Mental Health | Focus on the Family Australia
4 Words kids use when coping with emotions
By Danny Huerta
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You can help your children to learn true freedom when coping with emotions and difficult situations by teaching them to think about life using certain words and phrases.

Emotions can flood the healthiest of minds. Children’s minds are not naturally equipped to make logical sense of powerful emotions and difficult situations. Kids are equipped, however, with the ability to adapt and shift their minds. Some of the inattentiveness that naturally occurs in young children can come in handy when dealing with challenging situations. It is interesting to see that when kids feel like they have little control, they tend to use certain words and ask specific questions to try to create order when coping with emotions.

As parents, we can help our children understand the power of these words and how they impact a person’s mindset. We need to guide our kids toward using helpful words during difficult circumstances — words that will shape positive perspectives and give them the tools to overcome life’s challenges and mentally reframe difficult to manage moments.

Let’s look at four different words that kids might use as they try to process the world around them. The way our kids use these words, phrases, and questions in conversation with us will determine how we can shape their thinking in positive ways. The power of words can make a tremendous impact on a child’s mindset and reality.

What If?

“What if” questions tend to arise when a child’s reality is painful or when worries flood their mind. These questions can create a tsunami of worry and catastrophic thinking. They can also direct the mind toward an ideal outcome. The beauty of “what if” questions is that it can help the brain give their life story flexibility. Stories are not fixed and are dynamic. “What if” questions can diffuse negative emotions by seeking explanations.

Consider the following questions:

  • “What if I was better at basketball? Would my dad love me more?”
  • “What if I was thinner or better looking? Would my mum be proud of me?”
  • “What if my mum and dad hadn’t gotten a divorce?”
  • “What if my mum loses her job?”

These questions evoke different scenarios to cope with painful emotions, deal with the past, and conjure a sense of control. These questions try to anticipate the future and play out the ideal scenario. However, asking “what if” questions can stir feelings of anxiety and worry about the future unless you address them quickly as a parent or help your child learn positive ways to use “what if” questions.

Should

The word “should” communicates a specific demand and expectation. It gives an unyielding picture of how events should take place or how life ought to be. Creating statements with the word “should” ignores that we can’t control other people’s actions, thoughts, or decisions. It is a fixed perspective that does not allow flexibility to the story.

These statements of expectation may sound like this:

  • “My dad should spend more time with me!”
  • “Dad’s shouldn’t leave their families!”
  • “My mum should not drink alcohol.”
  • “My mum shouldn’t yell.”

These statements may be accurate, but what does the word “should” do to someone emotionally? Notice that it is demanding and inflexible; it creates expectations. When someone or something doesn’t meet these rigid expectations, children may feel disappointed, frustrated, judgmental, or angry. The power of words so small as “should” can have an enormous impact.

I Wonder

“I wonder” questions reveal a lot about our kids’ worries and insecurities. It can open a window into how they are coping with emotions. In my counselling practice, I’ve heard children ask the following:

  • “I wonder if my parents are going to get a divorce?”
  • “I wonder if my dad loves me.”
  • “I wonder why my parents argue so much.”
  • “I wonder if my dad will have time to play this weekend?”

Help guide your children to ask these questions using the word “could” (explained below) to help them accept a few different outcomes. For example, your child might say, “I wonder if my mum and dad will stay together.” You could turn that question into a “could” statement such as, “My parents could decide to split up, and what I can control is _______.”

In a child’s early development, wonder often starts with questions that explore how things apply in their world or how things work. As children develop further, they may shift toward wondering what others think or how things might go wrong.

God engages our wonder and curiosity. Realising how things can be different within the context of a loving God and His kingdom can bring true freedom to a person’s mind and soul.

“I wonder” expresses not only curiosity but hopes and wishes when things seem out of control. It is essential to help kids openly express these questions and to cope with their emotions and what is influencing the direction of the “I wonder” questions.

Could

“Could” is the most helpful of the words kids use to cope with emotions and circumstances. The power of this word allows for freedom and flexibility. It will enable a child to accept that some things are out of their control while knowing that life will still be okay, even when things don’t go as planned. Using the word could is an excellent way to help bring order to situations that may feel chaotic. “Could” helps refocus the child’s mind toward what he or she can control.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • “My mum and dad could have stayed married, but they chose to get a divorce. I could still try to have a good relationship with both of them, or I could stay angry.”
  • “My dad could have stayed but chose to leave the family. I could forgive him and engage in my own story, or I could stay angry and have difficulty in my relationships.”

“Could” provides opportunities for our children to learn how to offer grace and forgiveness. It allows our children to stop striving for control of things that are not controllable.

A Choice for Freedom

Mums and dads are imperfect, and some leave big wounds and difficult questions behind. Children left in turmoil could be controlled and defined by hurts and insecurities. On the other hand, they could accept what is and choose freedom — freedom to forgive, freedom to love others, freedom to control the controllable things, and freedom to write a life story of redemption and resiliency. The path to freedom is found in the power of these words.

