3 Ways to Teach Your Children to Understand and Express Their Emotions

This is the conclusion of a two-part series on the importance of emotional security in your children. Read part one here.

When you welcomed your first child into the world, if someone had asked you, “How will you teach this child about their emotions?” how would you have answered? I would have stared back wordlessly with eyes that said, “I have no idea. And why are you even asking me about this?”

One of a parent’s most important responsibilities is teaching their children how to understand and express their emotions. Yet few of us give this responsibility much thought.

As our babies grew up, I began learning a lot about this crucially important parenting question. Ready to dive in with me?

Since we are made in God’s image, like Him, are our emotions like His? From what God has revealed about Himself in the Bible, we can answer yes.

  • He loves. “God is love” (1 John 4:8).
  • He gives from His love. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16).
  • He feels delight. “The Lord took delight in doing you good” (Deuteronomy 28:63).
  • He laughs, is happy. “He who sits in heaven laughs” (Psalm 2:4).
  • He feels kindness. “… according to His kind intention” (Ephesians 1:9 NASB)
  • He enjoys and gives pleasure. “At your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
  • He feels gladness. “You make him glad with the joy of your presence” (Psalm 21:6).
  • He feels compassion. “He had compassion for them” (Matthew 9:36).
  • He feels grief. “He was “grieved at their hardness of heart” (Mark 3:5).
  • He feels deep sadness and loss. “Our sorrows He carried” (Isaiah 53:4).
  • He feels anger. “I was angry with my people” (Isaiah 47:6).
  • He feels regret. “I regret that I have made Saul king” (1 Samuel 15:11).
  • He longs. “How often I have longed to gather your children together” (Matthew 23:37 NIV).
  • He hurts and feels loss. “Jesus wept” (John 10:35).

In His perfection, God’s emotions are always pure. His anger is always righteous. His love is never compromised. His creative work is always for good, always in the right time, always in line with the higher goal of his purposes and plans.

But human emotional expressions are never totally pure, righteous, or good. Our complete brokenness and depravity compromise our every intention. It is why we so desperately need the power of God’s Spirit within us to make our marriages work and to raise our children in a somewhat healthy way.

Importantly, our emotions are neutral. They are neither good nor bad, but it’s the expression  that taints them positively or negatively. 

1. Teach your children to identify and name their emotions. 

When I was 40, I had corrective heart surgery. A couple days before I went to the hospital, we asked our two youngest to clean up their room. When we came back an hour or so later to put them to bed, we noticed that Deborah had stuffed everything under her bed, which wasn’t the way she usually cleaned up her things. We asked how she was feeling, and she said, “I’m scared.”

“What are you scared about?”

She timidly said, “I am sad.”

“Do you know what you are sad about?”

Then she began to cry and said, “I’m afraid you’re going to die.”

We hadn’t talked about the risk of this surgery with our children because we wanted to help guard their fears. In spite of our caution, our seven-year-old picked up on our tension and uncertainty. To help her respond well, we felt it was important for her to understand how she was feeling. Children need training and practice in naming their emotions and understanding where they come from.

With some children you will need to work especially hard to help them identify feelings. Several of our firstborn grandchildren are naturally reserved, highly intelligent kids who value rules and factual thinking. Ashley decided her firstborn son, Samuel, needed to learn to recognize and name his emotions. She announced to him and his brother, James, a natural feeler, that she would start asking them every night to describe one high and one low experience from the day and name the emotions they felt.

Samuel said he didn’t want to do it. It sounded hard. James enthusiastically said, “Oh, this is going to be easy. I got this!” What a dramatic difference in our God-created emotional makeup as people! We are not all alike.

After a while, Samuel found it reasonably easy to identify some positive basic emotions, like happy. But naming the unpleasant emotions was more challenging. One day Samuel tried to summarize his day as “normal,” but Ashley told him “normal” wasn’t an emotion and to try again.

This daily exercise lasted only a few weeks, but even in that short time Samuel learned to look within and describe his experiences at school with “feeling words.” Ashley was intentionally preparing both boys for a future as husbands and fathers who will need this emotional understanding to lead well.

2. Train your children in healthy, non-hurtful ways to express their emotions.

I wish I’d understood all this when our kid were young, so I hope you’ll keep reading to the end.

