Fostering Emotional Safety
Family coaches Josh and Christi Straub explain what it means to be emotionally safe and how feeling safe is the hallmark of an emotionally healthy home. The Straubs explain the value of teaching children to identify feelings like: jealous, guilty, angry, sad, surprised and embarrassed. They include a feelings chart in the back of their book that parents can use with their children.
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Famous at Home., an organization where she and her husband Josh coach families to live, love, and lead well. Christi is a Fellow of the Townsend Institute for Leadership and Counseling. Her honesty, wittiness and transparency are contagious. She...more
Josh and Christi Straub explain what it means to be emotionally safe and how it is the hallmark of an emotionally healthy home. The Straubs explain the value of teaching children to identify feelings.
Fostering Emotional Safety
Bob: Is your home an emotionally-safe place? Do your kids feel that way about it? Here’s Christi Straub.
Christi: What if we had homes that felt like that?—that felt emotionally safe; meaning, “Love without fear, whatever I’m bringing to the table,” I’m coming home from school; maybe I was bullied. Maybe I came home from work; and I had a horrible meeting, and someone berated me across the table. What if home were the safest place in the world for all those people to come? If we make homes that felt like that, that would really start to change the culture.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Friday, December 25th; merry Christmas to all of you! Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. We’re going to talk today about what we can do to make sure our homes are emotionally-safe places, where our kids can feel free to deal with their emotions/to know how to process their emotions biblically. Josh and Christi Straub join us today. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Friday edition, Christmas Day. Merry Christmas to all of you! We’re glad you’re joining us on this day. Hope you have been able to celebrate the birth of Christ today.
I want to start off today by talking about something I remember from when I was in college. I had just come home for the summer and had gone to a Bible study. I’ll never forget this—the Bible study leader was talking about: “You know how you, sometimes at school, you get afraid? You wonder what people think about you: ‘Do people like you?’” I’m thinking, “Yes, I can relate to that.”
Then he said, “You know, your parents have those kinds of feelings too.” I was like, “No; they’re grown-ups! [Laughter] Grown-ups don’t have—they don’t feel peer pressure. That’s just something you feel when you’re a kid.” It was like, “Oh, like this: when you leave, they get sad and lonely—when you go off to college.” I thought, “I wonder if they really do have…” I didn’t go home and ask my mom, because that would’ve been too weird. But it was like, for the first time, I thought, “Oh, emotions are not just something that kids have; and then, grown-ups—by the time you’re a grown-up, you’ve fixed all that.”
Ann: “…you’re all fixed”; yes.
Bob: Yes; I think that was my mentality: “Having emotions is something you do when you’re a child. When you’re a grown-up now, you don’t have those emotions anymore; you’ve worked on that to fix that.”
Dave: In some ways, you learn to stuff them. I can never, one time, remember sitting at my locker—in a football locker room in college—with my guys and going, “Hey, guys; what are you feeling? What’s going on in your life? How are you feeling?” [Laughter]
Bob: I would like to go back and see what that would look like if you had tried that: “What’s up with Wilson today?”
Dave: And I never walked into the Detroit Lions locker room, ever, and walked up to a guy and say, “How are you feeling?”
Bob: Well, it is something you could talk to your kids about. We’ve got Josh and Christi Straub joining us again today on FamilyLife Today. Guys, welcome back.
Josh: Thank you for having us.
Christi: Yes, we love being with you guys.
Bob: You’ve written a book for parents to read to their kids, or maybe to read to one another. [Laughter]
Ann: Yes, that’s a good idea! [Laughter]
Dave: Date night.
Bob: This is a kids’ book; it’s called What Am I Feeling? This is probably for preschool/elementary school kids—moms and dads to read this to them. Then, in the back, there’s a chart with nine different faces/nine different emotions so that you can put words to what it is you’re feeling.
Dave: It is really helpful, obviously for a child, but for a full-fledged, married adult—I mean, Ann and I, many times in conflicts early in our marriage, she would say to me, “What are you feeling right now?” I’m not kidding, I would be like, “I have no idea. I honestly don’t know.”
Sometimes I knew tomorrow, but in that moment—I had never been taught, I had never processed. I had been taught you stuff it away: “Men don’t cry.”
Ann: The only emotion he would show was anger.
