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Emotional IssuesDealing With Feelings     << Ch. 9 >>
"For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders."
- Matthew 15:19

Testimony From an Unrestrained Mom

Dear Elizabeth,

I can personally relate to children whose parents extended them endless permissions and the right to freely express every emotion. Sadly, that's how I grew up. Now, as a Christian adult, I realize how unbiblical it is to habitually "feel any way you happen to feel." It is a very dangerous pattern that may require a lifetime to undo. I am now in my thirties, and I continue to battle with self-control, particularly when life gets stressful, and old temptations and bad habits reassert themselves. Thank God for His ever-available grace and help in times of trouble. And thank God my children know the blessings of loving discipline and do not have to grow up the same way I did. 


�he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.
- Proverbs 17:27

Fifty years ago, no parenting author would have even thought to mention the subject of emotions and whether a child should be taught to control them. It would have been taken for granted. All children were expected to restrain and direct their emotions appropriately, from an early age. Alas, upon the arrival of psychologists to the field of parenting, common sense in this regard has gone out the window and we now have an entire generation of young parents who believe their children will be scarred for life if any attempt is made to require them to manage their spirits. The results, predictably, are millions of children well on their way to becoming emotional cripples, unable to handle the slightest disappointment, or the smallest offense made against them. Many of their similarly raised parents are in this state already. Perhaps the psychologists are attempting to garner a continued flow of new patients.

Rescue me, and deliver me out of the hand of aliens, whose mouth speaks deceit, and whose right hand is a right hand of falsehood.
- Psalms 144:11

Not All Emotions Are Good
It is not wrong to have emotions, but unbridled emotions are dangerous and potentially devastating. Adults who feel righteous indignation upon seeing the innocent suffer, or children who grieve the loss of a grandparent, act properly and nobly. But not all emotions, displayed freely, are good. Both the adult who loses his temper when frustrated, and the child who throws a fit to get his way, are equally reprehensible. Emotions are attributes of God Himself, engendered in us when He "created man in His own image". The challenge is not to eliminate emotions, but to manage them in ways pleasing to God and in accord with His image.

Because God is gracious, He helps us in this task of becoming like Him, by revealing to us in His word, when we are to feel certain emotions and to what extent. We are to "hate" evil, for example. We are to "be miserable and mourn and weep" over our own sins. We are to "rejoice" in Him. We are to "love" our neighbor. And so on. In addition to His direct instructions, God offers His example, so that we might imitate Him. Thus, when Exodus tells us that God is "slow to anger," we too must be slow to anger. When the Psalms describe Him as compassionate and longsuffering, we are to seek to be the same. 

Jesus is, of course, our supreme example. His emotional repertoire was vast and we are given many examples thereof. Jesus was �consumed with zeal� when He saw God�s house being misused. He �felt compassion� for the lost and taught them, and for the sick and healed them. He �wept� when His dear friend Lazarus died. His soul was �deeply grieved� when He prayed in the Garden. And ultimately, Jesus demonstrated �love�, beyond compare, by laying down His very life for our sakes. In all that He did, He set an example for us to follow and gave us the power to do so.

Along with the biblical descriptions of wisely managed emotions, the Bible also gives us many examples of mismanaged and unrestrained emotions, beginning with Cain who murdered his own brother in anger, to Moses who lost his temper and struck the rock, to the malice of the Jewish leaders who sought to put the Son of God to death. Never are these displays excused because the perpetrators did not have the ability to control their tempers. Apparently God felt they did. In the next few chapters I am going to discuss emotions as they relate to parenting small children and how, in practical ways, we can help our children become masters of their own spirits and hence live the rest of their lives free from the bonds of emotional slavery. 

Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth"
- Exodus 34:6

You CAN Change Your Emotions

Yes, you CAN change your emotions. You are not a helpless victim of hurt feelings, irritability, and anger. We can and must learn to alter our tempers and deny our feelings, when necessary, and teach our children to do likewise. 

