Caitlin asks: Can you elaborate more on teaching children “emotional self-discipline”? How do you train children to manage their feelings in a way that glorifies God? How early can this training start?
As usual, this is a vast and vital topic, but here are a few thoughts gleaned from Mom over the years.
First of all, emotional self-discipline or self-control is an important quality to teach children. This does not mean we train them to be stoic or unemotional. We teach them that feelings are a delightful gift from God, meant to be enjoyed, but also to be controlled. “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Prov. 25:28). Our job as parents is to help our children build those walls.
Example We must begin with example. From their earliest days, we can model self-control of our own emotions in our lives and in response to our child’s lack of self-control. So instead of panicking when they panic or getting angry when they scream, we demonstrate a self-controlled response to the situation. One of the most effective ways my parents helped my sisters and me to learn emotional self-control (still learning, by the way!) was to model a calm demeanor, and even an affectionate amusement at our melodrama. So if we overreacted to painless fall or harmless comment, they would lovingly joke with us and teach us to laugh at ourselves. By training us not to take ourselves too seriously, they were helping us build a protective wall of self-control against the flood of emotion that flows from innate pride.
Teaching In age-appropriate ways we must teach our children what God’s Word says about the importance of self-control. Memorize Bible verses (Prov. 25:28, 1 Cor. 9:24-27, Gal. 5:22-24, 1 Tim. 2:9, 2 TIm. 1:7, 2 Pet. 1:5-8). Make learning fun through family role play—acting out a right and wrong way to respond. And sing songs about self-control. To Be Like Jesus, the children’s album from Sovereign Grace Music includes two songs about self-control. Seeds of Character by Seeds Worship also includes great Scriptures set to song, including Galatians 5:16-22.
Discipline Obviously if a child responds with strong emotion that is angry or defiant in nature, this requires consistent, loving discipline as well as consistent training. Toddlers need lots of practice to learn self-control. We can train them by insisting on self-control before we give our children what they want. For example, they must stop crying or ask cheerfully if they want the toy, or they must stop screaming if they want to stay in the room and play. Teaching a small child emotional self-control usually requires several intense years of consistent training and discipline. But if we don’t give up, this training will yield much fruit in our child’s life.
Training Of course, in the beauty of God’s plan, each child is different, and some children are more emotional than others. For example, one of Janelle’s children used to struggle with frequent emotional outbursts that weren’t necessarily defiant in nature, but overly emotional given the circumstances. Janelle and Mike sought advice from Mom and Dad and came up with a plan to help their daughter grow in emotional self-control. When she would overreact, Mike and Janelle would calmly instruct her to place her hand on her mouth and quiet down. This simple, specific action helped her regain her composure and made self-control to an obedience issue. Then Mike and Janelle would explain what self-control should look like, and instruct her to remove her hand and respond in a self-controlled manner (e.g. asking kindly or playing cheerfully, etc.). While this took several years of consistent training, it was well worth it. Janelle’s daughter now displays the sweet fruit of emotional self-control. Our Goal: Protect and
Prepare Self-control protects and prepares our children. It protects them from unbridled emotions which can lead to sin and consequences, and it prepares them to handle the decisions and difficulties of life in a mature and godly manner. Training our children to be self-controlled requires perseverance, but let’s not grow weary in doing good (Gal 6:9). Let’s diligently help our children to build a strong wall of emotional self-control.