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How to Help Your Children Process Their Emotions in a Meaningful Way

  • Rachel Baker Crosswalk Contributing Writer
  • 2020 15 May
mom talking to toddler that is crying

The other night I laid next to my five-year-old as she sobbed herself to sleep. I pulled her little body into mine and curled myself around her, allowing the rhythm of my breath to slowly become her own.

She cried and cried until she was exhausted and surrendered to sleep. Her problem was one that I couldn’t fix, not in that moment anyway. She had lost a stuffy I had given her, a little white unicorn with a silver horn named Fuddlewuddle.

We had searched high and low. Fuddlewuddle was gone. Gone in a forever sort of way.

Laying with my daughter and allowing her to cry herself to sleep served as an excellent reminder that as parents one of the most powerful things we can do for our children is help them experience and articulate their emotions in a healthy manner.

We have this saying in our family...

Feelings Allow Us to Experience Truth in a Meaningful Way

The underlying point of this statement is that feelings and truth are not the same thing. Just because we feel something does not necessarily make it true.

This concept is incredibly powerful when it comes to helping our children experience their emotions and feelings; it allows them to identify what is real and what is emotion.

As adults this tool has relevance and the power to help us grow in emotional intelligence. I have always been a live-by-my-gut sort of person. Very rarely has my instinct or discernment failed me, but a person who is deeply instinctual may occasionally be controlled by their emotions.

Being controlled by our emotions can be dangerous whereas controlling our emotions and allowing them to help us decipher truth can be life-giving. I didn’t learn this form of emotional differentiation until I was in my late twenties.

How much better off would our children be to learn this differentiation at early ages?

Help Them before Unhealthy Coping Starts

A blood-curdling scream rang out through our house. I ran out of my bedroom expecting blood or broken bones only to be greeted by my daughter. She was clearly upset but from the looks of it she wasn’t in peril, all of her bones seemed intact and there wasn’t a drop of blood in sight.

Once my heart stopped beating out of my chest, I asked my daughter why on earth she had screamed like that. Her response, “You didn’t make me my waffles.”

Waffles. She was screaming over waffles. I scooped her up into my arms, carried her into her bedroom and sat her on her bed. Our conversation went like this:

“I understand that you’re frustrated but screaming is not an appropriate way to show your frustration.”

“But you said you’d make me waffles and now I’m angry and frustrated.”

“Yes, I said I would make you waffles in 15 minutes and you need to practice patience.”

“But I’m frustrated, I want them now, and I’m angry.”

“You can be angry in your room, when you are done being angry you are welcome to rejoin me in the kitchen and then I will make your waffles.”

“Okay, I’m still angry, but can I have a hug?”

With that, I hugged her and left the room. Five minutes later we were in the kitchen together calmly making waffles.

It feels a tad bit ridiculous to have such an intense conversation about waffles but at the core of the issue was my daughter’s frustration, lack of patience, and desire to control a situation through manipulation i.e. screaming.

Most children are masters at that, they are smart, perceptive beyond belief and deeply manipulative, even if they don’t realize that their behavior is manipulation. A three-year-old, five-year-old or nine-year-old doesn’t have to understand the premise of manipulation in order to manipulate.

Observe any preschool or lower grade elementary class and you’ll lay witness to this. I can’t think of a single playdate we’ve had where at least one of the children gets frustrated and says, “Give me that toy or we’re not friends anymore.”

This is common little people practice and manipulative behavior. At its core, the reason for the behavior is frustration, disappointment or anger. Rather than channeling these emotions in constructive manners, the go-to is “we’re not friends anymore.”

We may laugh this off as kids being kids, but even recently I’ve caught myself doing the same exact thing.

I’ve become frustrated by a person or situation and rather than working through the issue, my initial reaction is to avoid that person or situation. That’s ridiculous! We don’t throw people or relationships away because they are frustrating. We need to communicate, collaborate, apologize and take ownership. In this statement, please know, I am not referring to toxic or abusive relationships.

How can we help our children and even ourselves experience our emotions in a meaningful and truthful way without becoming manipulative or creating false narratives?

mom and kid on the street

Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Sai De Silva

1. Check Your Body and Take a Breath

When my children start exhibiting high emotions it helps to take a moment to cool down.

I’ve had to remind both of my children on several occasions that they’re not breathing fully. You can see it in their rigid little bodies, their crinkly faces and their closed fists.

