Understanding Your Child’s Feelings
Parents don't always know what their children are feeling. Authors and counselors Josh and Christi Straub explain how their children's book, "What Am I Feeling?," can help children identify and name what's going on in their hearts. Learning to control your emotions begins, Josh says, with learning to name what you're feeling.
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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
Authors and counselors Josh and Christi Straub explain how to help children identify and name what’s going on in their hearts. They explain the importance of learning to name what you’re feeling.
Understanding Your Child’s Feelings
Bob: There's a connection between our emotions—the things we're feeling—and the godly virtues that the Spirit is working to produce in the lives of believers. As parents, we want to help our children understand that connection as they learn how to grow and walk in grace. Here's Josh Straub.
Josh: If you're growing in the fruit of the Spirit/if you're walking with God, we should be seeing ourselves becoming more kind to other people, being more loving of other people, stepping into the shoes of other people, and just being able to empathize with them in a conversation—where it's not about me; it's not about my story; it's not about what I can get out of this relationship—it's about your story and “How can I serve you?”
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Thursday, December 24th; happy Christmas Eve. Our hosts are Dave and Ann Wilson; I'm Bob Lepine. You can find us online at FamilyLifeToday.com. How can we help our children process their emotions and then know how to respond to those emotions in a godly way? We're going to talk about that today with Josh and Christi Straub. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us on the Christmas Eve edition of our program. Probably going to be a lot of kid emotions happening today and tomorrow as we celebrate Christmas.
I want to start right off by dealing with an epic parent-fail right, here, at the beginning.
Dave: You got a confession?
Bob: I don't think there was ever a time when my kids were growing up—I really cannot remember a time when I looked at them and said, “So, how are you feeling right now?” I mean, I don't know that I was even conscious of the fact that that was something I should be—
Dave: Not one time?
Bob: I don't—I may have.
Dave: I'll tell you what, Bob—you are looking across the table at the mom, who asked that question every day to our kids.
Bob: This was big for you. Is that something that happened in your home when you were growing up?
Ann: No; no; no. [Laughter] I think it was because I had sons and marriage is such a big topic; and it's so instrumental to us, and it's so important for legacy and future. Because I had sons, I thought, “They need to know what they feel to be able to communicate.”
I understood this very well when our nine-year-old—I was walking out of his bedroom at night; I said, “Love you C.J.” And he said, “Love you, too, mom; but mom—mom, you've told me one time. You never have to tell me again.” I thought, “His poor wife!”—like—“What is she going to do?” [Laughter] And so I thought, “I need to help them with their feelings to be able to communicate that for marriage.”
Bob: Hopefully, we're going to help a lot of moms and dads avoid my fail, because we have Dr. Josh Straub and his wife Christi joining us today. Guys, welcome to FamilyLife Today.
Christi: Thanks for having us!
Josh: Thank you so much. We're honored to be here.
Bob: Josh has been here before; Christi, it's your first time here. This is something that you guys both are pretty passionate about. Did it start with you, Christi?—or start with your husband?
Christi: I think it started more with Josh. We're both counselors by trade and education, so I think we already come from that angle of life. But really, it was when we started having babies.
Ann: Did your parents ask you that question?
Christi: In my home; yes.
Josh: No; definitely not. I had amazing parents, but we talked more about sports or—I mean, it wasn't necessarily about our feelings.
I was a counselor, and I'd been working with juvenile delinquents and troubled families. I had studied—my doctorate's in counseling, but it’s in an attachment base—so it's all about emotional safety and security and the importance of that for kids.
I remember, when we first had kids, our early years of having babies was awful. [Laughter] Christi's pregnancies were terrible.
Christi: That's putting it mildly. [Laughter]
Dave: Give me a feeling word for how awful it was. [Laughter]
Josh: Disappointed; exhausted.
Christi: Angry; grief. [Laughter]
Josh: What I realized was that there were so many decisions that we had to make, early on. You can't even leave the hospital before you have to make a decision about whether or not you're going to immunize your children. You have the breastfeeding/bottle feeding debates. You have the co-sleeping debates. You have spanking/not spanking; time ins/time—all these—and we didn't even tough BPA-free products, or gluten-free diets, or—it's like, when you first become parents—it's like so overwhelming.
