As a families ministries pastor, I tend to spend a good part of my week thinking like a child. (Stop smirking, y’all. I know you’re saying, “Well, that explains it.”)
Of course what I mean is that I spend time considering and re-framing what it feels like to not know all the things us adults know, to try to look at the world without all the influence and experience we adults have, and to have all the ways of coping we have cultivating in our years of fearful experiences.
Historically as a culture, American family systems tend to approach dealing with a child’s emotions by two extremes: coddling the emotion or dismissing the emotion. Both tend to fail at considering the wholistic nature of our mind, body, and heart.
Studies show that parents who coach their kids through their emotions help their children develop a healthy emotional intelligence. Many parents don’t even understand what this looks like. As emotional intelligence has always been part of our whole self, it’s only in recent years have we come to more fully understand it’s importance in our healthy development as whole people – people with minds, bodies, and hearts.
In this season we’re in with the COVID-19 virus, fear is at the forefront of many people’s emotions. As adults we often don’t fully understand just how much children are primarily lead by fear most of their days. (This is why Vacation Bible School themes often address this with kids, if you look back and think about the different popular programs. Sky from 2013: Everything is Possible with God. Cave Quest from 2017: Jesus the Light of the World. And this year’s Rocky Railway: Jesus Will Pull Us Through. The majority of the lessons address why we can trust God.) And as adults, we forget about the undercurrent of fear we had as children because we’ve developed coping mechanisms.
Emotional coaching starts with, after learning what your kids are feeling, accepting their emotions. In this season, accept the fear they have. Don’t dismiss it, and don’t coddle it, but accept that it’s real for them, and that this emotion is not sinful. Label it and validate it.
If your child exhibits bad behavior as a result of this emotion, deal with it by setting limits however you have typically done that as their parent. It may feel hard to discipline when your child is distraught because of the fear surrounding this virus, but we all understand the importance of boundaries for kids when it comes to their health and wellness. It may be helpful to remember they are likely acting out because they do not know how to handle their emotions any other way.
When someone listens to us, it makes us feel heard and seen, which makes us feel less lonely. This is not only exactly what we are sacrificing as we practice social distancing, but also part of the fear your child is dealing with. They are wondering if anyone else feels the same way they do. Ask your child at least two questions, especially if they are struggling to express themselves. Some examples of the first question might be, “Can you tell me what you are scared of right now?” “Are you scared of what is going to happen next?”
The second question is important, but will also be guided by how your child answers the first question. I would encourage you to listen to this 12 minute podcast from Emily Freeman: https://emilypfreeman.com/podcast/the-next-right-thing/94/. While it’s not about children and this specific topic of fear, it’s about sitting with people and asking questions and how powerful it can be for the one you are asking the question of. She asks the powerful question, “What if we didn’t race to solutions? What if the next right thing was simply to ask a question?”
In the process of asking your child questions, you are sending them a message – you are not telling them how they ought to feel, but trying to understand what they are feeling. As you dig deeper, you can begin the conversation of problem solving of ways to help them cope. With one child, after asking her some questions about the struggles she was having at school, she eventually revealed to me how much she missed a pet that died recently. I suggested that she take few photos of the pet and keep them in her notebook and locker to comfort her.
Some of solutions are simple. Some may be more difficult. And they can take you and your child to the next step of walking through this season together, as you help them work towards a healthy emotional intelligence.
Never underestimate the power of praying over your child. Share with God your own struggles in that prayer, because not only does God want to hear that from you, but you will model for your child what it looks like to be honest with God. God is big enough to handle our powerful emotions, and of course, He is big enough to comfort us when we are scared. Prayer in times of trouble is one of the ways we are able to lean in to just how much we must trust and depend on God.
“God is our refuge and strength, and ever present help in times of trouble.” -Psalm 46:1