I once witnessed a group of adults telling some teens news they thought was great. From an adult perspective, it was wonderfully exciting news. As the news was shared, I watched as the teens clapped. They probably assumed it was expected, as the adults were cheering. The looks in most of their eyes told a much different story. The news made them uneasy and they doubted that it would indeed be positive for them personally. Yet, the adults around them missed the signals and continued chattering about how exciting it was.
God created people to have emotions. The Bible makes it very clear having and even expressing emotions in godly ways is welcome. Of course, how we act during these emotional states can become sinful, but emotions themselves can help us process and release events that could become harmful to our physical, emotional, mental and even more importantly, spiritual development.
This is what many adults misunderstand. Because we know emotions like anger or sorrow can often result in sinful or “uncomfortable” behavior, we begin teaching our children to squelch those emotions entirely. In times past, this expectation was mainly placed on boys, but even girls are now counseled to hide many emotions.
If that weren’t already enough, many children and teens have little if any meaningful adult interaction – even with parents – during their days. When your parents only give you five minutes of focused attention a day, you choose very carefully what you share. Of course, if that same child or teen has been allowed or even encouraged to spend most of their time at home interacting with screens instead of people, the likelihood of emotions being willingly shared by the child are even less likely.
The child is then left to try and identify, process and act on sometimes strong and complex emotions with little or no adult guidance. It’s little wonder our young people are increasingly involved in eating disorders, underage drinking, drugs and other unhealthy and at times sinful ways of dealing with the stress these emotions are causing them. Even the suicide rate for children has skyrocketed over the last few years.
The good news is that you are your children’s first and often best coach in how to deal with their feelings. You can help them identify, process and act on their emotions in godly and healthy ways. First though, you may have to learn to recognize when your kids are struggling and need your coaching. Every child is different, but here are some possible signs your kids need your help:
- Look in their eyes. If you look carefully, you can often see the fear, sadness or anger in their hearts – even when they are insisting they are “fine”. If the look in their eyes doesn’t seem to match what they are saying, ask them about it. “I know you are saying you think it’s great, but I am not sure that’s the way you are really feeling. Your eyes look a bit worried. How do you really feel? I honestly want to know.”
- Listen purposefully to what your children have to say. It always amazes me how many adults don’t hear kids when they say very clearly how they feel. Sometimes, yes you may have to coach your children to shift their thinking and attitudes about a situation. When a child first expresses an emotion, it is usually important to listen before coaching. Don’t just ignore your child when he says something you think is exciting makes him feel very differently. Listen and ask meaningful questions. Find out why he feels that way if he can articulate it. Sometimes what the child says will give you a lot of helpful information as you begin to help him understand, process and act in response to that emotion. Note that mumbling is often a child’s real emotion being expressed, but in a safer way than saying it out loud. Mumbling should always be questioned very gently. The child mumbled because saying it didn’t feel safe. Asking in an angry way for the information to be shared clearly will only increase the chances the child will shut down.
- Learn your children’s mannerisms. Every child is different, but if you know your child really well, there are often physical clues when she is beginning to feel strong emotions. It may be clinched fists, extra wiggling, chewing on a lip or something else, but learn your child’s emotional “warning system”. When those clues begin appearing, gently ask your child about it. “You seem frustrated. Did something happen at school today?”
- Be aware of the “kick the dog” syndrome. It’s an old story, but it’s often true. If your child normally comes home from school in a sweet mood, but today came home snapping at you, there’s a good chance some strong emotions are right below the surface. It’s probably not about what caused the outburst, but is an emotion your child felt unable to express earlier in the day. You are a “safe” target on whom to release that emotion. Don’t excuse disrespectful behavior, but do encourage your child to share what happened earlier that day that caused him to overreact to what just happened.
- Assure your children you want the absolute truth – even if you don’t like it. This one is tough as a parent. Often, you are already exhausted. The last thing you may want to learn is that your child’s “fine” day was actually a hot mess that will require hours of listening to a sobbing child and brainstorming creative ways to deal with the issues. Once your children know you really want to hear how they are feeling and help them learn how to process it in godly ways, they will be more likely to offer information freely.
- Watch for changes in behaviors. Your good eater suddenly starts picking at food and barely eating? Your energetic child suddenly wants to sleep all day? Your straight “A” student starts getting all “C’s”? The cause can be anything from an illness to a simple change in habits. It can also be a warning sign of the depression that can result from emotions a child has not been able to process in more healthy ways. Any radical shift in normal patterns is a reason to start asking some gentle questions.
Paying attention to your child is not hovering. It is vitally important you help your children recognize and name what they are feeling. You need to teach them how to process those emotions and speak and act in godly ways while they are doing it. If left to do this without your guidance, your children can grow to have many very serious issues. Catching these emotions when they first appear and coaching your children in how to handle the emotions God gave them in the ways He would want them to do will allow them to also grow in the ways God designed them to grow.