For us, we were like—no, wait a minute—we were a little bit older. I was 30 when we got married, and so a little bit older having kids: “We have counseling degrees; how can this be so difficult?!” I went back into the research; and I started looking at: “If I'm a 90-year-old grandfather/great-grandfather, and I'm sitting in my rocking chair and I'm looking back through the years, I want to ask myself: ‘What would have really mattered? What did matter in raising those kids?’” It's not going to be the bottle feeding or the breastfeeding, or the spanking or not spanking; but what really would have mattered?
Every research study that I looked at, for every major outcome we would want in our kids, linked back to emotional safety and the ability for them to be able to understand what they're feeling/why they're feeling that way. The reason is because that leads to empathy, and it leads to relationships. It was like: “Whoa; so we don't have to get caught up in all these other little things. Let's keep the end game in mind,”—that’s where it all started.
Bob: You guys—and I should have mentioned this earlier—you've created a book for parents to read with their kids/to their kids. I'm thinking you could start this when they're
two or three years old; right?
Bob: The book is called, What Am I Feeling? It's a kids' book—it's a giant-sized picture book with lots of color and not a lot of words in it. At the end of the book, there's a chart—I saw the chart, and I thought of those charts in the hospital—you know, where on the pain continuum; right?—[Laughter]—on a scale of 1-10, with the happy and the frownie faces.
This has nine different feeling faces and words that go with it—all designed to help our kids be able to self-diagnose: “What's going on in my heart?”; right?
Josh: Yes; and at the end of the day, I think that one of the biggest goals for all of us is to raise kids, who love God and love others well. I can remember—I was working with juvenile delinquents—that's who I worked with mostly in my counseling years—and the very first thing that I would do with any juvenile delinquent that I met with was I would give them a feelings chart; because part of my counseling with them was to help them get to a place where they feel remorse for their victims.
The reality was—most of these guys/pretty much every single one I ever met didn't have a relationship with their dad—didn't know who their dad was, or there was just brokenness there at some level. And there was never feelings talked about; they couldn't even define what they were feeling. When Jesus says to love your neighbor as yourself, reality was that these kids didn't even love themselves—they didn't know how to. They didn't even know what they were feeling.
For all of us to be able to truly know what we're feeling and why we're feeling that way—that's the beginning of empathy. It's the beginning of being able to step into the shoes of another person and love them well—is for us to be able to recognize what we're feeling and take care of ourselves. I think that was really where: “If we can get this in our kids, at an early age;”—I mean, as early as the preschool years—“man, you're setting them up for a lifetime of success.”
Ann: One of the things you said is: “A sign of a healthy brain is being able to verbalize what we feel and why we feel it.” That was fascinating to me. Why is that a sign of a healthy brain?
Josh: That's the beginning of being able to control your emotions. We talk a lot about anger being a secondary emotion; right? One of the exercises we'll typically do—especially with someone, who's in relationship, particularly marriages—is we'll do this chair exercise.
You have two chairs, sitting one in front of the other. Typically, what ends up happening is—the anger is what's in the front chair—that's what's coming out at my wife—like when I'm mad at Christi and I'm coming out in anger, it's usually anger in that front chair. A lot of times what we'll do is—we'll have couples, and we'll say, “Okay; now that you've expressed the anger, I want you to go sit in that second chair. Tell me what's behind the anger.”
A lot of times, our behaviors—what we say to one another/how we act toward one another—because we don't understand what we're feeling/we don't know what we're feeling—and eventually, long term, as it relates to our overall health, our physical bodies feel when we're suppressing emotion.
Proverbs 16:32 says—and I love this verse—“Patience is better than power and controlling one's emotions than capturing a city.” You can't control your emotions if you don't know what your emotion is.
Bob: So, Christi, I'm thinking about a three-year-old, who is just raw emotion; right? Anything's not going the way they want it to go, and it's pretty clear to everybody in the room that they don't like what's going on.
In that moment—and I've watched my kids do this with their kids—in that moment, they're trying to help their kids put words to: “What is it that you're feeling right now? What's going on?” Or they're saying things like, “I know you're feeling frustrated,”—they're giving them that vocabulary.
Again, I'm thinking back: “This is something I never did.” Why is this so important?
Christi: I think this is why—I mean, you look at a toddler throwing a big meltdown in Target or something. If you've had kids, you can relate; because it's just pure, raw emotion.
