Parents, you are weary, exhausted, and feeling lost as to how to navigate this time. “So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day” (2 Corinthians 4:16 ESV). The Lord renews us each day. His mercies are new every morning. It is the hope we have in Him that enables us to get up and face the challenges of each day. It is only because of the mercies God extends to us that we are able to extend them to our children.
Our children are also weary, scared, mad, sad, and feeling lost. Even the most verbal children do not have words to express their feelings or describe their experiences. If we’re being honest, as parents, neither do we at times. We struggle to truly articulate our experiences. But, when words are not enough, children communicate through behaviors. We see this when our children express unusual anger, displaced frustration, excess boredom, tiredness, lack of motivation, a desire to zone out with electronics, and the fights—the endless fights. These behaviors are challenging to navigate, especially as we try to manage our own stress.
So then, how can we be more compassionate toward our children? How can we be a source of comfort and connection? How do we facilitate their expression of emotions? Well, just as you are looking to your Heavenly Father for comfort and guidance, your children look to you. Our most important job as parents is to share the gospel with our children. The relationship we pursue with our children is one of the greatest instruments we can use to point them to the gospel. Just as Jesus saw the crowd at the shore and had compassion for them in Matthew 14, we want to see our children and view the world through their eyes. We do this so that we can understand how to have compassion for them, how to comfort them, and how to point them to Jesus. I encourage you to pray and ask God to help you have more compassion for your children and for the Holy Spirit to help you see the world through their eyes.
Parents, it is critical to remember that our children are cute, little, sinners. And our sin, mixed with their sin can make things really hard.We often focus on our children’s behaviors and forget how they are feeling or dismiss the experiences with which they are struggling. We tend to focus on their behaviors because our sinful nature desires to make our lives easier—if our children would just behave more perfectly, then our day would go more smoothly. It is in these moments we as parents must confess our selfishness and ask the Lord to help us see our children and have compassion for them—just as Jesus does for us. In John 4, when Jesus encounters the Samaritan woman, He communicates empathy and love. He sees her and knows her when everyone else judged her for her behavior. Jesus approached her with His heart, let’s do the same for our children. To truly see and understand our children, we must listen to their deeper and unspoken messages.
Understanding our child’s brain is helpful in giving us insight into their emotions and behaviors. The right brain is emotional, nonverbal, and experiential—it focuses on the big picture. The meaning and feel of an experience with images, emotions, and personal encounters in relationships are the focus of the right brain. The right brain cares about the spirit of the law. Young children tend to operate primarily out of the right side of their brain. This explains why there is no logical conversation to be had when your preschooler has an enormous meltdown when she wants her favorite pink bowl but she can’t have it because it’s in the dishwasher. Young children experience intense emotions with loud outbursts because they do not have access to the vocabulary stored in the left side of their brain to explain those emotions.
The left brain, however, loves order. It is logical, linguistic, literal, and linear. The left brain focuses on the letter of the law. Which explains why your school-age child will say, “I didn’t take it, I was just using it.” The Lord created the two sides of our brain to work together. When the right and left brain are integrated, we can achieve more complicated tasks. In The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Proven Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Dr. Tina Payne Bryson and Dr. Daniel Siegel note that when the right and left brain are not integrated, problems arise and we tend to come out of experiences with only one perspective. We may have strong feelings, but no ability to access the logical aspects of the situation. Or we may see a situation with only logic and have no appreciation for our feelings or those of another person. Therefore, it is important that we help integrate our child’s brain. The parent-child relationship is one of the best tools the Lord has given us to help do just that.
Brain integration occurs when we are able to respond to both the right side, the feelings part of the brain, and the left side, the logical and verbal part of the brain. It’s generally not hard for us as parents to speak to the left logical part of our child’s brain. Touching the right, more emotional side of the brain, is more challenging. Reflecting your child’s feelings is one of the most intentional ways you can touch your child’s heart and right brain. Reflecting their feelings allows your child to feel, seen, heard, and understood. Jesus came to this earth to experience being fully human and fully God. He is compassionate toward us because He understands our emotions. Jesus’ constant love and compassion for us is part of what gives us the desire to be obedient to Him. Children who feel more connected, understood, and heard by their parents tend to be more obedient. Even adults tend to work harder for bosses that they have a good relationship with!
A reflection of feeling is much like being a mirror to the person in front of you. Matching tone, emotion, and energy is important. Remember, we are speaking to the right brain here. Reflections of feeling are sentences that use a “feeling” word. They are not questions. They do not judge, give advice, or attempt to convince your child of something. Questions, judgement, and advice communicate that you do not truly see your child or understand their experience. For example:
Your child comes running in to show you the lizard she caught.
Reflection of Feeling: “You are really excited you caught her!”
Not: “Why are you touching that??”
Child: “This puzzle is too hard!”
Reflection of feeling: “You are frustrated.”
Not: “But you are good at puzzles, try this piece here.”
Child: “Ugh I’m sick of eggs, why do we have to eat eggs all the time?”
Reflection of feeling: “You are disappointed about breakfast.”
Not: “You love eggs, we had them last week.”
Child: “I want to go play with Lilly!”
Reflection of feeling: “You’re sad that we can’t have a playdate.”
Not: “Why don’t you play with your sister?”
Child: “I hate John! He just wrecked my Legos!”
Reflection of feeling: “You are really angry at John.”
Not: “John is your best friend. Don’t be mad at him”
It is important to notice that reflections of feeling are just that—you say what your child is feeling.
Reflect feeling first to touch the right side of the brain. This communicates that you hear and see your child. Once you touch the right brain, be quiet and wait for your child to respond. In many cases, your child will give you more information, correct their own behavior, or regulate their own emotions. There are times when reflecting a feeling elicits more emotions from the child, this is good! We want to be in a relationship with our child where they feel safe enough to share all their feelings. It may be hard to hear, but we want to facilitate that expression and create safety in the relationship. And if discipline is necessary, your child will be much more open to making a change, talking through it, and hearing what you have to say when they are first heard and understood. Reflecting feelings first will help integrate their brain. We must think long term with the goal to raise children with a more integrated brain. Humans with more integrated brains are more rational and flexible and can be more empathetic with others.
Reflection of feeling is much more challenging than it seems. I recommend parents practice on each other, then take opportunities to practice on your children. It will take time for your children to hear you and feel heard through reflection of feelings. After reflecting a feeling, be quiet. This is an opportunity for your child to expand on how they are feeling or to absorb what you have said.
Work to see the world through their eyes, it is hard being a kid. There are a lot of unknowns out there and things they just don’t understand. Afterall there are a lot of unknowns for us and things we don’t understand. They look to you for compassion, care, comfort, and love. Just as you look to our Heavenly Father to love and comfort you.
Need more help? Mary Bennett, PhD, LPC-S, RPT-S is a counselor at The Austin Stone Counseling Center. You can email her here.