I’ve caught myself rising in anger recently and had to stop myself--first I have to check my body. Often when I do this, I discover that I’m tense, clenching my jaw and squeezing my fists or my shoulders are raised up towards my ears.

Children similarly have physical reactions to internal frustration. Temper tantrums are perfect examples of this. Sometimes my children need me to hold them and help them remember to breathe.

Keep in mind they may still be in a full-blown tantrum but coming alongside them and modeling breathing for them can often de-escalate the situation. Once they are breathing, they can begin softening their bodies. The added bonus in helping our children first breathe and relax before ever attempting to tackle the larger issue is that as parents, we calm ourselves down as well.

Approaching our children in a calm manner helps model healthy processing of emotion. This approach is a great reminder of Colossians 3:21, “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged.” If we come at our kids with anger and rage rather than peace and calm the situation will only escalate. 

2. Identify and Name the Emotion

Once our little people are calm and relaxed then we can tackle the issue of identifying and naming the emotions that they are experiencing.

Keep in mind, we’re not talking about the problem or even the source of their emotions yet. We’re simply talking about what we’re feeling in our bodies.

I’ve found that in parenting it helps if we go first. It can be as simple as saying, “My stomach feels like it’s in knots, I was so upset about …” Then ask your child, “What are you feeling in your body?” Allow them to come to the conclusion.

They may be feeling a myriad of emotions but properly naming them often depends on their age and development. If your child answers simply with “sad” or “mad” these are great answers.

3. Hold Space for Your Child

Once your child has named their emotion give them space to process how they got to that place. For our son, homework can be a frustration. One night he became so upset over a seemingly small assignment that he put himself to bed crying.

We failed him that night. In our minds the assignment was small, and he was making a big deal out of nothing. For him the assignment was monumental, and we weren’t hearing him.

This led to frustration and ultimately a meltdown. Hopefully we can learn from our parenting mistakes and do better next time by holding space for our children and allowing them to master emotional management.

This means next time he has a frustrating assignment we talk about it; we break the assignment down into manageable chunks, we explain how we often have to do these types of things with our own work. This way our children don’t feel alone or overwhelmed.

Will there still be tears over school assignments? Most definitely. But will our children know that we are their allies and cheerleaders in the midst of doing hard things? Absolutely.

Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Bruno Nascimento

4. Pray with Your Children

I often need to remind myself and my children that even Jesus got angry. God experiences anger.

It is okay to experience anger, and through that experience of anger we can be huge advocates for justice and change. However, God does not give us permission to sin in our anger.

As Psalms 4:4 says, “Be angry, yet do not sin; on your bed, search your heart and be still.” This idea of having anger and yet not sinning is repeated several times in the New Testament as well.

Once you and your child have identified and processed their emotions it’s helpful to reflect and talk to God about what you’re/they’re feeling. This doesn’t have to be some grandiose prayer, but rather encourage your child just to talk to God and to ask Him for help and forgiveness.   

5. Help your Child Seek Forgiveness and Reconciliation

Once your child is calm and has processed their emotions in a healthy way, they may have some apologies to say.

When my daughter pulls the old “you’re not my friend anymore” with one of her classmates or friends she needs to apologize and ask for forgiveness. We need to remember this as adults as well. When we experience anger or frustration we can treat the people around us poorly.

We may feel justified in these behaviors, but they are sin nonetheless. When we catch ourselves here we need to seek reconciliation. This means asking for forgiveness.

Modeling this for our children is huge!

It is important to remember that our emotions are a good thing. They are a gift from God, a tool to experience life and situations in a full way, but ultimately it is our job to manage and control our emotions.

We are in charge of them, not the other way around. Knowing and living this for ourselves will help our children better manage their emotions as they grow.

Developing strong emotional intelligence as a child will equip our children to be prepared for the many challenges that life has yet to throw at them.

Photo Credit: ©GettyImages/photoguns

Rachel Baker is the author of Deconstructed, a bible study guide for anyone who feels overwhelmed or ill-equipped to study the word of God. She is a pastor’s wife and director of women’s ministries, who believes in leading through vulnerability and authenticity. She is a cheerleader, encourager, and sometimes drill-sergeant. She serves the local church alongside her husband, Kile, in Northern Nevada. They have two amazing kiddos and three dogs. Rachel is fueled by coffee, tacos and copious amounts of cheese. For more on her and her resources to build your marriage, see her website: www.rachelcheriebaker.com or connect with her on Instagram at @hellorachelbaker.




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