Colossians 3:8 (NAS) tells us: "But now you also, put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, {and} abusive speech from your mouth." Since here and many places elsewhere in scripture, we are commanded to control our emotions, it�s safe to assume God gives us the ability to do so. God tells us what to do, and that we can do it, so all we need to do is obey Him. In the same way, we have the ability to teach our children to control their emotions. All they need to do it obey us, as we wisely discipline them and train them according to God�s word.

For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach."
- Deuteronomy 30:11

The Outside Reflects the Inside
One cherished, but highly erroneous belief is that a parent should not correct a child for displaying a wrong emotion, because the child will "suppress" the emotion rather than change it. Experience convinces me otherwise. Require young children to display the right emotions outwardly and their hearts will change, producing the right attitudes and emotions inwardly as well.

Of course you can't simply order your children to "be happy". If the child is small, it works much better to tell him to "smile" or "straighten up your face." If the child is very young, I'll cheerfully say, "Let's see a smile now", or "Where is your smile?"

The child may initially resist, but when he finally obeys, the resulting smile will often break into a radiant grin, accompanied by sincere laughter and other expressions of genuine joy. It is hard for a small child to hide his true feelings. It is equally difficult for him to display an emotion that he does not really feel. Get him to smile on the outside and invariably he will smile on the inside.

A joyful heart makes a cheerful face, but when the heart is sad, the spirit is broken.
- Proverbs 15:13

The Photo Shoot
One December several years ago, during our annual family Christmas photo session, the task of arranging and making presentable twelve people was proving a taxing experience. After an hour and at least fifty shots, our four-year-old commenced pouting and looking miserable. My husband was ready to surrender and try again the next day. I was thinking, "NO WAY am I going to go through all this again tomorrow!"

So I said, "Jeffy, look at me." He looked. I said, "Why are you crying?" He answered, "Because I'm tired." I pleasantly replied, "Do you want to ruin the picture with your crying face?" He paused, then said, "No," as though he hadn't thought of that. I wiped away the tears and said, "Now let's see you smile. Do your funny Donald Duck face, only not all the way, but just a little bit -- there, that's it! You look very nice now!" 

By this time, Jeffy was almost starting to giggle and I had to restrain the cheer lest his laughing ruin more pictures! The picture we selected told the story: his whole attitude was transformed and he was radiant the rest of the session.

A joyful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit dries up the bones.
- Proverbs 17:22

Changing Thoughts Will Change Emotions
Emotions are a reaction. So what are they a reaction to? Many would say that they are a reaction to a circumstance, but that is really not the case. They are actually a reaction to your thoughts about a circumstance. For example, if you can't swim, and you fall into the deep end of the pool, you'll most likely react with terror and panic because your mind will be screaming: "I CAN'T SWIM! I'M GOING TO DROWN!" On the other hand, if you are a good swimmer, and fall in the deep end of the same pool, you won�t panic. You�ll think: "What a bother! Now I'm soaked, better swim over to the side here and get out and dry off."

The same analogy can be broadly applied. The body, when surprised, releases a rush of adrenaline, but immediately your thoughts will influence the extent of your emotional reaction. You may be unable to control the emotions directly, but one can control thoughts, and hence your emotions through them.

By nature, I am a somewhat emotional, nervous person. I often have to restrain these feelings lest they get the best of me. I do fine if I can conjure up the right thoughts -- the right outlook or perspective - on whatever the situation happens to be. I struggle when I dwell on my fears and other wrong thoughts, or if I am not disciplining myself to believe the thoughts I know are right ones.

I also find that if I allow wrong emotions to rule for even a second or two, it is much harder to get those emotions back under control. Once that adrenaline is flowing, it takes a few minutes to get it out of the system. Still, I can certainly control my voice and large motor skills and so I do. I attempt as much as possible to always display godly emotions and attitudes on the outside, as I work to change my thinking and the resulting feelings, on the inside. This is my aim -- and what I want to help my children to learn to do as well.

