We went pumpkin shopping today. But let’s both erase the idyllic moments in our heads, m’kay?

It started when we popped out of the car (especially for me, as I realized I should have opted for comfort rather than vanity when it came to my shoes). Turns out the local pumpkins from the quaint roadside stand are six times the cost of the grocery store ones. Back in the car.

The grocery store stands next to a Subway, insidiously piping its scents toward children. And if you give a mouse a pumpkin, he’s going to ask for Subway to go with it. My ankles and my patience wobbled.

But the grocery store also meant we weren’t going to just buy pumpkins; we, of course, needed to make the most of the trip by purchasing some needed birthday cards. My kids only recommended cards that were inane or crass. Irritation pinched my heart, a lot like the shoes on my feet.

So it won’t surprise you that heaving our pumpkins into the car was accompanied by a weighty, hormone-infused lecture into which I injected words like “entitled!” and “inappropriate!” complete with italics and jabbing index fingers.

Beneath that articulate rage? At least two simple emotions: disappointment and fear.

One more potentially great memory deflated like a whoopie cushion, leaving me with the remnants of what I’d thought was good motherhood. My kids are getting older. I only have a few pumpkin seasons left.

Like my explosion, I know my kids’ emotions, too, are complex. Rather than the disease, emotions are symptoms.

In keenly watching those emotions, I learn more about both my kids and myself. More than that, I learn about our hearts.

I don’t want my kids’ emotions to run the show.

This is definitely true. (Um, despite my own emotions seizing the helm after pumpkin-gathering.) We’re training our kids to both listen to their souls and preach truth to their own hearts. Rather than allowing emotions to steer the boat, we observe the seas, then help kids drop anchor, securing them in God’s truth. It’s a both/and.

Watch the Psalmist do both:

Why are you cast down, O my soul,

    and why are you in turmoil within me?

Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,

    my salvation and my God. (Psalm 42:11, emphasis added)

That said, like our car which I took to the shop recently, if I’d duct taped over the warning lights, the problem would’ve gotten worse. I would have been stranded with considerably fewer options (and more expensive ones).

Similarly, kids’ awareness of emotion helps them deal in healthy ways—hopefully surrendered to God—rather than their emotions backhandedly managing them.

Simply put, problems tend to leak until addressed.

Ready to get practical? Here are four ideas to help you explore what’s going on under the hood.

1. Give it some time.

Helping kids understand and address emotions isn’t about us tacking on our own perceived labels. We’re trying to help them organize and apply their own labels—red label to red (emotion) folder, blue label to blue folder.

Give them time to process these emotions. Maybe that means taking time for coloring or play dough for awhile. Or for older kids, grabbing a drink or a small treat. Build some rapport and breathing space before you ask the harder questions.

2. Watch carefully.

Some dashboard lights I watch for:

  • What brings tears to their eyes? I watch for the exact triggering phrase.
  • What reactions seem disproportionate? These can be indicators of the iceberg hovering beneath the surface.  If I see someone acting in a more powerful way than the situation demands, I could get distracted by how they’re expressing. Then I’d miss the whys throbbing beneath.
  • What statements do they repeat? I need to really hear these.
  • How do you know when they’re tired? When you were a new parent, you learned to distinguish their tired, angry, and hungry cries. Help kids learn to acknowledge when they’re tired. And teach them to know their own signals: “I see you’re getting easily frustrated. Sometimes I get cranky when I’m tired. Think you might be feeling tired?”
  • What do they not want to talk about? Pray about when to press in and when to give space—particularly when they could use time to cool off.
  • What’s underneath the anger? Anger is a secondary emotion—meaning it follows another. Beneath anger is often rejection, hurt, disappointment, embarrassment, a sense of injustice, etc. Look deeper than the anger itself for that primary emotion. This helps me, too, to not simply communicate a squashing “Don’t be angry/sad/afraid.” Or even, “I will fix this!“ Instead, it puts me in a posture to seek understanding—and alongside them, true solutions.
  • What stories do they tell? This can be tough with kids who tell lots of mundane stories crowded with belabored details. But stories are hand-selected pieces of their day that feel meaningful. Why did they choose this? Are there common threads of the people or moments they admire or find memorable? What are you learning about kids’ values, social skills, and their curated world?
  • What could their bodies be telling you? Sometimes a tummy ache is a tummy ache, insomnia means lying awake just like other kids in town, and a fit is a call for discipline. But when does a tummy ache signal anxiety (or a fake sickness)? How late has a child been on screens? Could that angry outburst be a hangry (or exhausted, at-my-limits) outburst?
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3. Model healthy emotions

Model authenticity and show kids you’re a safe place by talking about your own emotions and, within age-appropriateness, your experiences. (Communicate these as “maybe this is what it’s like for you” rather than “so I know that you feel the same way”.)

More tips:

  • Show them you won’t be defensive when you’re the object of their strong emotion. Keep calm rather than allowing your emotions to be stoked. Minimize drama by speaking in low tones, while still compassionately entering in to their emotions.
  • Be willing to repent and apologize for what kids correctly point out about our own sin and what we are responsible for. In a steady voice, address what they’ve misconstrued.
  • Absolutely do not give in to manipulation, angry demands, or whining (different than crying). Help kids get to the core of what they want, and ask respectfully. Healthy awareness of emotions ≠ unhealthy control by emotions. I.e., just because your child can name her frustration doesn’t mean she gets to lob a shoe into her brother’s Lego creations. Just because he’s anxious doesn’t mean he should skip school.

Again, help your children find their anchor in God and His Word. God enters into our emotions—even those we feel uncomfortable with, like sadness, anger, or fear. But He also serves as God over them.

4. Press in.

Don’t just identify the right label—“this is anxiety!”—and fail to understand the why or what next.

Maybe beneath your son acting out is his desire to be popular. Or his lack of impulse control stems from a lack of empathy. Maybe your daughter’s anxiety is related to her desire to be liked—a desire that’s controlling her.

Be gently intrusive, asking open-ended questions. Some that I use:

  • What was that like?
  • What do you not want to happen?
  • I’m hearing ___ is really important to you. Do you think it’s become too important?
  • What are you afraid will happen?
  • What do you feel like doing? Should you listen to that?
  • What do you think you need?
  • Based on the Bible, what do you think God would want you to do?
  • What do you think the Holy Spirit might be saying in your heart?
  • What do you think the other person is feeling or might be going through?
  • How do you think we can love that person?
  • What do you wish you could say? Does it build that person up … or not? (What could we say instead?)
  • What do you wish that person (or I) would understand?

Remember to listen reflectively: “So I hear you saying …”

Don’t let kids justify their behavior by making excuses. But do help them get to the heart—so they can bring their full selves to God, ready for Him to create change: “Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart” (Psalm 51:6).

Copyright © 2019 Janel Breitenstein. All rights reserved.

Janel Breitenstein is an author, freelance writer, speaker and frequent contributor for FamilyLife, including Passport2Identity®, Art of Parenting®, and regular articles. After five and a half years in East Africa, her family of six has returned to Colorado, where they continue to work on behalf of the poor with Engineering Ministries International. Her book, on spiritual life skills for messy families (Zondervan), releases March 2021. You can find her—“The Awkward Mom”—having uncomfortable, important conversations at JanelBreitenstein.com, and on Instagram @janelbreit.