My girls were both far more emotionally mature on their wedding day than I was on mine.
And their husbands were both more emotionally mature than Keith was, too!
Keith and I were just so young, in so many ways (though my daughters were both technically younger than I was when they married). But we grew up, and thankfully we grew up together.
Next week, in our emotional maturity series, we’ll be talking about growth–how to grow when you feel like you’re just not that mature and not that able to handle emotions and responsibilities.
Before we turn to that, though, I’d like to chat about how to make sure we’re raising our children to be emotionally mature.
Behind the scenes, Connor, my son-in-law who runs the technical side of this blog, has been going through all my thousands of old blog posts from many years ago and culling the ones that aren’t relevant anymore. And he found one that I wrote about a Bible quizzing tournament my girls were in, ironically right as H1N1 hit. My girls got it very early, and it affected their performance (though we didn’t understand the significance of it then).
For context, here’s what they looked like just a few weeks before I wrote this, when we were in Hawaii, where Katie picked up H1N1 and brought it home to Canada, even before it hit the news. And then the rest of us got it.
And here’s the story of their disappointment, which I’d like to share with you, followed by a few thoughts I have today, 11 years later:
You know those stories you sometimes hear about the hockey dad who kills the coach that benched his kid, or the cheerleading mom who kills her daughter’s rival? I’m beginning to understand them.
Not that I would ever do it, mind you. But lately my children have had some disappointments, and it is very, very hard to watch your children cry and not be able to do a thing about it.
Of course, these parents’ problems are that they’re living their dreams through their kids, and there’s a whole lot of psychopathology going on.
But in the normal course of our lives, our kids are going to be disappointed, left out, bullied, or laughed at.
And that can be very hard for a mother to watch.
My own girls were in a competition this weekend, and neither did as well as she had hoped. They both did do objectively well; in the top 8 or 9% actually. But that wasn’t what they were aiming for. And they had studied so hard, and prepped so much, and it was hard to watch them. Of course, one of the reasons I think they started to flub things in the afternoon was because this virus was hitting, so it’s hardly their fault. But that sometimes makes it even worse.
When your child is hurting, we want to say, “there, there. It doesn’t really matter. I love you anyway.” But what if it does matter? What if it is a big deal, and you can’t really talk them down?
I know disappointment is a part of life, but my first instinct, when I saw them hurt like this, was to think, “let’s just chuck it all! Let’s not try anymore! Nothing is worth this kind of hurt!”
That’s the wrong attitude as well. Sometimes we’re going to reach our goals, and sometimes we’re not. Everybody has to get used to that. But when your child is crying and saying, “I’m a failure”, or “I’m just not good enough”, it’s hard.
How Can We Use Disappointments as Teaching Moments in Kids’ Lives–and Our Own?
How do we make sure that these moments are used to help our kids become more emotionally intelligent, rather than less so? And how can we grow ourselves? Here are two thoughts I’ve had since:
Allow for Sadness–Don’t try to talk them out of it
My cousin, who is a doctor, told me a story of a friend of hers (a counselor) whose 8-year-old daughter was really sad because of something that had happened at school. The mom sat down beside the girl and said, “That’s really, really sad. I think I’ll just sit here and be sad with you for a while.”
That was so interesting, because our first response is often what mine was when my girls were disappointed: we say, “don’t be sad!” We try to talk them out of the negative emotion, whether it’s sadness or rejection or loneliness or disappointment or whatever, because we don’t want our kids to have those emotions.
But that mom knew that it WAS a sad situation, and sadness was an appropriate response, and so you have to give the sadness a chance to be felt so that you can process it.
When we try to talk our kids out of being sad or feeling these things, then we also make it difficult for them to handle those emotions later in life, because they think those emotions are somehow “bad”.
Sometimes parents take it even further than that, and get angry at kids for having negative emotions. “You have nothing to be sad about! When I was a kid, we didn’t even have the chance to compete at anything. We were too busy working, and my mom couldn’t be bothered to make sure we had anything good in our lives. You have no idea how good you have it!” Again, this tells kids, “having a negative emotion is a dangerous and bad thing.” Then what’s going to happen when they’re older and they start to feel something negative? They’ll run away. They’ll deflect it into anger. They’ll laugh it off and never deal with it. Or they’ll stonewall, as we talked about on Monday.
But emotions, in and of themselves, are not bad. Emotions simply tell us what’s going on in the world around us and how that affects us. They’re our body’s way of interpreting our situation. When we don’t deal with our emotions, then we end up causing our body stress. Those emotions don’t go away; they get deflected into our body, or into addiction, or into negative coping patterns.
When I visited my cousin recently, she also had an “emotions flip book” where different emotions were written on the top of the page, along with ideas of what to do when you are feeling different emotions. The idea is to help kids identify what they are feeling, and then understand that, once they have that feeling, they have different ways of coping with that feeling. Instead of telling a child, “you shouldn’t feel that way,” it helps kids understand, “here’s how I do feel, and here’s what to do now.”
