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.
Cheerfulness doesn’t come cheap. We have to intentionally teach our children how to cultivate feelings of joy and happiness, so they can learn what it means to rejoice in the Lord. Here are a few simple, every day ideas for reinforcing cheerfulness with your children:
1.Memorize a verse about cheerfulness. Print it, color it, post it, practice it, make it the family motto of the month. “Serve the Lord with gladness” Ps. 100:2.
“Do all things without grumbling” Phil. 2:14.
“A joyful heart is good medicine” Prov. 17:22.
“A glad heart makes a cheerful face” Prov. 15:13.
“God loves a cheerful giver” 2 Cor. 9:7.
2.Back up cheerful commands with cheerful reminders about cheerful verses. For example, “Jeremy, I would like you to clean up the toys now, with a cheerful heart! Remember our verse? We are to serve the Lord with gladness!”
3.Require a smile when they come to the table or ask you a question or want something to eat. A smile is the ticket to any treat.
4.Make cheerfulness competitive. Who can out-cheerful every one in the family? Make a chart, offer a prize, and fire the starting pistol! Crown the winner as the most cheerful child of the day.
5.Cheer on cheerfulness. Encouragement is the easiest and most effective tool in our mommy tool belt. Take notice and praise every cheerful response or attitude that you can.
6.Read Bible stories. Spending time in the wilderness with Israelites will highlight the seriousness of complaining, as well as the mercy and grace of God and of their parents.
7.Be a cheerful mom. There is nothing more important than to get our own souls happy in God each morning (Mueller). We can’t offer our children a perfect example of cheerfulness, but we can point them to our Savior who did. And we can offer them a repenting, growing, example of a woman who is constantly striving after happiness in God.
8.Cheerfulness or Consequences. We must give clear commands and be faithful to correct our children when they complain.
9.Minimize temptation. We covered this in the previous post. Look for ways to remove regular temptations to grumpiness and discontent. An added tip: the simpler a child’s life, the happier they often become.
10.Persevere. Progress may be slow and some days kids and mommy will be anything but happy. But let’s get up and try again tomorrow. “Labor is light to a…cheerful spirit, and success waits upon cheerfulness. The man who toils, rejoicing with all his heart, has success guaranteed” (Spurgeon).
By the time my oldest daughter was ready for preschool, I was desperate for help to deal with all the fussing and fighting that seemed to fill up my girls’ days. How could they possibly find so many things to complain and disagree about in one twelve hour block of time?
I was working harder than ever to train and teach them to obey cheerfully, but the steady drip, drip, drip of grumpiness was constant and I could not possibly deal with every whiney voice or sister spat. After all, I had to take a shower every once and a while.
But as I have always found in my mothering, when we seek God for wisdom, He is faithful to provide. In this case, wisdom for me came one day when I was serving as teacher’s helper in my oldest daughter’s pre-school class.
Here was a group of about 10-15 five year olds, spending several hours together each day, and they were happy! There were very few fights or frowns. What is the teacher’s secret? I asked myself How does he keep so many children happy? As I watched, I noticed that the teacher was consistently moving the children from one thing to another in an organized fashion. There was Bible time, but before the kids had time to get too antsy they were moving to alphabet time and before they got bored it was craft time. The children didn’t have time to be grumpy or discontent.
So that summer I made out a little “summer schedule” for my girls. It wasn’t fancy; I just divided their day up into chunks in order to give it a little more structure. There was Bible time and chore time, and then playtime followed by rest time and more playtime and cleanup before dinner.
My children needed a little more structure. In their case, idleness was contributing to grumpiness. The routine served my girls by eliminating some of the temptations as they played together every day, all day long. They simply had fewer opportunities to be grumpy or discontent.
The point of this post is not that moms must put their children on a schedule if they want them to be cheerful. One of my daughters was telling me recently how her daughter is thriving without as much structure as her boys needed when they were younger. A routine is just one bit of wisdom that served me with my children at that time.
The point is to encourage all moms to seek God for wisdom as to how to create a family culture that minimizes temptation. In teaching our children to handle their emotions, we want to create an environment that reinforces the habit of cheerfulness.
Every parent who has ever told a child to clean up the Legos or go take a bath, has heard these words, almost always delivered in a tone of voice one could call “classic whine.”
