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Building Emotional Security in Your Children

By Barbara Rainey

First posted on

I grew up in a family that was secure and stable, and I knew I was loved. I never feared my parents would divorce or leave us. They cared for us, provided for us, and taught us many valuable lessons about life.

But what my head knew was true I did not always feel. My parents both grew up in families that experienced significant losses—the death of a child, the relentless hurtful attitude and comments of a mean father-in-law, the dissolution of a marriage, and difficult life struggles during the Depression and World War II. As I looked back, it’s remarkable that my parents raised me and my brothers as well as they did.

I remember I often felt insecure about myself by the time I was nearing my teen years. I also remember working hard to please my parents. I wanted to make sure my dad had no reason to be angry with me. I became stoic and subdued, never getting angry, but not expressing much happiness, either.

I did not laugh often, and I rarely cried. All those emotions were a part of me but were hidden deep within as I sought to please others. As a teenager, I didn’t know who I was or how I fit in. I became increasingly shy, timid, reserved, and self-protective.

As a 19-year-old college student, I understood the gospel for the first time, and my sense of self and purpose changed dramatically. As I grew in my faith, I learned more about the importance of emotional identity. We are made in God’s image, which means we are created with emotions, intelligence, gifts and talents, and a spirit like His. Our identity is a composite of these facets of our personhood.

The emotions of our hearts are a reflection of God Himself.

In the Bible we see God in three persons express Himself in all the ways we do.

·      He creates (“Let us create …” Genesis 1:26).

·      He gives (“… for God so loved the world that He gave …” John 3:16).

·      He loves (“God is love …” 1 John 4:8).

·      He grieves (Jesus “grieved at their hardness of heart …” Mark 3:5).

·      He hurts (“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief …” Isaiah 53:3).

·      He longs (“Jesus said, ‘How I longed to gather you together …’” Matthew 23:37).

·      He angers (“I was angry with my people …” Isaiah 47:6).

·      He delights (“… the Lord took delight in doing you good and multiplying you …” Deuteronomy 28:63).

·      He names (“To the one who conquers … I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone …” Revelation 2:17).

·      He laughs (“He who sits in heaven laughs …” Psalm 2:4).

Our identity as humans, who are made in His image, is supposed to come from God our Creator. A child’s identity, his created uniqueness that sets him apart from every other human, will only be as strong as His understanding of who he is in light of who God is.

Therefore, how a child feels about herself—loved or unloved, competent or incompetent, empowered or shamed—will either support or inhibit all natural giftedness, talent, and intelligence. Emotional health also strongly supports the development of your child’s character and relationships.

And here’s the other important lesson I learned about emotional development: For children to feel secure and safe, for teens to develop a confident sense of identity, for your children to become emotionally healthy adults, they must know they are loved and cared for by those who have the power to do them good. In the formative years, this responsibility is initiated and nurtured by parents. Children must learn love at home from mom and dad. 

From the seconds immediately following birth, children either respond in security to the warm welcome embrace, kisses, and love they are given by their parents or they respond in bewilderment and fear, building early defense mechanisms to protect from a lack of parental love and presence. Attachment to mom and dad are identity-shaping experiences.

But this nurturing doesn’t end when your little ones grow out of diapers. It is your responsibility to nourish the emotional development of your children, which in turn shapes their identity throughout their toddler, elementary, and teenage years. 

I knew this by the time I entered the parenting process with my own children. So I worked hard to foster closeness and openness: snuggling on the couch reading books, encouraging their expressions of emotion, welcoming creativity in spite of the messes. But as our children got older, I saw that I was often reacting or retreating out of fear because I didn’t know how to nurture emotional health in teenagers.

I recognized how it was easy for me to kiss the little ones, to stroke their faces, and cuddle them. But it was much harder for me to do that with my now 13-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son.

Our oldest, Ashley, noticed and made little snide comments about how I was spoiling the younger ones, giving them too much attention. I remember thinking at first, “It’s okay that I am not as close to the older ones. That’s just who I am. And besides Dennis is very good with our teens.” I figured I could concentrate on the younger kids, he could concentrate on the older ones, and everything would just be fine.