Our goal as parents is, first, to teach children to feel and name their emotions, to help them identify what is driving them, what is shaping their decisions and reactions. Then we teach, instruct, train, and praise them when they express those emotions in healthy, inoffensive, non-hurtful ways.

Did you know, God never corrects our emotions in His Word? What He does correct is the way we express those emotions. For example, He tells us to “Be angry, and do not sin” (Psalm 4:4; Ephesians 4:26).

For example, the prophet Elijah was afraid, ran away, and found a cave in which to hide. There he pouted in the dark feeling sorry for himself: “I alone am left” (1 Kings 19:10 NASB). God didn’t correct his emotion of fear or self-pity, but He did address his heart of unbelief by calling Elijah back to faith with the voice of a “gentle blowing” (verse 12).

With eight broken, sinful people living in our four-bedroom house, we had lots of emotions of every kind. Anger was one emotion everyone struggled with, so one night we had a family discussion about it. We asked our children, “How do you feel when you are angry?” On a poster board we wrote down their answers, which included phrases like “exasperated,” “like screaming,” “verbal vomit,” and “like tearing things up.”

Then we asked, “What kinds of things make you angry as a child or a teen?” On another column of the poster board we listed their answers:

  • “When I’m left out or excluded by a family member.”
  • “When I get hurt.”
  • “When people make fun of me.”
  • “When people are being a pest or picking on me.”
  • “When people use my stuff without asking.”
  • “When people don’t pay attention to what I’m saying.”

We talked a little about why we shouldn’t hurt others when we feel angry, and suggested alternatives. The evening dissolved quickly after that, and our anger problems were not solved with one conversation. We simply wanted to help our children understand that anger is a normal emotional response to being hurt or afraid. We wanted them to hear us say, “It is not wrong to feel angry, but let’s try to learn constructive ways to express our anger in our family.

We spent countless hours correcting our children when they expressed anger, disappointment, or fear in inappropriate and hurtful ways. Thousands of times we said things like, “You may not hit your brother when you are angry at him” … “You may not scream at your sister” … “You may not break something when you feel overlooked” … and more. Slowly they improved, not perfectly but with lots of baby steps, learning more appropriate ways to express their emotions without being hurtful.

Your goal is not just correcting behavior, but also growing, training, nurturing the kind of hearts that seek to understand and act wisely, the kind of hearts that eventually want to please God. Help your kids understand the emotion behind their behavior and then learn to express those foundational feelings to one another. Your kids will likely have each other all of their lives; they need to learn how to keep those relationships healthy. Other friends will come and many won’t last but family and siblings are forever.

3. Make your home a safe place.

Children want and need feedback, especially as they get older, from their parents. You are their measuring line. You are their report card. You are the most important cheerleaders who must celebrate every good decision.

Don’t just correct them, but eagerly and enthusiastically rejoice with every right attitude. Reinforce all the good they choose to embrace on their own, reminding them that God sees and is pleased, and that pleasing Him should be their ultimate goal, now as children and one day on their own as adults.

Children want to be heard and understood, not lectured. If you are attentive and engaged emotionally on every level, your child will grow up feeling loved, secure, and whole.

Also, give your children grace as they process the conflicts and hardships of life and as they learn emotional boundaries. And always reaffirm your love and acceptance, especially when they make mistakes. Model God’s unconditional, grace-filled love in your home.

Put it into practice

Here are two activities to do with your kids:

1. Ask them one evening or on a Sunday afternoon to look up the verses in the list above which names some of God’s emotions. Direct them to read each verse and say what it says about how God feels. Then have them write each feeling/emotion on a list.

Give them a reward if you need to. (We’ve done that. You do what it takes to get cooperation sometimes!) Then go in a circle and share what they discovered. Talk about how they feel discovering God’s emotions.

2. Try the activity we did with our kids on anger, especially if your children are in elementary school. Ask them, “How do you feel when you’re angry?” and then, “What kinds of things make you angry?”

See what they list. Talk about it together and then pray for each other. Ask God to help everyone understand how to express feelings and appropriately express anger. 

May God guide you and bless you!

If you enjoyed this post by Barbara, you might be interested in these other posts on parenting:


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