...taking every thought captive to the obedience of Christ...
- II Corinthians 10:5

Emotion Changing Tips

When your child is unhappy, do not cajole him into smiling. A smile is easy to elicit if someone is there to baby, comfort, and bribe you into cheer, but that does nothing to raise an emotionally responsible child. What you really seek is a child who believes it is wrong to be a sour puss, or angry, or fearful, or irritable, and is willing and able on his own, to change his outlook. Make it easy for him by smiling yourself and encouraging him. But don't go overboard trying to keep him happy by becoming his personal jester.

Some children are masters of the art of manipulation, getting their way by crying, pouting, or whining. Some think it's their right to become angry over anything that doesn't go their way. To stop this, you must convince them that such behavior will earn from you a response they are certain NOT to enjoy. Be sure your response is swift and unmistakably negative. Once they've submitted to you, move on to teaching them to think godly thoughts instead of their own selfish ones. Not only will they be learning how to restrain wrong emotions, but also how to alter wrong emotions to right ones.

As with all other misbehavior, nipping things in the bud is most productive. Practice observing your children. Learn to read their minds and anticipate their acts and motives. Many parents lament over children who talk back, roll their eyeballs, refuse to obey quickly, or show other signs of wrong thoughts and emotions. These are the signals you should be looking for. Notice the first indication of a wrong spirit and immediately bring it to your child's attention in order to fix it. If detected early, a simple verbal reminder and perhaps a little coaching about right thoughts, should suffice. Allowing an ungodly spirit to take root is your guarantee of far more serious and difficult offenses to follow. Wrong emotions lead to wrong attitudes, and finally to wrong actions.

The north wind brings forth rain, and a backbiting tongue, an angry countenance.
- Proverbs 25:23

The Bethany Story
My otherwise almost perfect second daughter had one very bad habit when she was little. Once a week our family would take a lengthy car trip, arriving home late at night. Each time, just as our car turned into the driveway, she would commence wailing. Telling her to stop, reasoning with her, and even spanking all proved futile. This persisted, week after week. She didn't care if she got spanked or not, as long as she got to cry for a few minutes and upset everyone. Clearly, she liked the frustration and consternation she was causing in the rest of us, as she indulged in her little drama.

Finally, I had enough. The next time, just before we turned in the driveway, I turned and watched her face, ready and waiting, with a new plan in place. I popped her seat belt and ambushed her with a firm "I Mean Business" spanking the split second she began puckering up her mouth. My lightning quick response shocked her. She had not even managed to get one peep out yet. She was certainly startled and perhaps even a bit frightened by my no-nonsense, zero-tolerance approach. She had expected to at least get in a little crying before I clamped down on her. Instead, I had deprived her of the smallest scrap of pleasure, and bestowed upon her a liberal dose of discomfort and respect for her mother instead.

She never tried it again. No more crying and carrying on and succumbing to her �feelings� upon arriving home. Just a pleasant normal child like the rest of her siblings. My hyper ambush had motivated her to change her actions and along with it, her attitude about arriving home.

This daughter is now an adult and tells me that although she was probably only three or four years old at the time, she remembers the incident, recalling vividly that I finally meant business, and she knew that it was time to straighten up. She laughs when we talk about this story and strongly agrees that I acted appropriately.

Let your father and your mother be glad, and let her rejoice who gave birth to you.
- Proverbs 23:25

Persuade Him toward Good
Sandra: I spank for disobedience and disrespect, and know that this can change a child's heart. But one can't always control the inside by spanking. Despite outward compliance, feelings might still be there. Isn't it dangerous to ignore suppressed feelings, taking the risk that the child will become bitter? Instead, wouldn't it be preferable to focus on the need to understand our feelings and deal with them correctly?

Elizabeth: Destructive displays of emotions, such as yelling, screaming, crying, self-pity, pouting, and hitting require immediate correction. But you are correct to say that the parent should not stop there, but proceed to address their child's heart. Those whose continual focus is their child's heart need not worry about him "suppressing" his feelings. A heart-focused parent will continue to draw out of his child, his true inward beliefs and work with them until the child is persuaded toward God and toward good. 

