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
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.