Think about anger—we feel emotions, viscerally, in our body; but until we're taught—I mean, just like colors: “This is the color, red,”—we don't know what that feels like. We don't know what that is until we—you know: “My cheeks are hot; your fists are clenched; your teeth are clenched,”—you feel this almost hot rage go through your body.
Can you imagine? I mean, if we think back to the toddler—that feels huge in a little body; it feels huge in our adult body. They are learning to put labels—it's like organizing and calming the brain. That's why the feelings chart is so powerful, especially for young children, and really, even adults.
You'll see a lot of adults, men more typically—I'm not sure why that is—men, more typically, who maybe have never been given emotional language, or they grew up in a home where feelings were not talked about. Certain feelings were dismissed or punished; or maybe certain feelings are prioritized over others. That's a whole thing that even us, as parents of young children—I mean, so often, we can inadvertently give our kids the message that: “I want you to be something…”—typically, “…happy.” It's a message that the child receives—that: “Happiness is the desired emotion that Mom and Dad want from me.”
What happens when they start to feel something in their body that's not congruent with happy? They can start to learn, from a very early age, to pretend. This is where we start stuffing; and we can learn, very early on, to these false senses of being—of not being our true selves—because we are having to hide what is actually true of us.
For a child to learn, at an early age, to look at a face—we talk about mirror neurons; our mirror neurons are what basically—the baby hears a loud noise; they look to their caregiver/mom or dad to see: “Should I be scared?” or “Am I okay?” When mom smiles, peace is restored to a child; whereas, if they see a big reaction, it's like, “Boy, I am to be scared,” and so they react with fear.
What we're teaching kids to do, early on, is to look at another face—this is what we do as parents; right? They look at us to start to mirror what joy looks like, what sadness looks like, what anger, what fear looks like. When they can start to see what that looks like in another face, they can start to—really organizes the brain.
Dave: Well, it's interesting—as I look through your book, especially the chart—
Dave: —here's what I thought, “Now, you're doing this”—is this true?—I thought, “This is as much adult parent training as it is a child.” [Laughter] I thought, “I need this chart.”
Bob: You just blew their cover right here. [Laughter]
Dave: Honestly, it's like: “I want—when Ann and I get in a fight, I want to be able to walk over to the wall and go, ‘Right there; that's what I'm feeling.’ I want to point at angry or jealous.” You know what I mean?
So how much of this is the child learning how to process an emotion by watching mom and dad?—or mom or dad understanding how they—because I think a lot of parents don't even know how, so that's what we're transferring; rather than the opposite. Talk about that.
Christi: You figured it out. We wrote a kids' book because parents have time to read a kids' book to their kid; but really, it's not just for the kids. We all need this. So many of us—we maybe just grew up in a home, where there were certain emotions that took over. It could be that you grew up in a household, that there was a lot of anger present; it could have been a lot of fear; there could have been a lot of grief or sadness. I mean, a lot of us have lived in homes, where there was mental illness; so there might be anxiety/depression. There might have been loss of a sibling. We grow up feeling and being surrounded by a lot of feelings.
Even as adults, we come kind of limping into parenthood, carrying our own stories; and we're not always sure: “How do we organize that for ourselves?”
Dave: You know, I can't imagine, honestly, what could have been different in my upbringing. Think about this—you don't know this, but my mom and dad married
25 years; my dad walks out—so divorce. I'm seven years old; and my little brother, five-and-a-half years old, dies about six months later of leukemia. We move to another state.
It would have been wonderful if my mom could've put a chart up on a wall and said, “David, what are you feeling right now?”
Dave: You know, I never processed it; never really even talked about it. It wasn't like you weren't allowed to; and it would have been nice for my mom to be able to go,—
Ann: Yes, imagine the pain she was living through.
Dave: “Here's what I'm feeling. Here's what we're feeling,” because now it's just us, now, trying to forge a new life. What a resource!—again, not just for the children, but for the adults and for the parents as well.
There's an interesting quote I found in your book that I'd love you to talk about, because it leads from the emotional stability to the spiritual maturity. You make this comment—I'm even thinking about my own life—about how to grow up spiritually and become mature when there's this brokenness, emotionally, in my life and in so many people's lives. You make this comment—you don't think you can really be spiritually mature unless you're emotionally mature. Talk about that.
