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.
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.
I guess Mom wasn’t as surprised when, a few years after my sisters, my emotions began to change, because she was quick to assure me it was normal.
I remember one of the first times I got over-emotional about something. My dad had brought me a miniature glass piano back from a trip to South Africa.
It broke, and I broke down.
I felt stupid, even guilty, for crying. What was wrong with me? I wasn’t a child anymore, so why did I feel so weepy over this souvenir?
Mom was right there to explain that these kinds of strong emotions were normal at my age. (What a comforting word normal is!) She reassured me that I wasn’t strange and that nothing weird was happening to me. I could expect more strong emotions in the future and not to be overly concerned about it. By the end of the conversation I think we were probably laughing about it all.
My mom’s calm, even lighthearted, response was steadying for me. At that age you have so many questions about life and about yourself. So much is changing and it is confusing. It helped so much that she didn’t chide me for my outburst, or act like something was wrong with me or she just couldn’t understand me.
Mom helped me to feel safe in the midst of my changing emotions. By reacting calmly, but even more, by explaining that this was a normal part of growing up, she made it easy for me to ask more questions about my emotions.
Her response also helped me be receptive to her teaching and her leadership throughout my teenage years. I didn’t feel like she was looking down on me, and so it made it easier for me to come to her with my struggles and questions, and to listen to her advice.
“No temptation has seized you except what is common to man” (1 Cor. 10:13). Mom not only shared this verse with me but I knew she believed it. She told me stories from her own life to back it up. Hearing how she struggled with her emotions at my age made me feel so much better.
I hope that one day I can serve my children as well as my mom served me. I want to tell them how normal they are, and I want this to be the first of many more talks about their feelings.
My two oldest girls, Nicole and Kristin, are fourteen months apart. Growing up, they were more like twins—doing everything together, including becoming women.
I read lots of books on how to help girls through puberty, and I talked to them, at the appropriate time about the changes their bodies would undergo in the very new future. I was careful to explain that this was a normal, and even a wonderful process, and nothing to be scared of. I didn’t want them to be surprised. I wanted them to know what to expect.
But I was surprised, completely caught off guard in fact, when my girls emotions began to change. Nicole first, and Kristin close behind. It felt like someone had swapped my two girls out for two strangers.
Where were my little girls who used to be so happy? Why did they cry so easily now? What were these moods that, like an afternoon thunderstorm, seemed to appear from nowhere?
I may have been surprised and confused by my daughters’ emotional changes, but God was not. Just as he designed a young person’s body to change and develop into manhood or womanhood, he also ordained for their emotions to develop and mature.
Remember, God is the one who created our children to be emotional beings, and feelings are a good gift from him. And so it is a beautiful thing when a child’s capacity to feel begins to blossom and grow. This season of mothering does come with all kinds of challenges, but also exciting opportunities to help train and tend those emotions into deepening passion for God.
These years of change aren’t meant to be a battle: parents vs. our children’s emotions. Rather, by the grace of God, they can be a grace-filled season of learning. We can lead our children to understand and appreciate who God has made them to be and teach them how to cultivate and enjoy God-glorifying emotions for the rest of their lives.
Janelle’s up next with a story about her transition from youthful to mature emotions.
“[Our emotions] are the part of us most vulnerable to outside influences, and in this sense, they are the part of us most easily manipulated….Not only are our emotions easily influenced; they are highly influential. Once persuaded, they become the powerful persuaders, and here is their danger….Reason is cut down, obedience is thrown out, and for a while the rule of the emotions is as sovereign as it is violent.” Os Guinness
The author isn’t talking about teenagers, but he might as well be. I mean, in what period of life can children be more unreasonable or disobedient? When are emotions as sovereign as they are violent than during these critical years?
As parents we can sometimes be slow to recognize just how vulnerable and easily manipulated our teenagers’ emotions are. Puberty ushers them into a stage of life full of strange and strong emotions they never felt before.
But these fragile emotions, these susceptible sensations can become the ruling factor in decisions our teenagers make about their friends, their relationship with us, with the church, and most of all about God—all of which will have massive implications for the rest of their lives.
The stakes are high. Once persuaded, our children’s emotions become powerful persuaders, and so we as parents must persuade them first.
There is danger; and there is also opportunity, a chance to help our teenagers harness their emotions so that they become powerful persuaders toward godliness.
