Recent months have brought a whirlwind of emotions. Sadness. Fear. Disappointment. Loneliness. They’ve crashed over us like waves pounding against the shore. The challenges and struggles of life in a pandemic continue to leave us reeling. The losses we’ve endured, the hardships we continue to bear, and the uncertainties that lie ahead have left many of us overwhelmed.
If this is true for us as adults, how much more is it true for our children?
Hard Emotions of Life
Our children have big emotions. Like us, they experience sadness and fear, loneliness and grief. They need to be equipped to navigate their feelings. They need to be discipled to respond to their feelings in a biblical way.
Our children need to be discipled to respond to their feelings in a biblical way.
But as parents, we often have a hard enough time dealing with our emotions. We can be uncomfortable even talking about feelings, much less helping our children navigate theirs. We can also default to unhealthy practices learned in our childhood: avoiding emotions, suppressing emotions, or soothing emotions with food or other temporary comforts.
Teach Your Children to Lament
The Bible talks about emotions throughout its pages. The Psalms, which John Calvin described as “an anatomy of all the parts of the soul,” contain especially vivid portrayals of human emotions. There God’s people face the same emotions we all feel. The psalmists’ prose gives voice to the sorrows, fears, and cares we all experience.
Even more, these poets show us that God wants to know our hearts. He wants us to bring our painful emotions to him in lament.
The psalms of lament stand out from the other songs because they are dark in tone—more like a sad country dirge than a jubilant praise song. They’re honest and transparent about the hardness of life. The psalmist uses vivid metaphors to describe how he feels.
These psalms typically follow a threefold structure: tell God how you feel; ask for help; respond in trust and hope. We can use this pattern to help our children learn to lament to God all that they are feeling.
1. Tell God How You Feel
When children come to us weighed down by a big emotion, we can help them learn to express those feelings. We can ask questions to learn how they feel—and then give them the words to describe their feelings.
Does your belly feel funny? Is your heart pounding? It seems like you’re afraid of the storm outside. Let’s tell God that you feel scared.
I see you’ve been crying. Are you feeling sad? Do you miss your best friend who moved away? Let’s tell God that you feel lonely.
The more we help our children pray when they are feeling hard things, the more it becomes their spiritual habit.
We can tell them the story of David and how he too experienced big emotions and brought them to the Lord in prayer (Pss. 13; 27; 42). The more we help our children pray when they are feeling hard things, the more it becomes their spiritual habit, one they turn to as they mature.
2. Ask for Help
The psalmist not only tells God how he feels—he also asks the Lord to intervene and help. Whether he’s feeling deep sorrow and grief, or is frightened of his enemies or angry at injustice, the psalmist begs God to rescue and deliver him: “Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud; be gracious to me and answer me” (Ps. 27:7).
Our children need to learn to pray and ask the Lord to help. If they’re afraid of a thunderstorm, they can ask God to protect them. If they’re worried about tomorrow’s spelling test, they can ask God to help them remember what they’ve learned. If they feel sadness about a loss, they can ask God to comfort them.
When we disciple our children to call out to God, they learn that he is their refuge and place of safety.
3. Respond in Trust and Hope
Nearly all the psalms of lament end in a response of trust, hope, and praise. As the psalmist voices his painful emotions, as he cries out for help and deliverance, he reminds his heart of who God is and what he has done: “But I have trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, because he has dealt bountifully with me” (Ps. 13:5–6).
Most often, the psalmist’s circumstances have not changed. He’s still being pursued by his enemies; he still feels sorrow for life’s losses. But the lament has reminded him that God is near. And so he responds with worship and trust.
As we pray with our children through their emotions, we can help them remember God’s character and ways. We can help them to give thanks to the Lord for who he is and what he has done. We can remind them of ways the Lord has cared for them in the past. We can help them respond to the Lord with trust.
Painful emotions are hard for all of us to navigate. Let’s deliberately disciple our children through their difficult emotions, pointing them to the God who cares how they feel.