Parenting overwhelmed children: Using God’s story to help navigate big emotions

Written by Melina Smith
Published on April 23, 2021

My daughter Sophia is a perfect firstborn. She is thoughtful, attempts to do the right thing, and keeps it “together” to the outside world. 

People say to me all the time, “She is the best—I wish I was Sophia.” All of the things are true: she is lovely, thoughtful, and so much fun to travel with because she is perfectly curious. 

But just like all humans, she is full of big feelings, too—feelings that are not always in her control.  

Feelings of loneliness and fear

When Sophia was a toddler, she would wake up from her naps followed by uncontrollable tears. My husband and I would joke about not letting Sophia take a nap because she would wake up hysterical, with so many big emotions. 

In those moments, I would hold her tightly until she felt safe again. As she grew, these big feelings followed her. They related to sleep, not feeling safe, and being unsure of what could happen in the night, which all related to her biggest emotion of fear and being out of control.  

My husband and I attempted all sorts of rituals to help her feel safe. No screens before bed, a eucalyptus mister, music, prayer, and reading, but inevitably she would get to the same place: she felt alone and afraid. 

Sophia has sleep anxiety. So, on those nights, I crawl into bed with Sophia, pray with her and wait for her to fall into a deep sleep, then sneak away.  

How our children experience emotions 

You see, the feelings of fear and anxiety can take many shapes. They can look like tantrums, impulsivity, isolation. 

They appear in the most inopportune moments like dinner parties, sleep schedules, church, and vacations. You never know when these feelings will arise.  

To us, our children’s reasons for these reactions may seem small: “My brother got a bigger slice of pizza than me.” “My friend didn’t play with me at recess.” “My project is due tomorrow.” To them, these responses feel enormous. 

Feelings of anger, sadness, jealousy, and disappointment are still new to them. We have the benefit of hindsight and memory to help us weather our emotional storms. 

Our children do not. 

One of my favorite ways to guide my children and the children I work with is through story. While they may not have memory to help them right-size their feelings, other people’s experiences help our children see the universality of their feelings. 

Story is an easy entry point to discuss their reactions and give them a new perspective. 

A story with a lot of big feelings 

The Bible is full of emotions. We only have to look at the story of Joseph to see them all in action: resentment that leads Joseph’s brothers to throw him in a pit and fake his death, betrayal at the hand of Potiphar’s wife, fear as a famine approaches, and relief when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and forgives them. 

Everywhere we look in this story, we see real people with real feelings. As we tell our children the great stories of the Bible, we can use them to talk to our children about their emotions.

They will recognize themselves in Joseph’s brothers (those doing wrong) and in Joseph (those to whom wrong is being done).  But the story of Joseph does not merely teach our children that other people have experienced big feelings or give them perspective on their own lives. 

The story of Joseph reminds us and our children that regardless of our emotions, our plans, our missteps, and our errors, God is with us and always at work. 

The point of the whole story of Joseph is found in his final documented words to his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Genesis 50:20 ESV). 

We serve a God who not only understands our emotions but is at work through them all. We find peace in his providence despite our overwhelming feelings.  

His love and mercy

So, what do we do as imperfect parents? We attempt to meet our kids where they are. 

It may look like stepping away from the party with a hug or crawling into bed with your twelve-year-old to make sure she feels safe and loved. 

You see, Jesus meets each of us in our big feelings, in the most inopportune moments of our lives. Right when we need to keep it all together, he is there alongside us tucking us in, staying beside us until we are assured of his love and mercy. 

Melina Smith is the founder of StoryMakers NYC, clergy wife, and mother of two. Drawing on her background in Social Work and Child Development and her eye for design, she imagined and developed Creative Arts Camp, a week-long outreach program to Gramercy and East Village. Each camp focused on one of the great stories of the Bible with Melina’s trademark commitment to whimsy and beauty. Eventually, with her team of writers, artists and jacks-of-all-trades, Melina transformed Creative Arts Camp into StoryMakers, a series of zines to foster connection and more fun for Sunday school programs and families.

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Melina Smith

Melina Smith is the founder of StoryMakers NYC, clergy wife, and mother of two. Drawing on her background in Social Work and Child Development and her eye for design, she imagined and developed Creative Arts Camp, a week-long outreach program to Gramercy and East Village. Each camp focused on one of the great stories of the Bible with Melina’s trademark commitment to whimsy and beauty. Eventually, with her team of writers, artists and jacks-of-all-trades, Melina transformed Creative Arts Camp into StoryMakers, a series of zines to foster connection and more fun for Sunday school programs and families.

Read more about Melina

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