Suppose your child hits his sibling. It is not enough to correct only for the hitting; you must also correct the anger that led to the hitting. In virtually no instance is anger toward a sibling justified. If he is not angry, he will not hit. If he is angry, he may or may not hit, depending on how you've raised him.

Whether he hits or not, if he remains angry he will likely express his anger at a later time. That is the danger in not addressing the heart. Therefore, to raise a godly child, you must correct the anger in such a way that you eliminate it. Focus on the action first, but then immediately address the inner motivating spirit and be sure it has been changed to a good one.

Because older children especially, are adept at hiding their thoughts and emotions and faking the response you desire to see, you must go farther than simple discipline with them. The older the child is, the more words can be used to teach and correct. Address his wrong attitude by verbally teaching him what he should be "thinking" in order to have the right attitude.

Discuss what happened and show him what the right response should have been. Coach him on the godly thoughts that should characterize future attitudes and motives. Persuade your child to believe as you do, that we should always strive for godliness in every situation and never be dominated by our feelings.

Verbal instruction like this works especially well in older children who have a personal relationship with Christ and a desire to do His will. But it will also work with any child whose conscience has not been hardened by habitual rebellion and disobedience. Adjust your speech according to the age of the child, then talk, persuade, convince, and talk some more until your child embraces what is good and right.

Poverty and shame will come to him who neglects discipline, but he who regards reproof will be honored.
- Proverbs 13:18

No Emotions Allowed?
Farrah: I am uncertain about all of this. Do we punish our children for feeling sad, disappointed, or angry? Perhaps I am misunderstanding you, but on your website, you cited a ten year old boy who cried for an hour because his party gift was accidentally forgotten at home and he was left empty-handed when everyone else opened their gifts. Yes, he should have stopped crying sooner after receiving comfort and sympathy, but can't we allow them to express any feelings of hurt and disappointment? Are such feelings to be stifled and suppressed? How should the situation have been handled?

Elizabeth: In the story you cited, the child was old enough to understand why his gift was missing, and that he'd get it later. He was also old enough to act graciously, despite his disappointment, and to enjoy the party, even without his gift. He understood all of this and deliberately chose to dramatize his disappointment and demand attention. The child cried and carried on far too long, ruining the party for everyone. His reaction was excessive and his motivation was self-centered. 

Let's analyze the boy's thought processes and discuss how the mom should have handled him. When he realized he wasn't getting a present, he probably thought: "Woe is me; instead of something special; I'm getting nothing. Woe is me; everyone else is getting a present and having fun but me." If a child is given too much sympathy and thus encouraged to indulge such thinking, he will very likely become more angry and self-centered as he contemplates all the reasons he has to justify his unhappiness. It's a short step to the next descending stage of self-pity and rage: "I never get any presents. When I do, they are not as nice as everyone else's. Mom doesn't care, so I don't think I'll give her a hug. She's mean to me. She likes everyone else better than she does me...."

Instead of continuing to sympathize and console him, after allowing a short reasonable period of disappointment, the mom should have stopped the child and initiated a session in coaching and training: "Jimmy, look at me. Stop crying. Good, now listen to me. Jimmy, you know that I always do my best to get you a nice gift. You know that it was an accident that your gift was forgotten at home. Now put a smile on your face and enjoy the party and everyone else's gifts until you get home. Find a way to make everyone else happy today, not just yourself. Good. That's better! Smile and think about pleasing the others right now. You will get your gift later."

A child in the habit of expressing unrestrained emotions or being self-centered may need more persistent, determined lecturing, and perhaps even a little discipline in cases like this. The most important step is to stop the bad thoughts before they escalate, and replace them with good ones. 

You should not attempt to stifle or suppress your child's feelings, but rather than allowing him to indulge his emotions, it is far better for your child to teach him the appropriate response to disappointment and other hurts or frustrations. Teach him to control his spirit and choose to think right and good thoughts.