Dave: It sounds crazy, and you think I’m kidding. I’m not kidding. If that chart was anywhere, I could go/I could point and go—
Bob: “I feel like the pirate.” [Laughter]
Dave: Yes; “I am the pirate, you are the—
Josh: —“Angry Alex.” [Laughter]
Christi: Do you know the number of couples that have said, “We’re going to put this on our bedroom wall”? These core nine are the basic emotions; right? Obviously, there is a plethora more; and as adults, we can narrow down more—you know, “I’m frustrated,”—there’s much more detail.
Ann: Yes; you could go into fear, guilt, and shame with adults—that would be huge.
Bob: What are the core nine? I thought there were only five. After I saw Inside Out, I thought there were only five. [Laughter]
Christi: Isn’t that the best movie? Do you want to know what’s crazy? We just watched that movie.
Bob: What are the nine that are on the chart?
Josh: We have “Afraid,” and “Happy,” and “Jealous” across the top. “Guilty,” “Angry,” and “Sad.” And then “Surprised,” “Embarrassed,” and “Brave.” We chose ones that we felt like most, especially, preschool and elementary kids would be feeling as primary emotions that they would understand. Contempt is one of the primary; but a kid isn’t going to understand contempt, so we didn’t put that one in there necessarily. [Laughter]
You know, you were talking about the locker room and athletes and things—when I first started talking about emotional safety and emotional intelligence—
Christi: —which What Am I Feeling?—I mean, to be able to name emotions is like the beginning building block of emotional safety; it’s why it’s important.
Josh: —I was invited to speak to Joint Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg. I was nervous. You know, I had to take all my Scripture out; I was just talking about the research.
Dave: You were feeling—
Josh: I was feeling nervous; I was scared; yes.
Dave: Oh, okay.
Ann: He named it.
Christi: He was flippy in his tummy. [Laughter]
Josh: I was flippy in my tummy.
The reality was—it resonated so much with them that, now, I speak at all the Army Ranger Battalions and with Joint Special Operations Command in Army and Air Force; because it resonated, particularly also with the wives, because the very thing they’re trained to turn off to survive in the battlefield is the very thing they have to turn back on to survive when they get back home.
When I talk to men about this, even sports athletes—like emotional safety was linked to extracurricular and athletic success. It doesn’t matter what stage you’re on—whether it’s the NFL, whether you’re a businessman, whether you’re a pastor, no matter where you are—the more emotionally healthy your marriage and the relationships you have at home, the better you’re going to show up on the stage that you’re called to.
Bob: What’s the goal here for parents? Are we trying to get our kids be able to identify and then control their feelings?—is that the aim? Or are we trying to get them to feel more deeply what they’re feeling? What is it that you’re aiming for?
Christi: Those are both good; I like that. We’re talking about emotional safety; right? This is sort of the end goal. And again, that’s a term that most people aren’t even familiar with; right? A lot of people are familiar with emotional intelligence; right?—we kind of know what that is.
Last year, Google® came out with a study; and they studied their top-performing teams. They wanted to see—basically, testing their hiring process: “Are we hiring the right people at Google?” Typically, they would hire—right?—for the STEM skills, which makes sense—Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. What they found—I think, from the way they wrote the study—it even floored Google.
Josh: Yes; the top three were: emotional safety, empathy, and emotional intelligence—were the top three things they found among their most-productive teams within Google. It forced them to start changing their hiring process to focus on the soft skills, not necessarily the hard skills; because the hard skills can be taught.
What you can’t teach is: whenever you’re in a room with a collaborative group of people, and someone brings up an idea—and that idea is not a very good idea; you know, it might not be a great idea, but you’re not bullying that person and putting that person down—that person feels safe in that team to bring up any idea. They know they’re going to be part of that team—that the idea’s, at least, going to be put on the table, whether it’s accepted or not. That human is valued within the context of that team; that would be emotional safety—that I could show up and be fully present and not have any fear of what I’m going to bring to the table.
Christi: You’re talking about: “What’s the end goal here?” What if we had homes that felt like that?—that felt—this term would be, emotionally safe; meaning, “Love without fear. There’s love; there’s acceptance, whatever I’m bringing to the table.” I’m coming home from school; maybe I was bullied. Maybe a girl picked on me and what I wore that day. Maybe I came home from work; and I had a horrible meeting, and someone berated me across the table. Maybe Mom is just feeing hopeless, rejected, losing a sense of purpose.
