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How to disciple your children in their emotions

Does your child have big emotions? Big responses to life’s circumstances? Fear. Sadness. Anger. Disappointment. Loneliness. Just like adults, children experience difficult emotions. They feel afraid of things that may do them harm. They feel sad when they experience a loss. They feel angry when things don’t go as expected. They feel disappointed when plans change and lonely when a friend moves away. 

As Christian parents, we take seriously our God-given task to teach our children the truths of God’s Word. We know we need to disciple our children to know who God is and what he has done. But how often in our teaching do we disciple our children in their emotions?

Emotional beings

God created us to image and reflect him. One of the ways we image God is in our emotions. God feels emotions such as love, joy, peace, jealousy, anger, and sadness (see Exo. 34:14; Rom. 1:18; Rom. 5:5; John 11:35).  When we feel joy at the goodness of God, we image him. When we feel righteous anger at the effects of sin in the world, we reflect God. 

But unlike God, our emotions are not holy and perfect. The influence of our first parent’s sin is felt far and wide, affecting even our emotions. Bad things happen. People get sick and die, and we mourn their loss. People hurt us. Frightening things happen in the world around us—disasters, pandemics, violence, and more. We hurt others in our selfishness and pride. All these situations are the result of sin, and they all produce emotional responses within us. Sometimes we respond in sinful ways to the pains of life. Often, our emotions exaggerate or distort the truth.

In discipling our children, we often focus on teaching them things they need to know or do and overlook the fact that they are emotional beings and need discipleship in their emotions as well. Our children are often overwhelmed by the difficult and painful emotions of life in a fallen world. They feel big feelings and don’t know how to navigate them. They need our help to understand what they are feeling, why they feel that way, and what to do with those emotions. 

Helping our children with their emotions

As parents, we can disciple our children in their emotions. We can walk beside them in their sadness, fear, and disappointment. We can use these opportunities to teach our children about the God who made them as emotional beings. 

Here are three things to teach children about their feelings: 

1. Help them learn to identify and verbalize their emotions: Children don’t automatically know that the tightness in their belly or the pounding of the heart means they are afraid. They need the words to describe it. We can help our children gain a vocabulary for naming their emotions. We can describe our own emotions, “We are running late to our appointment, and I’m worried we will miss it.” “I am feeling frustrated because my computer isn’t working today, and I can’t get my work done.” We can also point out to them their emotional responses, “You seem worried about your spelling test today.” “I see that you are crying. Are you feeling sad because _____?” “You’ve been in your room all day. Are you feeling lonely since your friend moved away?”

2. Help your children learn that emotions aren’t bad in themselves, it’s how we respond to them that can be sinful: While emotions are not always an accurate indicator of reality, they do tell us something is wrong. They reveal something is going on in our heart that we need to pay attention to. And while they aren’t bad in and of themselves, we can respond to them in sinful ways. Feeling hurt and rejected by a friend is a normal response to the unkindness of others, but it’s not right to then turn and yell at a parent or sibling. We need to help our children understand how painful emotions originate in the Fall of man, how sin affects all that we feel. We also need to teach them godly responses to those emotions. And as they mature, we can help them learn to identify the thoughts, desires, and beliefs that influence their emotional responses.

3. Help them learn to lament to God what they feel: We all want to hide from difficult or uncomfortable emotions or simply pretend they aren’t there. As adults, we might eat a gallon of ice cream when we are stressed or upset. We might keep ourselves busy with work to distract ourselves from the things that bother us. Children might respond differently than we, but they still have a natural tendency to want to protect themselves from uncomfortable and difficult emotions. 

Our God is gracious and has provided a place for us to go with our emotions: the book of Psalms. In these words of prose, we find all the emotions of life. Specific psalms, called laments, give voice to the especially hard emotions of life. We see the godly voice all their sorrows, fears, and cares and realize we are not alone. These psalms have a particular form and structure we can follow which help us bring our own laments to God. And in teaching our children to lament, we help them learn what to do with their difficult emotions. We teach them to cry out to God and tell him how they feel. We teach them to turn to him and ask for help with their troubles. We teach them to see God as their refuge, shelter, and deliverer in all the cares and trials of life. In this way, they develop the spiritual habit of turning to the Lord with all their big emotions. 

Our children are emotional beings. They feel big things. As parents, may we disciple our children in their emotions, teaching them to tell God how they feel. “I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, and he will hear me” (Ps. 77:1).

This piece is inspired by Christina’s new book: Tell God How You Feel: Helping Kids with Hard Emotions. For a sample of the book, click here

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