How to Help Your Kids With Their Turbulent Emotions

Whimsical illustration of a young girl asleep in her bed
Sija Hong

My senior year of high school, I had an art class in a metal barrack on the far end of campus. A gravel path snaked past the cafeteria, gym and bus pick-up lot before winding its way down to a row of portable buildings. It has been 17 years since high school, but I can still vividly recall how it felt to walk to art class. The gravel crunching under my feet. The weight of my backpack. And my bad mood.

That happened pretty often. Something during the day would set me off: being excluded, being mocked, embarrassing myself with something I said or did. So I shuffled to art class, wrestling with self-loathing and self-pity.

Maybe tomorrow will be better, I'd think. This day is doomed.

A funny thing happened, however. While I remember frequently walking to art class in a bad mood, I can't recall ever leaving that way. In art class, each student had a private cubby, and our teacher sometimes let us bring music to listen to while we worked. I'd slip headphones over my ears, play worship music and fill pages with colors and shapes. Before I knew it, class was over, and I was walking that same gravel road but in a completely different state. The combination of music, art and a quiet place acted as a sort of lullaby that took my mind to a different place, helping me get my turbulent spirit under control.

I didn't recognize it in high school, but now I understand a bit more about what makes me tick. I also recognize that nothing influences my life as much as the ability to control my spirit in the middle of volatile feelings and maddening circumstances. As a parent raising kids who now face their own daily challenges, I want them to discover this same truth — that how well we respond to external battles depends entirely on our ability to fight the internal war successfully.

That war takes place in our spirit, the part of our being that responds to God and receives His power. I tell my kids that if our spirit is out of control, it's difficult to put our life under God's control. Indeed, Scripture says that without a controlled spirit, we leave ourselves vulnerable for attack "like a city that is broken into and without walls" (Proverbs 25:28, NASB).

Teaching our kids to steer their spirit starts with helping them learn to manage their thoughts and emotions.

Whatever is lovely

When I taught my daughter Alivia to snowboard, one lesson I emphasized was that she needed to turn her head in the direction she wanted her body to go. So if she wanted to set up a turn to her heel edge, she needed to look over her left shoulder. Otherwise, her fancy footwork would be in vain.

Turn your head the way you want the rest of your body to go. The thoughts we allow to take up residence in our head determine the direction the rest of our lives go. Thoughts fuel emotions, which affect our words and behavior. This is why Scripture urges us to keep our heads filled with only good things — true, honorable, just, lovely and pure things (Philippians 4:8). Our lives depend on it.

No, your kids won't be able to simply ban negative thoughts from creeping in. These thoughts will show up. The problem is that we let them come in and spend the night. We dwell on them, as they dwell within us.

I tell young people that we need to have a security checkpoint in our brain. Much like how the TSA screens every item that passengers bring onto an airplane, so must we carefully monitor the thoughts that enter our head. This process examines thoughts before we let them settle in and make themselves comfortable. Are you true? If you aren't, you're not welcome here. Are you noble? How about pure or lovely? No? Well, you gotta leave.

When we force each thought to go through a screening before we allow it to remain, we take back control from fear, shame, jealousy and doubt. Can you even imagine how much of a game changer it would be if, as they're heading off to track practice, walking to class or waiting to fall asleep, our kids allowed only the best thoughts into their minds?

Look where you want to go. Don't focus on the awful things you want to steer clear of; instead, direct your thoughts to a beautiful destination.

Staying plugged in

Positive thinking is important, but if it were really possible to do better just on our own willpower, we wouldn't need God. But that's not possible; we are fallen and bent toward sinful choices. The message of the Gospel isn't "try"; it's "trust."

Our heavenly Father wants to send His ultimate power to aid us in our daily challenges. I tell my kids that being energized by God is like staying plugged into the power source we are designed to run on. There's a night-and-day difference between using a coffee machine or a curling iron that is plugged in versus using one just sitting on the counter. We can't try to do God's work without His power.

How do we stay plugged in? One of the best ways I've found is intentionally spending time focusing on the love and wisdom of God, by reciting Scripture and singing or listening to worship music. Our kids can also be creative in involving the help of other people and calming situations to keep their spirits in check. Maybe it's art, or taking a walk or enjoying time with God while sipping coffee. However we do it, meditating on God's truth is the ultimate security screening: It focuses our mind and heart, making it impervious to the negative messages that bombard us.

The apostle Peter wrote, "His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence" (2 Peter 1:3). Do you and your kids have all things that pertain to life and godliness? Potentially you do, but practically you have to tap into what belongs to you, one moment at a time. It's a bit like having a gym membership; just because you have the right to go to the gym and freely use the equipment doesn't automatically mean you'll get stronger and more fit. You have to take advantage of what your membership gives you access to.

Let's teach our kids that trying to overcome the challenges of life with their own strength is a serious error. We must rely on the power of the risen Lord, who is always ready to fight the battles He has already won for us.

Levi Lusko is the lead pastor of Fresh Life Church. His best-selling books include Through the Eyes of a Lion and Swipe Right.
This article first appeared in the June/July 2019 issue of Focus on the Family magazine and was originally titled "Kids and Turbulent Emotions." If you enjoyed this article, read more like it in Focus on the Family's marriage and parenting magazine. Get this publication delivered to your home by subscribing to it for a gift of any amount.
© 2019 by Levi Lusko. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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