I have a little flock of daughters. With four of them 5 years old and under, it should come as no surprise to you that we deal with a walloping share of emotions at our house.

Our one son, Titus, is so simple (of course, he is also still 2 years old)—just right up the middle and easy. He either disobeys, or he doesn’t. I am sure he will grow into more difficult problems (competition, for one), but right now there are no subtexts with this kid.

But girls are different, and sometimes that difference can leave a person completely bewildered.

One of our sweet little girls has a hilarious tendency that we refer to as her “drunk driving.” If she is tired, she becomes reckless and disobedient. Her eyes get a little glassy, she gets super rowdy, and you might find her unloading the freezer or coloring her sheets with a marker or some such clearly outlawed activity.

Once, when she was in the midst of one of these times, I caught her on the kitchen counter getting into something. Surprise was my first response—”What are you doing?” Her immediate response was to throw her hands up over her eyes in shame.

It was at that moment I realized that she didn’t know what was causing it either! She was just as surprised as I was to find herself being so delinquent. It wasn’t any kind of deep malice that got her into those cupboards looking for chocolate chips—it was just a simple lack of control.

Don’t play whack-a-mole

That little glimpse has really shaped the way we deal with all kinds of behavioral issues. Sometimes parents can discipline behaviors over and over and over like we are playing whack-a-mole: There is a sin! Get it! But the real problem is that the child doesn’t know what to do.

Say it is someone else’s birthday. Say your child wants a present too. Say they start fussing about it. Imagine that you say, “Don’t do that. That is bad. Don’t be a fusser. Deal with it.”

How did that help anyone? The child is taught that if the feeling comes over them, they have already failed. That is bad! But what am I supposed to do with it? It doesn’t just go away by itself. Little girls need help sorting out their emotions—not so they can wallow in them, but so they can learn to control them.

Riding the horse

We tell our girls that their feelings are like horses—beautiful, spirited horses. But they are the riders. We tell them that God gave them this horse when they were born, and they will ride it their whole life. God also set us on a path on the top of a mountain together and told us to follow it. We can see for a long way—there are beautiful flowers, lakes, trees, and rainbows. (We are little girls after all!) This is how we “walk in the light as He is in the light, and have fellowship with one another” (I John 1:7).

When our emotions act up, it is like the horse trying to jump the fence and run down into a yucky place full of spiders to get lost in the dark. A good rider knows what to do when the horse tries to bolt—you pull on the reins! Turn the horse’s head! Get back on the path!

We also tell our girls that God told us if we see one of them with her horse down in a mud puddle spitting at people who walk by, it is our job to haul them up, willing or unwilling, back to the path. The ways that this has helped me as a mother are pretty obvious, but I will share them anyway if you will bear with me.

Four steps

First, the horses are not the problem. There is nothing wrong with emotions. If we have a little rider who is woefully unprepared to control her horse, well then, we had better start with some pretty serious riding lessons.

Second, talk to your daughters about how they might feel, and what you want to see when they do. Give them some practical handholds; be a coach.

Third, anticipate moments that might be hard, when the horse might bolt, and help them learn to anticipate it too. Take a little break to say, “Hey, sweetie, we are going in this store, but we aren’t going to buy any toys today. If you start feeling like you want to fuss about it, what are we going to do?” Make a plan.

Finally, give lots of praise when you see her overcoming little emotional temptations. Be right there with her as she learns to recognize what is happening.

Little girls can be scared out of their minds when their emotions charge off with them. They need the security of parents pulling them back.

The goal is not to cripple the horse, but equip the rider. A well-controlled passionate personality is a powerful thing. But a passionate personality that is unbridled can cause a world of damage.

If you see a lot of passion in your little girls, don’t be discouraged. It is just wonderful raw material. Our house is pretty near full to overflowing with this kind of raw material!

But don’t treat it lightly either—runaway horses can be a very real threat to your little girls.

Adapted from Loving the Little Years, copyright © 2010 by Rachel Jankovic. Used with permission from Canon Press.