Train up a child in the way he should go, even when he is old he will not depart from it.
- Proverbs 22:6

Clunked on the Head
Rebecca: What if a child has a good reason to get upset? Suppose your child was intentionally struck on the head with a block. Shouldn�t you just tell your child, "It is okay to be mad, but you need to get over it. Don't be too offended and go forgive your little brother who clunked you"?

Elizabeth: Despite provocation, it's never all right to be mad when offended. We are supposed to be imitating Christ, and Christ patiently endured suffering and overcame evil with good. Christ taught us to �turn the other cheek� and to �go the extra mile�. So no, I would never tell my child that it was �okay to be mad.�

I'd react to the overt aggression in your story by immediately reprimanding and disciplining the offending child. I'd express concern and sympathy briefly to the wounded child, then I'd spend whatever time was needed helping him to think rightly and display good character. I'd tell him to stop crying, then I�d give him better thoughts to think: "Your little brother needs to learn not to throw things. I'm glad you didn't get angry and throw something back at him. If he ever starts acting like that again, come and get me so I can correct him." I might also make the guilty child apologize, and the victim accept the apology.

Let's suppose the victim did indeed become angry and launched a return attack on the instigator. In that case, I would discipline both children. The perpetrator would be disciplined the most severely of the two, but the victim would also be corrected for retaliating. I would have to assess the spirits of both carefully and correct them according to what they did and their responses to my reprimands. I would not be discussing emotions, which will only increase their self-centeredness. I would direct the focus onto actions and how to have right thoughts. 

A man's discretion makes him slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook a transgression.
- Proverbs 19:11

Desensitizing the Emotional Child
Some children are highly sensitive, emotional, or depressed, precisely because their parents have encouraged them to believe they have no power or control over their emotions. I'd be depressed too if I believed there was no hope that I could ever feel any differently -- if I believed I would be the captive of my feelings for the rest of my life.

A more naturally "sensitive" or "emotional" child needs extra help learning to control his emotions, not a free pass to let them run (and ruin) his life. That means that mom must make a special effort to teach and train a child like this to control and change his wrong emotions and express his right ones appropriately. Several of my children are naturally sensitive, and the more I sympathized with them or allowed free emotional expression when they were little, the worse they became. On the other hand, they improved greatly when I reined them in and taught them to control their emotions.

I did that by first requiring them to control the outward show of those emotions when they were inappropriate -- crying over minor issues, for example. Then I taught them to think more godly thoughts and to help them develop the right attitude and hence, emotions. Today, no one would believe that these same children were once ultra-sensitive.

A tranquil heart is life to the body, but passion is rottenness to the bones.
- Proverbs 14:30

The Fearful Child
Glenda: My five-year-old son is terrified of spiders and refused to come downstairs this morning because there was a tiny spider on the steps. He sobbed and carried on. Since the bug was too small for me to see, I told him to vacuum it up, but he would not. I don't think it was an obedience issue; I think he was simply too terrified to obey.

I had no idea how to handle the situation. Should I have disciplined him, or hugged and comforted him? How can we possibly go camping this summer, if he is going to erupt at the sight of a spider? Thanks in advance.

Elizabeth: First, never discipline or "punish" a child for having true fears. Likewise, avoid, if at all possible, forcing a child to do what he is sincerely afraid to do. Don't encourage his fears by "comforting" an excessively frightened child either, saying, "It's ok to be afraid of spiders Honey, come and let mummy give you a big hug". What you need to do is WORK WITH the child to help him get over his fears. My own approach is to be honest and matter-of-fact: "Son, stop crying. It's only a spider. God made them, and they make beautiful webs no one could ever duplicate. They are useful in the garden, and they are not going to hurt you. Who is bigger? You or that spider? I bet that spider is more afraid of you than you are of him. Now let me show you how to get rid of a spider...." Remember that the child's fear is irrational. If you deal calmly and reassuringly with his fear, you will give him confidence and the problem will quickly subside.

Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.
- Isaiah 41:10

Getting Tough on Emotionalism
Lisa: Today as my boys were playing Playmobil, I joined in. I picked up a Playmobil man from the floor and took it to my four-year-old across the room. He immediately started to cry. I had no idea why. He said he "was using that guy". I replied, no you weren't; it was lying on the floor. Then he crossed his arms on his chest and in an angry voice said, "Now I have zero guys, so I can't play!"

I told him to stop, that it was nothing to cry over. If he had simply asked for the man instead of getting angry, I would have given it to him. But he kept on crying. I spanked him, only to hear him whisper to himself, "I am very, very, very angry!" I talked to him, yet he persisted in his pouting and anger.

What did I do wrong? I am finding myself getting angry and frustrated, because this is becoming a habitual reaction. HELP! 

Elizabeth: Had it been me, I think that when I realized that reasoning was futile, I would have quit the reasoning, ordered him to knock it off, and then commenced to discipline and outlast as needed to change his self-centered attitude. He could go back to playing once he was thankful that he had the toy at all, and was happy to share it. 

Followup from Lisa: Dear Elizabeth, I was thinking this morning about how my four-year-old no longer pouts...at all! I cannot remember his last bout, but it was around the time I wrote to you about the Playmobil "guy" incident. What you suggested worked! Now he is much happier, does not pout, whine, complain...EVER! Your biblically-based advice works, and WOW...our home is so much happier and peaceful now compared to a year ago. THANK YOU!

Stern discipline is for him who forsakes the way;�
- Proverbs 15:10

Fixing the Meltdown
Heidi: My three-year-old has a whining and crying problem we have been unable to solve. Her response to every directive is to dissolve into tears. I treat this as a mild temper tantrum and spank her. The effect is more tears and louder cries.

After a pause, I tell her with a smile: "Stop crying and let me see your happy face." She will try to smile, offer a fake grin, all the while struggling to suppress her sobbing. I will say, "Good!" and give her a big happy mommy smile.

Then she will turn around to go do whatever I told her, but as she walks off, she'll start crying again. I will call her back, swat her, and tell her to "get happy." The whole cycle repeats itself over and over. How do you get a child to stop crying over a spanking and get REALLY happy, not just until Mom's back is turned?

Elizabeth: If a justified spanking produces tears, allow a short reasonable amount of time for the child to collect himself and stop. Only spank again if the crying increases, becomes exaggerated, or expresses anger toward you for the spanking. That angry type of crying warrants another spanking, but never keep spanking a child. Spank (one or two swats) then pause and give the child time to decide if he wants to comply, or keep rebelling with rage against your rightful authority. Outlast.

If your child is simply in the habit of crying over every trifle, be watching for the first signs and stop it before it leads to a major meltdown. If helps to warn this type of child when you first give your instructions: �Sally, come here. I�m going to ask you do something and I want you to do it cheerfully, with a smile on your face. If you can not do it cheerfully, you will have to stand in the correct until you can. Do you understand? Good. Let�s try it�� 

With habitual weepers, it is best to avoid spanking for this. Send them immediately and consistently, to the corner instead.

Everyone who is proud in heart is an abomination to the LORD; Assuredly, he will not be unpunished.
- Proverbs 16:5

Waking Up on the Wrong Side of the Bed
Before I get into more questions and answers about the emotional displays of crying and whining, I�d like to relate one more simple story about how emotionalism was handled in our house.

When my oldest was small, he used to wake up every morning and come downstairs crying and whining about something trivial. A typical example would be, "Whaaaaa, my pillow fell on the floor." Funny at first, it became old in a hurry. One day, he appeared wearing his whining face, and I decided to stop it. I looked at him and said, "Now go back upstairs, and don't come down until you can name three things you are thankful for today." He was surprised, but obeyed. A little later, he came down and listed three things he was thankful for. I had him repeat this exercise every morning for a week. The crying game was over, never to reappear. Discipline for crying does not always have to be a spanking. Get creative and come up with something that motivates your child, can be applied immediately, and addresses the heart.

Do all things without grumbling or disputing;
- Philippians 2:14

(c) Copyright 2007 L. Elizabeth Krueger.  All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.