My motherish reply might sound something like this: “I don’t care whether you feel like it or not, you are to obey Mommy.”
But according to Scripture, I should care how my children feel about picking up their toys or taking a bath or doing whatever it is I tell them to do. Scripture cares a lot about how we feel about obeying, and as a parent, I should too.
God commands us not only to give, but to give cheerfully (2 Cor. 9:7). We are not just to serve the Lord faithfully, but serve him with gladness (Ps. 100:2).
I am called to teach my children not only to obey, but how to obey cheerfully. “Cheerfulness” is one of the best places to start teaching young children how to handle their feelings.
Now, when a child is two, you are often working just to get them to pick up a toy at all, much less do it cheerfully. But by the time they reach pre-school age, or even before, a child can begin to learn how to obey with a smile.
When we were little, my parents taught us to obey “immediately, completely, and cheerfully.” Sticking with those themes, we are trying to teach our children to obey “all the way, right away, and with a happy heart.”
Notice the key role “cheerfulness” plays in this triumvirate. It isn’t obedience without it.
If we allow our children to cultivate the habit of sharing grudgingly or cleaning up grumpily or holding our hand resentfully, we are teaching them (however unintentionally) that feelings don’t matter.
But if we teach them to say “yes” in a cheerful voice and obey with a smile, we are not only showing them how to obey but how they should feel about obeying. And if they do it enough times, they eventually will!
Our goal is not to churn out a generation of Eddie Haskells, hiding devious hearts behind sickeningly sweet smiles; but rather to raise a generation of “wise sons” who learn to heed our advice to “direct your heart in the way” (Prov. 23:19).
We are not trying to mask unhappy feelings but cultivate cheerful feelings.
The more that our children obey with a smile and a cheerful attitude, the more they will begin to feel that smile and feel happy to serve.
It is in these mundane, seemingly unimportant moments, when we tell our children to put away the Legos cheerfully, that we are preparing their hearts to follow the Savior with great passion and affection, to serve the Lord with gladness (Ps. 100:2).
Recently I asked my kids what they wanted to be when they grow up. I got mommy and missionary, soccer player and sports writer. Sophie said she wanted to be a hair dryer, but I’m pretty sure she meant hairdresser.
As parents we spend a lot of time shaping and molding our children into what we want them to be. We talk a lot about what they should do with their life, and we share important lessons about what not to do.
But as Christian parents we are also to train our children to feel as God created them to feel.
We often overlook this important aspect of parenting. We don’t talk much about how our children should feel when they grow up, do we?
But feelings are an important part of who God created us to be. God is an emotional being and the Bible is a passionate book. Try reading more than a few lines of Scripture without bumping into a feeling. You can’t do it.
We are called to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all our soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” (Mark 12:30).
We are told to “be wretched and mourn and weep” over sin and judgment (James 4:9).
We are exhorted to “rejoice always” and “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:16-18).
As Christian parents, we have a grander goal than managing our child’s emotional outbursts: we want our children’s feelings to explode with affection for God.
We want our children to passionately love the Savior, tenderly love others, and serve the Lord with gladness (Ps. 100:2). We want our children’s hearts to be filled with God-glorifying emotions!
But just as we teach and train, educate and instruct our children to be what we want them to be, we must also train them to feel as God has called them to feel.
We must train up our children in the way they should go (Prov. 22:6) and this means we must direct and shape their emotions (not the other way around). If we ignore this critical aspect of our child’s training, I fear we will have failed to fulfill our whole duty as parents.
Only God can take our child’s heart of stone and give her a heart of flesh (Ezek. 36:26), but he has given us a job to do as parents. He has called us to diligently teach our children how to love Him with all their heart and with all their soul and with all their might (Deut. 6:5-7).
As our children transition from the toddler to the elementary school years, this is a critical time to focus on their feelings. How can we do this? Ideas for training a child’s emotions in a godward direction are coming up next here at girltalk.
“Why do you tell your child a thing twenty times?” asked some one of a mother. “Because,” said she, “I find nineteen times is not enough.” Now, when a soul is to be ploughed, it may so happen that hundreds of furrows will not do it. What then? Why, plough all day till the work is done. Whether you are ministers, missionaries, teachers, or private soul-winners, never grow weary, for your work is noble, and the reward of it is infinite. The grace of God is seen in our being permitted to engage in such holy service; it is greatly magnified in sustaining us in it, and it will be pre-eminently conspicuous in enabling us to hold out till we can say, “I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do.” ~Charles Haddon Spurgeon
Since the beginning of her toddler years, my husband and I had been instructing Caly on how to be self-controlled. The older she got, the more confident we became that she understood how to exercise self-control, but the emotional outbursts continued.