Josh: You know, it's interesting because—and I think I heard Peter Scazzero talk about that a number of years ago in Emotionally Healthy Spirituality—this idea that you could only be as spiritually mature as you are emotionally mature. You know, you think about the fruit of the Spirit—love, and joy, and peace, and patience, and kindness, and gentleness, and faithfulness, and goodness, and self-control—but those are all intertwined together; right?
You can have a personality that's gentle, or you can have a personality that's patient; but to have all of those intertwined together is a fruit of the Spirit. That takes emotional maturity as well. If you're growing in the fruit of the Spirit/if you're walking with God, we should be seeing ourselves becoming more kind to other people, being more loving of other people, stepping into the shoes of other people and just being able to empathize with them in a conversation—where it's not about me; it's not about my story; it's not about what I can get out of this relationship—it's about your story and “How can I serve you?”
Bob: My thinking about emotions I think, throughout my life, has been: “Emotional maturity means I'm in control of my emotions.” I hear you saying it's more than just being in control of your emotions. You can be in control of them without necessarily
diving in and understanding them and fully feeling them. You're saying, “No, emotional maturity goes beyond just being able to turn it down.”
Christi: When I learned, in my own personal journey, that joy and happiness are no more important in my life than being able to feel anger, sadness, grief—that those negative emotions are just as important—and the ability to come in and out of those—not to live there, but in order to be able to come in and out of emotions—and that's what we want for our kids too.
Typically, we get triggered by certain emotions/certain feelings that we do not like to see in our kids. We don't like them, because it's triggering something in our story. That's something you can just put a pause button on—just start to pay attention to; just put your finger on it—“Man, why is it, when my kid throws a”—you know—“gets angry/cries—if there's fear, I go to the roof,” and “Okay; where is that coming from?” You don't have to fix it; you're just starting to pay attention—I mean, that's the beginnings of it.
My favorite line in the book is: “A feeling is just a feeling; it's not in charge of you.”
Josh: If you take a look at What Am I Feeling?—the children's book—it really is Philippians 4 put into practice. When Paul was writing from prison—by the way, which I'm sure were not very good conditions comparable to America's prisons today—he's writing: “Be anxious for nothing, but by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving”—so your gratitude is toward God alone and saying: “God, thank You that You're a good God. Thank You that You care for me. Thank you that You love me. Thank You that my security is in You. I'm anxious right now; I'm scared right now; I'm sad right now; I'm feeling rejected right now,”—“in prayer and supplication, let your requests be made known to God.”
Really, what Paul is saying here—I talk about Paul being the first neuroscientist—like Paul is saying: “Voice label your anxiety. Label your feelings. Give them over to God, in thanksgiving; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
It's not until after that that he writes, “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, pure, anything excellent, praiseworthy”—what?—“think on these things.” I think Paul understood that, when we're overwhelmed in negative emotion, we don't think straight. I believe, in a finite way, that's our job, as parents—is to be that peace that can calm our kids’ brains when they're emotionally overwhelmed. That's what we hoped that really you could do with this book—is to say: “What are you feeling right now?” and then, “Let's ask God; let's take a deep breath, and let's ask God what to do with that feeling.”
Bob: Can you think of a time, in the last two months, with the Straub kids, where you've had one of these “Let's process and work through this moment,” with your kids?
Christi: Oh my word. [Laughter]
Josh: Which one? [Laughter]
Christi: Okay; let's think. Was it yesterday?—the day before?
I remember we walked through this with our son. He was going through a really difficult time. Actually, this is—well, this is going back a little bit; because this is actually where one of the stories in this book came. He was going to a new school and just experiencing a lot of fear, but he didn't know how to put that into words. He would cry; he was—there was acting out; there was anger. I mean, it was—covered this whole mess of stuff, which is what emotions often come out like.
I remember one morning—this was months into school—we encouraged him every morning: we're cheering him on and encouraging him. I said, “Buddy, what does it feel like?” And he said, “Mom, I just feel so flippy in my tummy.” I was like: “Oh, Bud, that's a great description of fear. I know what that feels like.” We used that description in the book: “…feel flippy in my tummy.”