How can we prepare and protect our tween and teenage children through this emotional minefield so they come out safely and even stronger on the other side?
How can we guard and guide them into strong, God-glorifying emotions?
These are critical questions with biblical answers. So let’s consider the wisdom of God’s Word for our teenagers’ emotions.
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.
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.
When my youngest was little, and he didn’t get his own way, he would go stand in the corner of the room and put his hands over his head to block his eyes. You know, as if he couldn’t see me, then I couldn’t see him? He did it quietly, and sometimes I didn’t realize he was gone until I looked over and saw him hugging the wall.
It was so tempting to let him pout a while. He wasn’t causing any trouble. In fact, he was quiet and still, and maybe I could get a project done while he was busy pouting. If I just ignored him, I knew he would snap out of it sooner or later and probably even forget what he was mad about.
But I also knew that his emotions—while maybe expressed more subtly than some of his sisters—were just as sinful and in need of loving correction. Pouting was just as unacceptable as a temper tantrum.
When a child throws himself on the floor in a public place, we have to do something, and do it fast. We can’t just walk away, no matter how much we want to. And so, that child often forces us to parent, whether we feel like it or not!
But the quiet child is easy to ignore. He may seem more “well-behaved.” He doesn’t embarrass or inconvenience us too often. He may not be happy when we say “no” but he is unhappy in such a way that makes him easy to ignore.
Quiet kids can easily fly under our parenting radar.
That is why, with the quiet or less expressive child, we must be all the more intentional to teach them how to handle their emotions.
Let’s be as faithful to correct pouting as we are to correct tantrums.
Let’s go after grumpiness with the same diligence as we address screaming.
Let’s correct bad attitudes, even if they are only a drooping head or an angry face.
You see, our children’s emotions reveal their hearts, and even if they express their emotions quietly or subtly, or not at all, we as parents must not let the sin in their heart go unattended.
Remember: our goal in parenting is not just to eliminate embarrassing outbursts. We are seeking to raise children who respond to our Savior with God-glorifying emotions, whether in quiet thankfulness or expressive praise.
I know, I know, “opportunity” isn’t the first word that springs to mind when you are leading a crying child out of a crowded room and everyone is staring at you. But our children’s emotional outbursts are like intelligence reports, marked urgent. They reveal the secrets of our children’s hearts and give us as parents an opportunity for strategic and effective parenting.
Outbursts are a chance to help our children learn to handle their emotions in a way that glorifies God. But not all “outburst opportunities” are alike, so we must apply some good, old-fashioned parental discernment in order to handle them wisely.
An Opportunity for Comfort – Tender love is what Ryle calls the “grand secret” of effective child training. When our child falls and gets a bloody knee or if another kid calls them a mean name and they burst into tears, we might be tempted to see their emotional outburst as inconvenient or embarrassing (if it is in public), but we should receive it as a chance to express our love and affection for our child, to enter into their sorrows. Isn’t that the kind of love our Savior shows to us?
An Opportunity for Self-Control – We should be quick to comfort, but also seize the opportunity to teach self-control. Even if the reason for our child’s tears is understandable, we must not allow them to lose all control over their emotions. For example, we might tell our child that it is OK to cry when they fall down and scrape their knee, but not to scream. And, if necessary we should gently help them bring their crying to a close at an appropriate time. This will teach them the difference between appropriate and excessive grief.
An Opportunity for Discernment – If a child becomes unusually weepy or more tempted to outbursts than usual, this may be an indicator to us as parents that they need rest, or a break from activity. As we’ve already said, a wise parent will minimize temptation wherever possible.
An Opportunity for Discipline –If a child’s outburst is angry or rebellious, then the intelligence we are receiving is of a serious nature and must be dealt with firmly and biblically. We do not serve our children by ignoring or overlooking angry outbursts or by getting angry in return. An angry outburst calls for a loving heart and firm discipline. And if the child is no longer a toddler and yet angry outbursts are still frequent in nature, we may need to consider whether or not we are exercising biblical authority in the home.
An Opportunity for Focused Training – Frequent outbursts can be abated by a season of focused training. Consider rearranging your schedule, eliminating unnecessary events, focusing your teaching and your discipline on this one area and often you will see good results in a couple of days or weeks.
So the next time we are that parent, exiting the crowded room with the emotional child, we should smile, and even laugh a little. We’ve just been handed a golden parenting opportunity.