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.
“There is no man on the face of the earth who can satisfy the deepest longings of a woman’s heart—God made us in such a way that we can never be truly satisfied with anything or anyone less than Himself” ~Nancy Leigh DeMoss
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
When your child begins to think and wonder about more than what’s for dinner or when their next soccer game is, it’s time to start a conversation about their emotions.
Relationship is the bridge over which we can carry loads of gospel truth into our children’s lives. How do we strengthen this relationship and begin this conversation? Here are a few suggestions.
1. Pay attention. Watch your children in order to discern how they are wired emotionally and what most influences their emotions. Recently one of my daughters told me how her son would get quieter and less cheerful at times. She and her husband began to watch him closely and then ask him questions about his moods, which led to fruitful discussions about his struggles and temptations. In order to discern our children’s emotional makeup we must be around and we must pay close attention. Ask yourself: What is his personality like? What triggers her moods? When is she most happy or sad?
2. Create opportunities. Carve out regular times for conversation. Go out for a special time once a week. Take walks. Run errands. Often children may feel more comfortable talking during a shared chore or activity than sitting across from you at Starbucks. I often found my girls most talkative at bedtime so I sought to seize that opportunity, even though it wasn’t my first choice.
3. Ask good questions. Question asking is an art, one you’ll need to work at for the rest of your life. Seek to begin with data gathering questions that tell you a lot without spooking your children into thinking that a lecture is close at hand. Once you get them talking, they will leave many clues as to how they process their emotions. So instead of “Why do you seem so depressed lately?” maybe start with “What are you enjoying most about school right now?” Surfacey, non-threatening questions are an entrée into their lives. Hopefully, they will lead to questions such as “What have you been thinking about lately?” or “How have you been feeling this week?” “The purpose of a [teen’s] heart is like deep water, but a [mom] of understanding will draw it out.” Prov. 20:5
4. Listen well. If you succeed in getting your child to open up to you, be prepared to listen! Kids can tell if you are interested in what they are saying or not. Seek to establish yourself as the one person who is always eager to hear what they have to say and you will forge a strong bond with your child.
Start a conversation and you will construct a strong bridge of friendship over which you can carry vital gospel truths about their emotions.
One reason we are so harried and hurried is that we make yesterday and tomorrow our business, when all that legitimately concerns us is today. If we really have too much to do, there are some items on the agenda which God did not put there. Let us submit the list to Him and ask Him to indicate which items we must delete. There is always time to do the will of God. If we are too busy to do that, we are too busy. ~Elisabeth Elliot
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If one word captures the priority for our children’s emotions in the teen years, it is “conversation.” We find this command in Scripture:
Youshall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. ~Deuteronomy 6:7
Teaching self-control is not an end in itself. We are fashioning vessels that can receive and retain the gospel truths we pour into their hearts.
Sometimes, parents get it backwards. They talk to their toddler as if he was an adult—explaining, bribing, reasoning, pleading—but fail to provide the emotional training a small child needs most: discipline and self-control.
On the flip side, parents often fail to have fruitful conversations with their teenagers: “Because I said so, that’s why!” They can fail to explain what God’s Word says about emotions at just the age when their children need to hear it most.
These priorities are not mutually exclusive. A teenager certainly needs discipline and self-control, and we should teach our toddlers using simple language they can understand.
But hopefully, when a child reaches the age where they are beginning to contemplate the world around them and trying to understand the “why” behind the “what,” we as parents have provided a strong foundation of self-control. And hopefully we are right there, ready and eager to teach them what God’s Word says about their feelings.
The tween and teenage years are a time to talk, a time to listen, and a time to teach. How do we get this conversation started? And what do we teach? More on those questions, to come.