What if home were the safest place in the world for all those people to come home to? To be looked at, across the dinner table and the couch: “I want to hear how your day was. I want to hear about what happened to you today. I don’t need you to show up as anything you’re not. I don’t need you to fix me; I’m not trying to fix you. I accept you for who you are and what you’re bringing.” If we could make homes that felt like that, that would really start to change the culture, a generation, maybe a world.
Ann: I think, for parents listening—even for myself, when my kid would express: “This is what happened…” or “I was bullied,”—I think what I would do, as a parent, oftentimes, is I’d jump to the “fixing your problem.” I’d jump to that so quickly I didn’t sit in their pain. Is that typical?—because I would lay in bed, thinking, “How can I fix their situation?”
Christi: Absolutely. Don’t you find, too, as a parent, that often their feelings feel bigger to us?—right?—typically, because of our story.
I know our daughter—I remember her coming home, and she has big emotions. I am a grown-up child, with big emotions, still.
Josh: I attest to that. [Laughter]
Christi: Yes; she will feel sadness sometimes, and it triggers a place in me. I remember, early on—I mean, she was little—she said to me, “Mommy, sometimes I like to feel sad.” I thought; my brain panicked—
Ann: Did you get worried?—yes.
Christi: —“You’re going to struggle with depression,”—no; no!
But in our own—we see it through our lens of our story—and maybe the places that we still carry wounds. What felt to her—what was probably a run-of-the-mill, regular, every-day emotion—felt huge to me. We can start to blow it out of proportion, and then we’re the ones awake at night trying: “How do I fix this? She needs to be a happy girl. I want her to be a happy, happy girl. Okay; dance class. Dance will make her happy!”
If I recognize that I struggle with sadness: “I don’t like to feel it for myself,”—maybe I had a history of that; maybe it was in my home: okay? My daughter might have a propensity for sadness/depression. She might, but that’s not mine to carry for her. What if I can just sit with her?—be like: “I know. Sadness—tell me about that. Tell me: ‘What makes you feel sad?’”—with no gut reaction to fix, which is where we feel all the pressure; right?—because we have to have the solution/the answer.
What if we just took that off?—and we just sat with them in their feeling? We used to call it like—remember Tebowing?— you know, where he’d get down?—you know, it’s really that posture, where we just get down on their level, eye level, and we just sit with them.
Ann: You’re saying that is more important than actually fixing the problem; that’s more necessary.
Josh: Well, because you raise resilient kids. They’re going to run into bullying the rest of their lives. They’re going to run into places where they feel rejected for the rest of their lives. If we’re helicoptering, if you will, and trying to fix every one of their situations, we hijack that process of building resilience, of teaching them how to handle their emotions and help them problem-solve through those difficult situations.
Bob: We moved to a new city when our oldest was 11 years old. I remember that her first few months—in a new school, in a new city, trying to make friends—it was not going well. I knew that she was not happy at school. I remember dropping her off at school one day, and I was thinking: “Maybe I should go in and try to set up a meeting with the teacher, maybe the principal, and just say, ‘She’s having a hard time. Could we maybe pair her up with somebody?’ Maybe call some other parents and say, ‘Could So-and-so invite her over?’”
Ann: I probably would’ve done all of that—[Laughter]—which is terrible.
Christi: I’m just nodding, like, “Oh! I know! I want it…”
Bob: I was thinking as I’m driving away; and there was this little tap on the shoulder, this little voice that goes: “What have been the times of greatest spiritual growth in your life? Has it been the times when things have been hard, and you’ve had to learn how to lean into Me, and you’ve had to learn how to rely and trust? Maybe I’m doing the same thing in the life of your 11-year-old. Maybe you just leave this between Me and her.”
I thought, “But I’m a grown-up, so I can deal with that. She’s only 11.” But the God of the universe is sometimes taking our kids through hard things because, to your point, there’s resilience being developed. There’s learning how to trust in Him being developed. If we’re trying to super engineer everything so that they don’t have any of these experiences, we’re shielding them from things in life they’re going to face later on; right?
Josh: I would say that, if that’s happening within you, there’s probably something in your own story—if those fears are coming up; right? Love without fear; if there’s a fear coming up for your child—and we have real fears for our children—but if there’s a fear, like, “I need to hijack that process,” there might be a rupture in your own story to go back and take a look at.
