Editor’s Note: We’re going to approach this “feelings” series chronologically, starting with very young children. Today Janelle kicks us off by talking about how we can help our toddlers begin to learn how to handle their emotions.
My oldest daughter, Caly, was emotional from day one. If I didn’t want her to cry I had to hold her or turn the vacuum cleaner on outside her room. Those were my only two options. She cried in the car, she cried in her crib, she cried all the time.
This was certainly a sign of things to come. As a toddler and preschooler, Caly was the most emotional little girl I have ever met. We’re talking meltdowns over her dollhouse being moved to a different room, freak-outs from watching Baby Einstein, inconsolable weeping long after her cousin returned the toy she grabbed, every day, all day long.
Caly was the first girl of all the cousins. Up until she was born, my sisters had only boys. And even though my sisters and I were plenty emotional growing up, none of us had ever encountered a girl quite as emotional as my Caly.
Emotional Caly made for extra-emotional Mommy. Oftentimes I cried right along with her, and some days I wanted to scream with her, too. Besides being my shoulder to cry on, my mom also helped me keep my eyes on a single mothering goal: teach Caly self-control.
As soon as she was old enough, Mike and I began to train Caly to control her emotions. Whenever she would start to overreact (read all day long!) we would calmly instruct her to place her hand on her mouth and quiet down. This simple, specific action helped her regain her composure and made self-control an obedience issue. Then we would explain what self-control should look like and instruct her to remove her hand and respond in a self-controlled manner (e.g. ask kindly, play cheerfully, stop crying, etc.).
We didn’t ask her much about what she was feeling. We didn’t have long conversations exploring her emotions. We didn’t try to reason with her. We didn’t plead or manipulate, cajole or bribe. We didn’t even talk a whole lot about how emotions are a gift from God or about their God-given purpose. We were not angry or harsh. We were deliberately calm and tender in how we spoke to her. But we were firm and united in teaching this little girl one simple truth: God wanted Caly to learn to control her emotions.
It may seem like we were stifling a young girl’s budding emotions, but our goal was quite the opposite. We wanted to teach Caly how to control and handle her feelings so that she would be able to experience and express her emotions in the way God intended—as a gift from him for his glory.
The first step was to help her build a wall: “A man [or a little girl] without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls” (Prov. 25:28).
Caly was a living illustration of this verse, her little soul an exposed and ransacked city, completely overrun by her barbarian emotions because she had no solid, protective, wall of self-control.
Emotional walls are usually thought of negatively these days. We think of them as barriers erected by emotional insecure or hurting people who try to block themselves off from others or from feeling anything at all. Walls=bad. So goes the conventional wisdom, and in many cases this is probably true.
But a wall of self-control is not like the Berlin Wall, erected to entrap and exclude. It is a wall like that of an ancient city or of a beautiful estate that needs protection in order for the inhabitants to dwell in peace.
Self-control is the wall behind which godly emotions flourish.
We have watched this happen in our little girl’s life. Caly is eight now, and she has learned how to handle her emotions. Not that she doesn’t still struggle at times, but she is a different girl than she used to be.
She is not a repressed or unemotional child, but happy and expressive. She feels things strongly and deeply, and is especially sensitive to the things of God. She prays often, has an insatiable hunger to read her Bible, confesses her sin frequently, grieves over her own sin and the sin of others, gets excited about sharing and loving others and encouraging her siblings and cousins to do the same.
I believe her emotions toward God are so strong because, by the grace of God, they have been able to flourish behind a strong wall of self-control. Behind that solid wall—which was arduous to build, and maybe not so attractive to look at—a garden of godly feelings has grown up in sweet safety and protection.
How grateful this weak and desperate mom is for the wisdom from God’s Word that teaches us how to help our little ones earn to handle their emotions.