Self-control had become a clear obedience issue. Caly needed consistent, loving, discipline in order to complete and strengthen her wall of self-control (Prov. 6:23, 29:17, Heb. 12:5-11).
Reasonable and kind parenting required that, for starters, we set the bar very low. To expect consistent self-control, we needed to give her a standard she could attain.
First, I simplified Caly’s life for an extended season. I pulled her out of play dates. I ran errands when she was already in bed. I kept an orderly routine. We stayed home most of the time and made Caly’s life as predictable as possible. Careful bricklaying requires a steady hand; I couldn’t build a strong wall of self-control amidst a hectic life.
Second, I sought to eliminate unnecessary temptations. For example, we didn’t insist on certain eating habits, and at times when she was especially tired or vulnerable I would create a place where she could play alone without the temptation of other children. By removing as many temptations as possible, we could focus on self-control in a few simple areas.
Then we had to discipline consistently. We can’t expect our children to learn consistent self-control from inconsistent parenting. When we disciplined—lovingly, patiently, for every infraction—we began to see change in Caly’s life, even more quickly than we expected. This time of focused training enabled us make great progress in helping her build a wall of self-control.
Over time, as Caly learned the daily habit of self-control, we were able to expand her horizons. We began to participate in more activities, go on spontaneous outings, and focus on other training issues (such as eating her peas!). Through consistent discipline, Caly acquired the ability to respond with emotional self-control to all kinds of unexpected situations.
I don’t know exactly when God chose to reveal Himself to Caly, but I expect it was around this time. In his kindness, he has given her a heart to know and follow Him and I pray those affections only grow as the years go by.
Church was over, but not Caly’s crying. She had been crying through most of the service, and despite all my efforts, she just wouldn’t stop. I snaked my way through the crowded church lobby with my emotional child, trying to look cheerful and composed.
I found my mom, handed her a crying Caly, and burst into tears.
Raising an emotional child is an emotional experience. I cried a lot in those early years of training Caly. It wasn’t just the lack of sleep or the long, exhausting days or the embarrassing situations, all of which took their toll—most of all it was the feeling of hopelessness that hung over me because all my efforts to teach Caly self-control seemed to be making little or no difference at all.
I was trying so hard to be faithful. Why didn’t there seem to be much progress? Shouldn’t it be working by now?
Caly did eventually learn self-control. But it took much longer than I expected. And then much longer after that.
My mom encouraged me to persevere. She reassured me that my efforts would yield results someday. I had to believe God’s Word that as I was faithful to parent, God would be faithful to bring the fruit.
J.C. Ryle comments on Proverbs 22:6, “Train up your child in the way he should go, and when he is old he shall not depart from it”:
“It speaks of a certain time when good training shall especially bear fruit,—‘when a child is old.’ Surely there is comfort in this…It is not God’s way to give everything at once. ‘Afterward’ is the time when he often chooses to work, both in the things of nature and in the things of grace…And ‘afterward’ is the time to which parents must look forward if they see not success at once,—you must sow in hope and plant in hope.”
Sow in hope. Plant in hope. Parent in hope that God will bring the harvest. This is the key to dealing with our fearful and hopeless feelings as moms
Fast-forward six years later to another Sunday morning. The service is over and I am pushing a double stroller with another emotional toddler through the crowded church lobby—my three-year-old son, Hudson. Only this time I have a one-year old in the front and two older girls beside me. It is Caly all over again, with three more children in tow.
Except, this time, I’m not on the verge of tears. In fact, I can almost manage a half-smile. Sure, I’m tired, exhausted in fact; and it is tough caring for another emotional child. This time around, though, I have more hope.
Caly is walking beside me, calm, obedient, and helpful. She is a reminder to me of the faithfulness of God. She is a reminder to me to persevere in teaching Hudson self-control, in hope.
And I have hope, that because of the abundant faithfulness of God, one day—even if it is one day far away—I might leave church and no one will be crying.