Dave: I was thinking, when you were saying, which was so beautiful: “What would it be like if our children came home to a home that was emotionally safe?”—here’s my first thought: “That requires parents, who are mature enough, to be able to process their own emotions and lead the way in that.”
I went back to your chart of the nine emotions—tell me if I’m wrong—six of them are not fun emotions. They’re the kind of emotions you want to run away from—from being afraid, to jealous, to guilty, to angry, to sad, to embarrassed; right? What do we do, as adults?—so many of us, we just run away from those; we soothe those; we medicate those—any way you want—you’ve seen that.
How does an adult become emotionally stable enough so that they can lead a home that becomes that emotionally safe environment for their family?
Christi: You just described I’d say—what?—98 percent of homes in America—we’re numb. I can’t tell you the number of people in my personal life—I mean, a lot of the moms, who read the book with their kids, and have contacted me behind the scenes. They’re like [whispering]: “Christi, I don’t think I feel anymore. I didn’t know that. I’m trying to teach my kids not to throw a temper tantrum and what to do when they’re sad or they’re angry.” She’s like, “I don’t even know when I’m angry. I don’t know when I’m sad. I’m just the same all the time.”
You start to recognize there was probably somewhere along the way we just started to turn down the volume, stuff, numb. There are a lot of great ways; I mean, our culture makes fun of it; right? It’s like: “Wine o’clock,” “Netflix binging”; right? There are so many ways that we can numb out. We actually celebrate it: we eat it away; we drink it away. We, as a culture, do a really good job of that.
This is where people, I think, are like: “This is too big. It’s too overwhelming. I don’t want to go back. I don’t want to deal with hard stuff. I don’t want to think about what I’ve walked through. I’ll help my kids.” But that’s exactly what you’re saying: “We cannot lead our kids where we haven’t been.”
Bob: Emotionally numb is more functional than emotionally volatile.
Josh: It is to a point; yes. But there’s a place in which it will most likely catch up to you. A lot of times, that happens in your closest relationships. Maybe it’s your marriage or that type of thing. Your health—our body feels trauma, whether it’s a capital “T” Trauma or a lower case “t” trauma—there are different types of traumas that we experience throughout our lives, because we’re humans; we live in a fallen world.
I believe that therapy is not for crazy people; it’s for broken people. There’s not one of us on the planet that hasn’t been broken to some regard. Don’t shy away from that if that’s part of your journey, because we are all about becoming more and more healthy—emotionally, spiritually, physically—in every area of our lives so that we can be the best we can be for our kids and for the Lord.
Bob: Aren’t some people just kind of relaxed, even-keeled?—their emotions are steady and stable—they get happy, and they get sad; but they’re in control. Other people are kind of like, “Whoa!” You talked about being big, emotionally; right?
Christi: That’s me. Hand up; that’s me.
Ann: Are you [Bob] just a steady person?
Bob: I am.
Ann: I see that as you; yes.
Bob: If your kids—you’ve got five kids; that’s what we had—if some are emotionally steady and stable; you go: “This is what you want. You want your kids to be like this.” The ones that are highly volatile, you go, “We’ve got to fix you to be more like the others.”
Christi: “Tone it down.”
Bob: But you’re saying that’s not the right way to parent.
Christi: Well, here’s the thing—the child, then, will typically get the message—and I can speak to this—“You’re too much.”
Ann: “You’re too dramatic.”
Christi: “You’re too much.” I have literally said those words to our son: “You’re too much.” I realized, as they flew out of my mouth, “What am I speaking over him?”
What we talk about in this book; right?—we’re talking about: “Give it a name; and then give it to God, and ask Him what to do with it.” I think this is where, as parents, it takes all the burden off of us when we want to jump in and fix it. It’s not our job; that’s God’s job.
This is our way to point them to Him—who created them; who created them with volatile emotions; or a very even-keeled one, who’s going to be a pilot or something; or one who’s going to stand on a stage and be dramatic. It’s necessary; and it’s good; and it’s their gifting; but it’s not something we put in them. It’s something He did, and He is the one who’s going to have to coach them through it. To continually point them back to the face of God and start to hear His voice for themselves, not Mom and Dad’s voice—that’s the goal.
Josh: When we do that, we can get to a place in our own lives where—I love baseball; I played baseball. I was a wrestler. I would love nothing more than for my son to do those very things. Right now, he’s into music, and guitars, and dancing, and singing, which I can’t do at all. I’ve learned to come to a place where I’m not trying to live my unresolved childhood through him. I’m, instead, celebrating who God’s created him to be, not mourn who he’s not.
