Before we move on to tweens and teens, here’s a quick summary of our thoughts from the past few weeks on how to help our children handle their emotions.
Self-control is the priority in the toddler years. Behind a strong wall of self-control, godly emotions can flourish. Depending on the child, it may take years of vigorous and intense training before we see progress in emotional self-control. But if we persevere, the fruit in our child’s life will be abundant.
During the elementary years, we will probably need to continue to help our children reinforce their wall of self-control; but we can also begin to teach them how to express godly emotions such as cheerfulness, gratefulness, and passion for God. Through simple, intentional, plans, we can teach our children godly emotional habits that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
Simple steps, big goal. We want our children to learn to express their feelings in the way that God, our Creator, intended—to prepare them for a life of passionate worship and whole-hearted obedience in response to our Savior’s death and resurrection.
When I think back on my childhood, one of the things I’m most grateful for is how my parents taught me not only how to live, but also how to feel about living.
Obedience was required; cheerful obedience was praised to the sky.
Joy in God wasn’t just something my dad preached about on Sundays; it was the emotion all over his face when he came home from work, it was the way my mom washed the dishes.
Alongside cheerfulness (which we’ve already talked a bit about), my parents sought to cultivate feelings of thankfulness and passion for God in their children.
As I try to do the same for my own kids, here are a few things I remember.
(Note: When I showed this post to my mom, she protested: “This isn’t how I remember my mothering! I remember plenty of times when I wasn’t cheerful or thankful!” But this is exactly how I remember my parents’ example in our home, and my siblings agree. This can encourage us as moms. Children don’t focus on individual moments of mothering failure; they remember a way of life, however imperfect, that is growing toward godliness.)
“I give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart” (Ps. 9;1, emphasis mine) writes the psalmist. This, and nothing less, is what we want for our children. We can do this by calling them to thankfulness as a way of life.
Thanksgiving was not only a holiday tradition, it was a way of life in our home. I am hard pressed to remember a single meal or activity where Dad did not invite us all to join him in giving exuberant thanks to God for the blessings we were enjoying.
Some may think it disingenuous to call your children to express a thankfulness they don’t feel, but quite the opposite is true. You can’t express constant thankfulness to God without feeling it sooner or later. Try it and you’ll see.
I have vivid memories of my parents’ grief—not irritation or impatience, but genuine, godly, grief—over our complaining. In light of the many blessings you have received from God, how can you complain? Do you see how displeasing your attitude is to God?
These days, complaining is the stuff of sitcoms, but in our little world (which was, after all, the real one) it was a serious sin.
Passion for God
As children, we instinctively knew—as children always know—what our parents were passionate about. We knew they cared about glorifying God and serving the church more than anything. This is what they got excited about and what they were most concerned about. And their passion was contagious.
To help us catch a passion for God, my parents sought to fill our time with serving God and his church, the idea being, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:34). Our activities were evaluated for their kingdom-building potential. So our world revolved around our family and our family revolved around the church and its mission.
My parents talked about their passion for God, talked about their longing for us to have a passion for God, encouraged us when we expressed passion for God and warned us when we expressed more passion for something else more than God.
If we as parents feel a growing passion for God, our children will learn to imitate us as we long to glorify him.
“The life of giving is not an empty life…it is the first step to encouragement, to clearing your mind, to being fulfilled. Scripture is very clear on this—if you seek to be full, give…When you empty yourself for others, God fills you up. But not so you can suddenly retire with your little packet of joy. God gives to us so that we may give. We give, He gives us more, with which to give more…Christ’s life given up for others is the centerpiece of our faith. Our lives given up for others is the centerpiece of our faithfulness. The glory is that, in both cases, death is not the end. Christ has died for us for all time. But the trail he blazed does not end in the grave. He tells us to follow, to imitate him.” ~Rachel Jankovic, Fit to Burst, pp. 13-18
I have a 4-year-old daughter who is very emotional and very sensitive (your story about Caly was so encouraging because I see so many similarities) but these are dramatically intensified by the fact that she is tremendously fearful. Many of the outbursts we deal with stem from situations in which she is so afraid of something that she is just unable to function along with dramatic outbursts. This could be something as simple as hearing a rumble of thunder or even seeing a bug. I wondered if you could speak more specifically to a good approach to dealing with a very fearful child.
