Kids and Emotions
"Mom? Can I ask you something?"
"Sure sweetie, what's up?"
"A while ago, as I was coming down the stairs, I suddenly got REALLY ANGRY for no reason, and I yelled at my dad, and then I collapsed on the floor and started to cry. Is that... normal?"
"Oh dear. Well, unfortunately, yes, that's completely normal for a 12-year-old. It'll get worse, but then it should get better. Just be sure you talk to us if you get hit with emotions like that, and we can work through it together."
On Sunday morning, the 5twelve Preaching Team discussed emotional trials, giving several Biblical examples and personal stories of healthy ways to work with the Lord through our emotions. While we focused on the adults in the Bible and our own adult experiences, we can all remember what it was like to experience emotions as children and teens. Moms, have you ever bit back your own anger at a toddler who is so overwrought that they're just screaming? Dads, have you ever looked at your teenager and thought, "I just don't get it... how do I get through that hormonal fog?"
Most of us who deal with children in any capacity have faced situations where the child is struggling to contain the VERY BIG emotions they feel. It becomes even harder to help them handle their emotions, when our own emotions feel out of control.
On Sunday, we discussed five steps to handling our emotions:
- Stop and Assess – Feel it and Face it
- Pray – Surrender it all to God
- Get help – You are Not Alone!
- Change your Habits – Diet, Exercise, Rest
- Get medication if you need it
I think helping children handle their own emotions can follow the same steps, although medication may be off the table until they're adults. While some of us were trained in these steps at a young age, I'm guessing that most of us who know them learned them after crises, trial-and-error, and counseling in adulthood.
Stop and Assess, and Get Help
The conversation at the beginning of this post was one I had with my daughter a few years ago. I was astonished then, and it still surprises me how self-aware she was. But when I think about it, I guess we've always been very proactive about helping her acknowledge how she's feeling. Think about it... intense emotions can feel more like something happening to you, than something caused and regulated by your consciousness. When anyone is having ALL THE FEELS, one of the best things you can do is help them acknowledge and identify their emotions. Sometimes, especially for little ones, they don't even know the name for the emotion they're feeling, nor do they understand the cause.
When our daughter (E) was little - 7 or younger - she would have a really unexpected reaction any time somebody sang a song she knew and liked, especially one from a movie. Once, we were sitting at the table with friends, and somebody said something that reminded us of a song from Dumbo. One of us started to sing it, and our normally-happy child yelled, "STOP!", burst into tears, and ran out of the room. All of us adults looked at one another, stunned. What just happened? We all expected to smile, laugh, or sing along. She did have an emotional response, but it overwhelmed her. She didn't know what she was feeling or why - she just knew that she felt one way, and then when the singing started, she felt a different way. I sat down with her, rubbed her back, and helped her breathe through her tears. I asked her what happened, "Why did you seem so angry and upset when we started singing?" Of course, she didn't know. She just knew she didn't like how it made her feel. From my own, adult perspective, I guessed that the feeling was something like "nostalgia," which is a very happy-sad emotion. What 7-year-old understands the experience of nostalgia?
By sitting with her, helping her to calm down, and having her talk through how she's feeling, I hoped to do several things. First, I wanted her to know she was safe. Then, I wanted her to know the physical techniques for just living through and recovering from emotional responses. Finally, I wanted her to practice the art of analyzing her own emotional state and verbalizing it. Saying, "I don't know," or "I don't understand it," is still a type of verbal acknowledgement. Because I talked about emotions with her when she was very small, she felt comfortable asking me about her emotions when she got older, and she knows when to ask for help.
For some of us Christians, this step might seem to be easy. We pray with our kids all the time. But I remember being frustrated when I was expected to pray in the middle of emotions that were SO BIG they were overriding my rationality. For prayer to feel comforting, I think the "stop and assess" step is critical. Then, you know what you're praying about... or at least you know what you need help figuring out. I'm not saying that we shouldn't cry out to God in the midst of a "freak out," and as an adult, that may be the best thing you can do. But little ones are just learning to pray, and it may give them more peace to breathe for a while first. It's also important to pray with them in these situations. "I see you're really overwhelmed. I know how you feel! Jesus got overwhelmed sometimes, and He can help you through this too. Let's pray and ask him to comfort you."
Change your Habits
E and I have a good laugh about self-care on a regular basis.
She'll get "mopey teenager face," and I'll ask, "How's it going?"
"I'm tired... I'm achey... I'm anxious... I'm feeling down."
"Well, let's see. When and what did you last eat? How much water have you had to drink today? When was the last time you went outside into the sunshine? Have you exercised today, or even this week? How'd you sleep last night?"
"I know, I know, heh," she'll say, as she gets herself a big glass of water.
When kids are little, we feed them and make sure they're hydrated, and Lord help us if we don't let them run about some every day! We manage their physical wellbeing for them. When they get old enough to be able to get themselves a drink or a snack, it doesn't mean that they're mature enough to realize or remember their own physical needs. They'll get focused on what they're doing, and they won't remember to get a glass of water 'til they have a roaring headache. By talking it through with E every time, I'm trying to help her be more self-aware about the impact of her physical needs on her emotional (and physical) state.
Last, but not least... Children learn as much or more from what the adults in their lives do as they do from what we say. When it comes to managing emotions, "Do as I say and not as I do" does not work. Be sure you let the children in your life see you experience emotions and handle them effectively. Don't hide your emotions away - acknowledge them in front of the kids, and then verbalize how you're handling it! It feels silly sometimes - almost like play-acting - but you'll be surprised about how much it helps you cope, and you'll start to see the children in your life cope better too.