So many of our problems with emotional maturity later in life stem from not being comfortable naming emotions or having a wide range of emotions. Teaching our kids when they’re young to identify emotions goes a long way to helping them cope later!
I couldn’t find exactly the same flip book on Amazon, but this one looks really similar! I think it’s a great tool for helping kids process feelings. And it deals with good feelings, too, not just bad ones!
Be Realistic in How You See Your Kids–and Teach them to See Themselves the Same Way
One more thought on how to teach kids to handle disappointment: Be realistic about how you talk to your kids.
As most of you may know, Rebecca (my oldest who is almost all our podcasts and who wrote The Great Sex Rescue with me) is an author of her own accord. Her book Why I Didn’t Rebel was published when she was 22. She interviewed a ton of millennials, some of whom had rebelled, and some who hadn’t, to figure out what parenting practices led to kids keeping strong relationships with their parents and making good decisions later.
She found seven key qualities in families whose kids didn’t rebel, and one of those was what she called “reality-based parenting.” Your child doesn’t have to be better than everyone else to be good; your child is an amazing person because of who your child is, and teaching your child to accept themselves, with their own giftings and their own limitations, is important in raising a kid who will succeed in life. Admitting that your child isn’t the best at everything doesn’t mean you don’t love your kid or believe in your kid. You just show them that God’s amazing plans for them don’t necessarily lie in a singing career, or even an academic career. You point kids towards their giftings, not towards your own dreams.
I’m going to let Rebecca end this post with an excerpt from Why I Didn’t Rebel, about Michael:
When I met Michael, he was in his third year of bio-med and struggling with his faith. I tried to help him reconnect with the Christian community, but he never seemed interested. As a high school student, he had been on top of the world—he got As in all his classes, was captain of the soccer team, and dated the prettiest girl in the school. He was one of the “it” kids in his church’s youth group. All through his life he had never failed—largely because his parents made sure he didn’t.
Michael was fortunate to be naturally smart, but in high school his mom edited all his papers for him, and his dad corrected his math and science homework before he handed it in. Of course, they went over their edits with him to help him learn, but Michael joked with me about how he could get his mom to do his entire assignment for him if he played it right. His parents would coo and fuss whenever he brought back another excellent grade, and he thought of himself as the “smart kid.”
In his mom’s eyes, in particular, Michael could do nothing wrong. In eighth grade Michael was on a swimming team for a while and really enjoyed it. He was only middle of the pack, though, and one day the coach passed over Michael when it came to choosing which of the swimmers went to the regional meet. When his mother found out, she immediately pulled her son from the swim team. Michael described that car ride home as tense—the idea that anyone saw her son as anything but the best had infuriated his mom. For the first time Michael experienced failure, and from his mother’s expression he felt that failure should bring shame.
When he told his family he wanted to go into medicine, they were thrilled—being a doctor was the perfect profession for their brilliant son. They sent him off to university with well wishes and high hopes. He was smart, and he was a good Christian kid—he’d thrive at university.
Or so they thought. Michael went to his first semester filled with hope and excitement for this next chapter in life. After the first midterm season, his average was about a 70—not bad, but not what he was used to receiving. He told me that the first year depressed him greatly when he couldn’t maintain his scholarship and get those eighties and nineties that came so easily in high school.
At the same time, he had been paired up with a roommate who was heavily into the party scene. Michael started drinking with his roommate in their dorm, then started going to parties. He didn’t feel like the smart kid anymore and, in his search for identity, he turned to the party crowd since they made him feel accepted and it helped distract him.
As the years went on, his grades kept slipping and he started drinking more to cope with the failure he’d never had to deal with before. By the end of third year he was on academic probation, had gotten into a habit of partying and sleeping around, and decided to drop out of the program and move back with his parents to retake control of his life and of his faith.
I remember that when we talked about why he was leaving school, he told me, “I just don’t know who I am. I’m the smart kid and I’m dropping out. I don’t know how this happened.”
What would have happened if Michael’s parents had allowed him to fail? What would have happened if they had encouraged him to see himself in reality?
What if I told you that not all teenagers rebel?
Maybe the reason we can’t handle our kids’ disappointments is that we’re parenting as if our kids’ accomplishments define them
As Christians, we know that our worth is based in what Jesus did for us and in the fact that we are made in the image of God. We know that God has a specific purpose for us that He has planned before the creation of the world (Ephesians 2:10). But do we act that way with our kids? Or do we parent in such a way that they believe their worth really is in their accomplishments? That they’re only important if they’re the best in the world’s eyes?
If we believe that God has a specific purpose for our kids, and that it doesn’t need to look like anyone else’s, and that success is not judged as the world does, then how will that affect our parenting? How will it affect how we help our kids handle disappointment? How will it affect what we teach our kids to aim for?
Yes, disappointments hurt. It’s okay to feel that. But let’s keep everything in perspective. When we do that, then our kids can grow up able to handle emotions, and able to realistically see how they fit in to God’s plan.
What do you think? Do you have a hard time when your kids are sad? Let’s talk in the comments!
Sheila Wray Gregoire
Founder of Bare Marriage
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