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Your kids are responsible for their emotions

There is a lot of talk today about “validating your child’s emotions.” Experts tell us that every emotion is acceptable, just not every action. There are some things that can be learned from this mindset. For instance, those promoting this concept talk about being able to share your feelings honestly. That’s a good thing, within reason (“I’m really upset about how our interaction went, we should maybe talk this through” not “I would like to punch you in the face.”) Those who promote “validating” your child’s emotions, would also say that having the initial feeling is not wrong. That is true. However, there is a difference between the initial feeling and running with a feeling or emotion that God says is wrong.

Our culture has fully embraced the idea that we should let our kids just feel what they are feeling. There is no responsibility for changing how we feel by changing how we think. There is no concept of doing the right thing even if you don’t feel like it yet. Often we are taught to let the child have the emotion or feeling and deal with it however they want, and everyone else around can just endure it. So if a child gets upset in a grocery store because they didn’t get their way, they are allowed to throw a fit until they decide to stop. This is a humanistic approach. It says that your child will find their own way to deal with their emotions. It says that we don’t want to hurt their self-esteem by declaring that an emotion or feeling is either not valid (“Actually you were the one that was wrong there”) or not right (“it’s ok to be concerned about something, but God tells us not to worry”).

As a result, parents are quick to always side with their children over other authorities in their lives. If the child feels like their teacher hates them, then they must be right. Also, kids are growing up with no self-control. We are medicating more and more emotions and behaviors. We now have something called Oppositional Defiance Disorder. Defiance is a rebellious attitude toward authorities, and it is reinforced when we send the message that we can’t help how we feel.

I realize that what I’m saying could not be more counter-cultural. Our culture has declared validation of one's feelings to be a major value. But what is interesting is that we still do have limits in our culture (barely) when it comes to expecting people to control their feelings. If someone gets so angry they kill someone, we would all say they should have found a different way to deal with those emotions. We would say that they should have reined in those feelings. Most of us would get frustrated with a friend who just decides to ditch their spouse for someone else. Why? After all, they can’t help how they feel. But yet, we would say that when those feelings started they should have put them in check. If your child is hitting and biting other kids, guess what, the principle is still the same. We can’t “validate” their emotions when they scream at their sister and be shocked when they haul off and hit someone. If we don’t teach them to properly deal with feelings of disappointment when they are young, we shouldn’t be surprised when they are depressed when they are older. If we don’t teach them how to deal with worry constructively, we should not be surprised when they end up with so much anxiety that they can not function in college or in the job market.

Let me make one important comment before moving on to what the Bible says about this. I do not know where the line is between medical emotional problems and a lack of following what God teaches us. But here’s what I do see - we aren’t even trying to follow what God tells us about managing our emotions and feelings. So maybe we should start there, and then have the debate about what needs to be medicated.

So what do we need to do to help our kids manage their emotions biblically?

  1. We teach them that having the feeling or the thought is not wrong, it’s what you do with the feeling from there that matters. You may think that sounds exactly like the worldly perspective of “there are no wrong emotions, only wrong actions.” But what I am saying is that emotions and feelings work like any other temptations. When someone makes a cutting comment to you, it is natural to feel angry all of a sudden. That is the temptation. But what you choose to do next will determine if it becomes a sin. This is why Paul literally says, “In your anger, do not sin” (Eph. 4:26 NIV). What would sinning look like in this situation? It could be rehearsing over and over how angry you are at the other person and how you wish something bad would happen to them. Jesus says that hate is the same as murder in terms of what you are guilty of in your heart. Clearly, letting anger become hate is a sin. God gives all kinds of ways to resolve that without letting it get to that point. God says it’s to your credit to “overlook a wrong.” That’s you just deciding that you aren’t going to be angry over it any longer and you are going to let it go. If you can’t do that, Jesus tells you to go talk to the person. And He tells us that, no matter what, we should forgive them in our hearts. If I’m validating my feelings, there is no way I’m going to go and extend forgiveness to someone I’m angry with!

  2. That brings us to the second thing you need to instill in your kids: Sometimes if you do the right thing, your feelings will follow! Forgiving someone when you are mad is an example. For adults, beginning to act in love toward your spouse when you no longer feel like you love them is another example. Doing something with a good attitude when you don’t feel like doing it could totally change your outlook on that chore. This is what self-discipline looks like. We are raising a generation that never is asked to do hard things in order to pursue what is best.

  3. We also need to teach our children how to renew their minds with Scripture and walk in the Spirit (Romans 12:1-2). Wrong thinking will lead to wrong feelings. If your child is struggling with worry, or anger, or lust, or jealousy, or selfishness, spend time in Scripture learning what God says about those issues and how God wants us to address them. They need to understand that walking in the Spirit (as Paul describes in Galatians 5) means overcoming things like hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, and envy, and replacing those with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and self-control.

  4. We need to hold our children accountable for wrong attitudes, feelings and emotions. Every parent holds some sort of standard. At some point, you don’t let your child call the shots. If nothing else, you don’t let them decide to run around in the street at 2 am. So whether you believe it or not, you are capable of deciding what is going to be allowed and what is not. It may just be that you have set the standard way too low because you don’t want to deal with the stand-offs. I get that, I do. But, for the sake of your child, you need to hold them accountable for not handling their emotions correctly. That could mean a million things. It could mean a swat on the behind for throwing a fit. It could mean making them have a hard conversation with someone they are upset with. It could mean that you are still going to invite the kid they are jealous of to their birthday party, and you talk about how we can rejoice with others when things are going well for them and trust God with the issues we are facing. These kinds of measures are hard! It is hard to hold your child accountable to overcome negative feelings and emotions and do the right thing. But, it grows them and matures them in amazing ways.

As with any biblical training for your kids, it all starts with leading them to a relationship with Jesus. But as parents, we are called to guide them toward the standard even before they take that step. Struggles with living out the standard make for great opportunities to have conversations about how desperately we need a relationship with Jesus.

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