It was, when he started to figure out what he was feeling was fear, that it started to, at least, put it in a box, where it was like, “I'm afraid to go to school.” That's what all this is/all this is; because it can come out sideways, often; right? When we're not dealing well with an emotion, it will come out sideways, somehow. I think this is where we, as adults, get to be their mentors. We get to be their models; and we get to show them that we feel, too.
There was one day—actually the same kid—he had a test at school, and he was real nervous about it. I said to him—we were actually going to speak that day; I was speaking to a big group of people, and I was nervous—and I said: “Buddy, you know, Mommy has to go do something today; and I'm honestly really scared, too. How about you go to school and you do your test?—and you do the thing that scares you. And I'm going to go and I'm going to do the thing that scares me. Then, maybe when we come home tonight together, we can talk about it. Maybe we'll feel a little more brave.”
Ann: That’s good.
Christi: I think, in those moments, they start to recognize: “I'm never going to outgrow fear,” “I'm never going to outgrow sadness,” “t's never going to go away. It's just a part of life, but it doesn't get to be in charge of us.”
Dave: You were saying that adults still have “flippy in their tummy,”—[Laughter]—I mean, what a great phrase, and we all have. And what you just shared—even Josh, when you walked through Philippians 4, I thought: “What an action step for somebody listening to this program right now. What if, right now, you had named it”—you say in your book: “Name it to tame it.
Josh: Yes, yes.
Dave: “You can't really get control of an emotion until you identify it.” Philippians 4:6-7 is sort of that process. You're right; Paul is a neuroscientist.
Dave: It's like he's a PhD counselor, [Laughter] saying: “You've got to speak this out loud to God—the anxious, the worry.”
What if we did that right now—you know, tonight, before we did it with our children? What would that look like to say: “God, I'm going to speak this out to You. I'm going to thank You in all things”?—
Christi: It's a form of confession as well.
Dave: —and walk through that process that you walked us through earlier. What a beautiful, beautiful way to name it and process it with God; and then, model that with your children.
Bob: And you know how it is with kids' books—I mean, this is not something you will read to them once; but you're going to read this book, What Am I Feeling?, over and over again. I mean, I don't have kids at home, but when my grandkids—Dinosaurs Love Tacos—did you know that?
Christi: Oh my goodness; yes.
Josh: We still read that book. [Laughter]
Christi: Why is that so popular? Every time I read it, I’m like, “This doesn't even make sense.” [Laughter] And they love it!
Bob: They love it and they say, “Read it again.”
Ann: —and again. [Laughter]
Bob: What if What Am I Feeling? is that book that they say, “Read it again”?
Dave: Dinosaurs that love tacos is never going to change a kid's life. [Laughter]
Josh: Dragons; it's dragons. [Laughter]
Bob: Dragons; that's right. I'm sorry I got the animals wrong: [Laughter] Dragons Love Tacos.
Christi: Same thing!
Bob: We do have copies—not of dragons—but of What Am I Feeling? in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. [Laughter] You can go online to find out more about the book or to order a copy. Again, the title is What Am I Feeling? by Josh and Christi Straub. The website is FamilyLifeToday.com. You can also call to order: 1-800-FL-TODAY. So, again, the website: FamilyLifeToday.com; the phone number: 1-800-FL-TODAY—that's 1-800-358-6329—and the book is called What Am I Feeling?: Helping Kids to Learn to Manage Big Feelings in Little Bodies.
Now, we hope that your celebration of the birth of Christ tomorrow is a great time for you. Hope you’re able to be together with friends or with family to celebrate the holidays. I know this is hard this year. Lots of families, who are normally together, are not able to be together this year because of health and safety concerns. Our hope is that you will find your joy, and your peace, and your contentment in Christ, and that there is a way to connect with your family this year.
Let me just say, “Thank you,” to those of you who have prayed for us and who have supported this ministry throughout the year. We’re grateful for your financial support. This is the right time of year to say, “Thank you,” for how you have supported us in what has been a tough year for all of us. We appreciate you, and we are grateful; and we hope you have a Merry Christmas.
And we hope you’ll have some time tomorrow when you can tune in and hear Part Two of our conversation with Josh and Christi Straub as we continue talking about how our kids can identify exactly what it is they're feeling/put a name to that and process those emotions—learn how to do that in a God-honoring way. I hope you can join us 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 on Christmas Day for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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