What are some foundational principles for healthy emotional well-being?
1. It is not only acceptable but also necessary to express emotion in sanctified ways.
Spirituality is not the absence of feelings, or denying feelings. Teaching our families they are tough if they don’t cry or talk about difficult things is not in harmony with the way God works with us. The book of Psalms and the book of Job are prized books for hurting people to turn to. It is by divine providence that God allowed us to get a glimpse at how He welcomes His children to pour out their emotions while facing hard things. David told God his bones are roaring, his bed is wet with tears. We do our families a favor when we give them time to feel and “own” their difficult experiences in life. Tears are a language that God understands and we can help them express in sanctified ways.
2. There is a time to stop crying and face life.
Joshua was in dismay at the defeat of Ai. God understood and heard his anguish, but directed him to move on from that experience so he could experience victory. Joshua 7:10, “And the LORD said unto Joshua, Get thee up; wherefore liest thou thus upon thy face?”
We can err in not allowing enough expression of emotion, but we can also err in not bringing emotional expression into boundaries. Different children will need different levels of guidance. Some will tend to brush off and avoid facing reality and miss out on the “healing” of honesty. Others will dwell indefinitely in the honesty of the moment and miss out on getting on with life.
3. Saying how we feel is a window into our heart, not a sin.
We are all on a quest to be understood as we face experiences of life. Our children are no exception. When they taste a food that is pleasant, they show their glee, and when they taste a food that is unpleasant, they wrinkle up their nose. When we see dress material we like, we stroke it and smile fondly; when we see some that almost makes our eyes go cross-eyed, we either laugh at it or make sure our disdain is understood in some way. It is all emotional expression.
Sometimes in our quest for orderliness and streamlined home life we forget that our children in their negative dialogue are really giving us a valuable window into their heart to mentor their social and emotional development.
I am saddened to hear stories of children physically abused simply because they stated how they felt on a given subject rather than using how they felt as a platform to develop relationship and balance their perspective. I do not think a child needs discipline the first or second time they let us know the red beets “taste yucky.” We can use that emotional expression to tell them about foods we do not like but have learned to like. We discipline if they refuse to eat at least a minimal amount even though we know they do not like it. We need to be careful that we do not subtly, in a desire for order and efficiency, teach our children it is wrong to share your feelings.
Someday they may be married to a husband or wife that cannot understand why they do not communicate and do not open up and say how they feel. The truth is that all their childhood life they were taught that if the way I feel is not positive or according to the house rules, it will bring pain to say how I feel. So I will “keep it safe” and not say anything.
There does come a time we learn not to trumpet our negative emotions, because everyone knows how we “feel,” and reaffirming the facts brings no additional value to the family dialogue or our emotional journey. Our children need to learn it is acceptable if we say our likes and dislikes, but it is not acceptable to let our likes and dislikes monopolize our life or the lives of others.
4. Emotional stability is best understood in the context of belonging, worthiness, competence, and boundaries.
Every family member needs belonging (knowing they are loved for who they are, not just for how they perform), worthiness (knowing there are things they are contributing to life that are valuable), competence (they can achieve things that appear bigger than themselves), and boundaries (there are things that have a place but need to be done with limits in duration or depth of expression).
We could think of these four entities as a four-legged stool. We take any one leg off the stool and we have the likely potential to “topple” when we step on the stool.
An angry or bitter child could possibly have been raised in a home where the leg of “belonging” was loose. An extreme shame/guilt complex that runs in overdrive may indicate the leg of worthiness was missing, and they never learned their value to others and God. Their parents may have been better critics than cheerleaders. A fearful child may have had the leg of competence shakily attached. They had parents that did not raise the bar and encourage them to try great things. Instead, they were left to believe they cannot jump it. A child that finds himself constantly outside the realm of acceptable behavior may not have had enough boundaries defined in his childhood, or we could question how much those boundaries were staked with compassion and relationship.
5. Our families need to see a mom and dad that work together in finding balance in emotional expressions.
One of the most basic needs in helping our children emotionally is that father and mother work together with respect to each other’s values and temperament rather than oppose each other. There may be times we will feel that our spouse is allowing too much or not doing enough. We need to communicate together and work out an acceptable platform and a similar goal. If one parent lets Johnny whine his nap time disappointment the whole way from the sandbox to the bedroom, and the other disciplines at the first expression of disappointment, we will raise an insecure child that doesn’t know what to do with their emotions.
I think one of the reasons God made opposites attract is that opposites fill the missing attributes in home life. One may set too many boundaries, the other may set too few. One may tend to be overly protective, the other tend to press development and advancement into their lap too early. As they work at their differences they can strike a balance that makes for good emotional stability in the next generation. But when they refuse to merge their values, they create a time bomb in the emotional fabric of their family.
6. Passing on emotional stability cannot be done without personal example.
Deuteronomy 6 advises us, “And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart.”
We are being watched as parents. And the things we model – by design or by accident – powerfully communicate our convictions about right and wrong and about acceptable and unacceptable behavior in regards to emotional stability.
If Dad can express anger and frustration at the cows, but Johnny cannot beat up on the dog even if he’s being disgusting something is wrong. Do not underestimate the power of association our children are capable of making when we discipline them for not being nice to Fido, and the resulting emotion of anger toward us for our expectations of them versus our example. If we wish for our sons and daughters to accept the idea that there are absolute standards of right and wrong in emotional expression, we must let them see that we believe it ourselves in how we conduct our emotions.