I think, as parents, a lot of times, we hope that our kids are going to turn out a certain way; we end up putting our own agenda on our kids. The reality is—the more healthy we are, as adults, the more we can step into who God’s creating our kids to be and step into their story and celebrate that.
Bob: I’ll tell you something that happened on FamilyLife Today more than a decade ago. We were interviewing Dr. Robertson McQuilkin, who was the former President of Columbia Bible College and Seminary, who had stepped down from his role as the president because his wife had developed Alzheimer’s. Her care had required him to be home with her. He said, “She is always anxious if I’m not with her and always happy if I am with her, so I must be with her.”
Bob: I remember him sharing a story about a conflict they had had—this was back before her Alzheimer’s had started. They were in conflict; and she was expressing her frustration, her anger, her emotions, her sadness. He was explaining to her, logically, why what she was feeling was not how she should be thinking; right? He was trying to correct the feelings. In the middle of the conflict, she looked at him, and she said, “Robertson, logic isn’t everything; and emotions aren’t nothing.” [Laughter]
All of us, who are wired toward “Here’s how you should be thinking so that your emotions are more normal,” need to remember: “Emotions aren’t nothing. They’re a part of the warning system/part of the database that God’s given us to say, ‘What’s going on in my life?’” I may live more out of my head than I do out of my emotions, but I should be paying attention to what my emotions are telling me; because in order to make the right choices, both mind and heart have to speak into that; don’t they?
Ann: I think, as parents, we can speak into that. I was with our granddaughter last year, as a three-year-old. I have all sons, so there wasn’t a lot of drama. Some grease splattered on my face, and she started screaming and crying. I thought she got burnt by this grease as we were cooking together. I took her over to the couch. Her parents had said that she’s pretty dramatic. [Laughter]
We got over to the couch and I said: “What’s happened? What’s wrong? Did it burn you?” She said, “No, but it burnt you. I feel so sad for you!” She’s crying so hard. I realized—I said, “Oh my goodness! Look how empathetic!”—and I explained what that word meant—“You feel for me! God’s given you the gift of feeling for others, and you’re compassionate for them. What a great gift.” Whereas, if that would’ve happened with my family, growing up, my parents would have said, “Get control!”; in other words: “Shut down that drama!—because that’s ridiculous.”
I like that we can explain that—identify the word; kind of celebrate who they are. I love the idea of taking it to God; because God created us, He’s always celebrating over us. To teach our kids to take it to God first I think is huge.
Bob: Part of how we do that is by helping them identify: “What is it I’m feeling?” You get out the charts, you get out the book, you read through it again. You help them give language to/be able to identify what is going on in their heart and understand, “That’s not what controls your behavior.” We don’t live out of our emotions, but we also acknowledge that that’s part of who we are/who God’s made us to be.
Guys, I think this is a book that a lot of moms and dads are going to go: “This is exactly what we needed to coach us/to guide us. It’s not just telling us what to do; it’s giving us a tool to do it with our kids.” Thank you, guys, for writing it; and thanks for spending time with us talking about it.
Christi: Thank you, guys. You guys are a gift.
Dave: That makes me feel— [Laughter]
Bob: Which picture on the chart are you, Dave? [Laughter]
Christi: Awwww; good one!
Bob: We’ve got copies of the book in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. You can order the book, What Am I Feeling?: Helping Kids Learn to Manage Big Feelings in Little Bodies. Go to FamilyLifeToday.com to get your copy of the book, or call 1-800-FL-TODAY. Again, the title of the book is What Am I Feeling? You can order online at FamilyLifeToday.com, or call 1-800-358-6329—that’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
Well, I hope, whatever your children’s emotions have been, here on this Christmas day, they have been good emotions. I hope all of us have experienced the love, and the joy, and the peace that comes from remembering what this day is really all about. I hope that’s been part of your experience or will be part of your experience as the day goes on. Hope you have a merry Christmas.
And I hope you have a great weekend. Hope you and your family are able to worship together in your local church this weekend, and I hope you can join us on Monday, when Pastor Dean Inserra will be with us to talk about what he calls unsaved Christians. He’ll explain what he means when we get together on Monday, so I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our hosts, Dave and Ann Wilson, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back Monday for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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