Help your kids to take their “what if,” “I wonder,” and “should” thoughts and conversations and turn them into “could” to reshape the direction of the “what ifs,” “I wonders,” and “shoulds.” Using the power of the word “could” as they make sense of difficult situations will help steer their thoughts toward freedom and healthy ownership.

Human Nature Impacts How We Cope With Emotion

Human nature wants to go straight to the “what if” questions and “should” statements. Those questions will be the first place your children tend to go when trying to cope with emotions and circumstances in their lives.

As humans, we have a hard time with trust. Trust is required to have a mindset of wondering what could happen and leaving the door open for anything to happen. Most people want to be in control of everything that is happening around them. But control can be an illusion. Think about it: How much control do you have in your day-to-day life? And when you fight harder to control things, does it seem all the more elusive?

If we rely on those “what if” and “should” questions, we follow our human nature. Living by what the body wants and thinks it needs becomes constricting and can imprison you. However, if we live with trust that God will direct our paths in the way they should go, and teach our children to live this way, we can find freedom.

Freedom Through God’s Word

In Philippians 4:4-9, Paul writes the words let and request. These words indicate trust and relationship with God. In our wonder, about what things are we curious? Are we curious about what He is doing? Do we envision that God is real and absolutely in control?

The words we covered in the sections above — what if, I wonder, and should — are big words in the context of our mental wrestling match of what we are hoping for in life. What is driving these words? Is there faith, hope, and love? Depending on the purpose of the “what if”, “I wonder,” and “should” words, these words can have a positive direction. For example, if “what if” is driven by optimism, and “I wonder” with reverent optimism, and “should” with loving obedience, then the power of these words are filled with possibilities. However, the word “could” helps the initial process toward the right fuel behind the words. Teach your kids how to manage words in their thoughts as they navigate life.

Biblical Examples

Each of these followers of God understood that they could either follow God or not — and with a cost. They chose relationship with God, which transformed the fuel behind their thoughts and words. Relationship with Christ has the power to transform what drives our thoughts and words.

  • David most likely had to use “what if” words to figure out how to protect his sheep.
  • The magi most likely used “I wonder” words as they followed the star to see Jesus.
  • David, Esther, Daniel, Paul, and others used “should” words out of pure and reverent obedience toward Christ.

In Philippians 4, Paul talks about gratitude being the central component to guarding our minds and finding peace. He goes on to instruct us, “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” Philippians 4:8. If we think about these things, we will see life very differently on our journey toward discovering God’s peace.

Paul’s instruction in Philippians, along with describing the new self Colossians 3 and the armour of God Ephesians 6: 10-20 leads a person toward mental and spiritual freedom by asking the could questions. For instance, we could put on the armour of God to receive spiritual strength and protection. It boils down to this question: Do you want spiritual safety or not? If the answer is “yes,” this is what you could do to attain it. Finding spiritual safety by putting on the armour of God requires action on your part, but it’s not something you have to do. But do the benefits of what you could do outweigh the negatives?

Living in the Spirit

Romans 8:5 talks about living life in the Holy Spirit. You could live by the flesh or could live in the Spirit. We all have the potential of choosing to follow the desires of our mind and body, worrying about the future, and creating expectations of how it should be. That’s our mortal flesh trying to navigate life. Living in the Spirit is a choice to live in the present and discover what you could do according to God’s plan. It’s following God’s leading and guiding on where you should go. Life is full of “what if’s” and “shoulds” if we’re living in the flesh — but God calls us to live by the Spirit. It may not guarantee physical safety, but it ensures spiritual safety in Christ.

We could choose to trust God and see the world through His eyes. He promises that we have access to His Holy Spirit at any time and that He will give us knowledge if we ask for it. Using the power of these words, we need to demonstrate to our children that living life in the Holy Spirit will help them to see the world through a wider lens.

Choosing Relationship

You might say, “I could be a child of God, and this is what could happen.” Imagine that God is driving, and he has invited you to go on a drive with him. Are we sitting in the passenger seat, excited about what could happen on the road trip? Or do we become disappointed and angry when we don’t stop where we expected, not realising there’s something better just down the road? Using the word “could” helps us be open and excited about what life brings and allows us to be flexible with unexpected results.

Help your children learn true freedom through the incredible power of words such as “could.” God desires a relationship with you and your children and wants to give each of you an abundance of blessings. Following His commandments and growing in that relationship with Him will lead them toward freedom.

Conversation Starters

Here are some questions that can spark a conversation between you and your children on the power of words and how they can be used to cope with emotion:

  • Read Colossians 3:12-17. What does the word “change” mean? What are some things that cause you to change? Friends? Pressures? Influences? Scriptures? Parents? Fear? Anger?

  • What are some ways we can use the word “could” well in our home?

  • How can we use “what if”, “I wonder”, “should” in ways driven by faith, hope, and love?

  • What are fuel words we can use more often in our family? What words help motivate you? Make a list of these and put them on your fridge.

© 2020 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. Used with permission. Originally published at focusonthefamily.com.

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