Yep, I hear ya. This past week we’ve had fears about ants and ticks and Baby Einstein puppets. For my emotional Caly-girl, fear was a massive issue when she was your daughter’s age, and still is. But thankfully, as God has helped her to grow in self-control, she can now talk calmly about her fears and receive our help.
To answer your question, we had a little girltalk huddle and came up with a few starter-suggestions for helping children deal with fear.
1. First Lessons in Fighting Fear – Our children’s fears present a precious opportunity to teach them how to turn to God in trouble. It doesn’t need to be complicated or elaborate. We can simply pray a little prayer with them when they are scared or teach them a one-line verse, such as Ps. 56:3: “When I am afraid, I will trust in you.” When we comfort and reassure them of our protective presence, it will give them a taste of the comfort of God. Little songs, sung by mom, also go along way to soothing big fears.
2. Self-Control (again) – I know we keep talking about self-control, but especially for the emotional child, this is one of the best ways to help them deal with fear. When Caly was a toddler, she would scream and go into hysterics over a bug. Now she can come and calmly tell us she is afraid of the bug, and receive our assurances that there is nothing to fear. Although we should always comfort a young child when they are afraid, we also want to gently but firmly help them get a grip on their emotions, and resist the temptation to submit to fear.
3. Laugh in the Face of Fear – One of the best ways to help children overcome fear is to teach them not to take their fears too seriously. The brave laugh at fear! So, for example, (and you have to get your timing right) if your child freaks out about a noise in the basement, you might smile and tell them not to worry—it is only the mouse family brushing their teeth before bed! Cheesy, but that’s the idea. Being nonchalant, cheerful, and even funny about fear has gone a long way toward abating Caly’s fears.
4. Brave Mamas Make for Brave Children – How we react to our children’s fears teaches them how they should react. If we take our cues from our children’s emotions and go into panic mode or freak out right along with them, we only reinforce the habit of fear. But if we model tranquil and cheerful emotions, appropriate to the situation, we are showing them what it looks like to be reasonable, and even brave. The stronger our own trust in God, the better we model it for our children. 5. Turn off the Tube – Sheltering can have a bad reputation, but as parents we must be especially discerning about the temptations to fear that can arise from exposure to television, media, even conversations between adults or other children that are scary. Often, we can underestimate the effect of media on a small child’s psyche; even if they aren’t scared of a particular character or scene in a show, the seriousness of the subject matter can have an outsized effect on a small child’s emotions and generate fresh fears.
6. Avoid Lobster Tanks – When I was little, I had nightmares about lobsters, so my mom made a point of avoiding the seafood section of the grocery store. What temptations to fear can you minimize for your child? Maybe you need to buy a night-light or avoid the street with the scary Halloween decorations. Strategic decisions to avoid unnecessary temptations to fear can help make it easier to deal with the many unavoidable situations. And some fears are better left un-faced. For example, I was also afraid of sleeping at other people’s houses when I was a child (you see where Caly got her propensity to fear!), but my Mom wasn’t big on sleepovers anyway, so she never insisted I run into this fear.
7. Hold Their Hand – Once our children have learned to respond with a measure of self-control to fearful situations, we can, carefully and wisely, begin to help them face and overcome specific fears. It is helpful to talk ahead of time about why this is important, explain clearly what small step we want them to take, and pray with them that God would help them to be brave. Then hold their hand until they can do it on their own. By being proactive to help our children overcome one fear, we will teach them how to face many more.
These are just a few ideas. Start small and keep the big picture in view. Our goal isn’t just to raise composed children—we want to give them training wheels to learn how to trust in God. Bugs and thunder can be scary. But by the grace of God, our children can learn how to face their fears.
“You are more wicked than you ever dared believe but you are more loved than you ever dared hope. Don’t be too proud to accept what the gospel says about your unworthiness. Don’t be too despondent to accept what the gospel says about how loved you are.” ~Tim Keller