for an eight-year-old boy nine months into a new life, but so often I ply my Heavenly Father with anxious questions, having nothing like Jude’s excuse.
“What are you doing next, Lord?”
“Where are you taking me?”
“When will this be over?”
I don’t just ask these questions once. I ask them over and over and over. And more often than not, God replies with the same answer I give Jude: “You’ll see.”
To be honest, I don’t always like that answer any more than Jude does. And yet when I grumble about God’s response, I fail to see the massive mercy behind it. “You’ll see” is a promise! A glorious promise, secured for me at the cross! I will see! Because I have been adopted into God’s family, through the atoning death of Jesus Christ on my behalf, I will one day see God.
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:1-2 ESV).
I may not see everything today, but I see the Father’s love. And I have this confident and sure expectation that one day I will see Him as He is. And I will be like Him. Because of adoption, I see. And because of adoption, I will see. Oh joy!
So Jude, my Son, I pray that one day you will see the love of the Father and rejoice in His answer to all your questions: “You’ll see!”
My sister-in-law Betsy has been one of my dearest friends for going on 36 years now. She’s also one of my favorite women teachers, and it’s not only because she reminds me of my husband with her earnest style and frequent hand gestures. Betsy is one of the most encouraging women I know. She has a profound and ever growing appreciation for the grace of God and you can’t leave her presence without her looking you straight in the eye and telling you how she sees that grace at work in your life.
So it was a special treat for me to sit under Betsy’s teaching this Saturday for not one, but two sessions! She spoke to the women of Covenant Life Church about God’s perspective on our emotions. And to begin, she took us to Genesis 1 and our Creator. Please listen (here and here) and be encouraged.
Sometimes I struggle with feeling guilty that I don’t feel like doing the next thing. Even though I have repented from fear and anxiety (and will keep repenting and talking to myself) the feelings of fear still linger. But aren’t we supposed to do our work with joy and gladness as unto the Lord? How can I glorify God in my work if I still feel anxious? I wonder. So just as I pull one foot out of the ditch of fear, the other one falls into the pothole of condemnation. But there is a firm and level path for us in God’s Word, which John Piper points out in this meditation on Psalm 126:5-6 called “Talking to Your Tears.” He’s counseling people who are sad and suffering, but I think it also applies to those of us who feel anxious:
So here’s the lesson: When there are simple, straightforward jobs to be done, and you are full of sadness, and tears are flowing easily, go ahead and do the jobs with tears. Be realistic. Say to your tears: ‘Tears, I feel you. You make me want to quit life. But there is a field to be sown (dishes to be washed, car to be fixed, sermon to be written). I know you will wet my face several times today, but I have work to do and you will just have to go with me. I intend to take the bag of seeds and sow. If you come along then you will just have to wet the rows.” Even if we sow in tears (or fears) we will one day reap with joy. Read the entire meditation and then do the next thing—whether you feel like it or not.
After reading Friday’s post, girltalk reader Andrea encouraged us to check out an essay from John Piper’s A Godward Life entitled “Talking to Your Tears.” We’re quoting a small excerpt here, but you’re really going to want to read the rest; so go ahead and buy the book!
“Those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” Psalm 126:5-6 “This psalm teaches the tough truth that there is work to be done whether I am emotionally up for it or not, and it is good for me to do it. Suppose you are in a season of heartache and discouragement, and it is time to sow seed. Do you say, ‘I can’t sow the field this spring, because I am brokenhearted and discouraged’? If you do that, you will not eat in the winter. Suppose you say instead, ‘I am heartsick and discouraged. I cry if the milk spills at breakfast. I cry if the phone and doorbell ring at the same time. I cry for no reason at all, but the field needs to be sowed. That is the way life is. I do not feel like it, but I will take my bag of seeds and go out in the fields and do my crying while I do my duty. I will sow in tears.’ If you do that, the promise of this psalm is that you will ‘reap with shouts of joy.’ You will ‘come home with shouts of joy, bringing your sheaves with you,’ not because the tears of sowing produce the joy of reaping, but because the sheer sowing produces the reaping. We need to remember this even when our tears tempt us to give up sowing.” A Godward Life, pp. 89-90
So what fields in your life need to be sowed today? Even if you cry while you do your duty, you will, one day reap with joy. —from the archives