Eventually, I understood our daughter’s criticisms were her way of letting me know that she was not getting from me the affection and nurturing she still desired and needed. I made a commitment to myself and to the Lord that I would begin to express more affection and more emotional closeness as best as I could with my teenagers. I remember intentionally going into Ashley’s room to hug her really tight, even though it felt awkward to me because I had not received similar affection when I was a teenager.

I also realized that by meeting her needs emotionally at home, I was helping to protect her from getting her emotional and security needs met from others, especially boys. It was like a light went on and I understood that if she didn’t receive love and security from both her parents, she would have a vacuum in her heart that she would fill in unhealthy ways.

Moms and Dads, you need to ask yourself, “Do my children feel love from me or do they just know that I love them?” There is a big difference. Your children need to feel loved; both sons and daughters need to feel cared for in a real emotional, intimate way that only comes from appropriate affection and physical closeness from parents.

Speak to yourself. Tell yourself today at age 35 or 40 or 45 to step up and move into the emotional space of your children, even if it is uncomfortable. If you didn’t experience this as you grew up, tell your kids. They will welcome your admission with grace and a willingness to figure it out together.

Our goal as parents is to teach our children to feel and name their emotions, to help them learn to identify what is driving them, shaping their decisions and reactions. Then we teach, instruct, and train them to express those emotions in healthy non-offensive, non-hurtful ways.

We’ve all seen the tragic, destructive actions of neglected, unloved teens who tried to shape an identity and a purpose by aligning with violent groups online. Feeling loved unconditionally tells a teenager his unique personality and gifts, his identity, are good.

Be alert as parents

When I was 40, I had corrective heart surgery. A couple days before I went to the hospital we asked our two youngest to clean up their room. As we came back later to then put them to bed, we noticed that seven-year-old Deborah had stuffed everything under her bed, which wasn’t the way she usually cleaned up her things.

The Spirit of God prompted one of us to ask her how she was feeling. She said, “I’m scared.” We asked, “What are you scared about?”

She said, “Well, I am sad.”

“What are you sad about?”

Then she began to cry and she said, “I’m afraid Mommy is going to die.”

Because we wanted to guard their fears, we hadn’t talked about the severity of the surgery with our children. But Deborah perceived the uncertainty of the circumstances and became afraid. Her way of dealing with that emotion, stuffing everything under her bed, is a picture of what we do with our feelings. All children need training and practice finding, naming, and properly expressing their emotions.

With some children you will need to work extra hard to help them identify feelings. Several of our firstborn grandchildren are naturally reserved, intelligent, follow-the-rules kids who value factual thinking. Ashley, mother of our oldest grandson Samuel, decided he needed to learn to recognize and name his emotions.

She announced to him and his brother James, a natural feeler, that she was going to start asking them every day after school to describe one positive and one negative or unpleasant emotion from their day. Samuel said he didn’t want to. It sounded hard, he stated. James enthusiastically said, “Oh this is going to be easy. I got this!” What a dramatic difference in our emotional makeup as people!

The exercise only lasted a few weeks, but even in that short time frame, Samuel learned to look within and describe his daily experiences at school by how he felt. Identifying positive basic emotions like happy or enjoyable proved to be reasonably easy after a while. One day he also tried to summarize his day as normal, but Ashley told him “normal” wasn’t an emotion and to try again!

It's a challenge to help children learn healthy ways to express their emotions.  One night we had a family discussion after dinner to talk about anger. With eight broken, sinful people living in a four-bedroom house, we saw lots of anger in all its various forms! So we asked the kids, “What do you feel like when you are angry?” They answered, and we wrote their answers on a poster board:

·      I feel like screaming.

·      Like out of control

·      Like hurting someone; mad; hitting something

·      Exasperated

·      Verbal vomit

·      Like tearing up things

Then we asked, “What are the kind of things that make you angry as a child or a teen?”

·      When you feel left out or excluded by a family member

·      When you get hurt

·      When people make fun of you

·      When people cheat

·      When people are being a pest or picking on you

·      When you are disciplined

·      When people use my stuff without asking

·      When people don’t give us what we want

·      When people don’t pay attention to what we are saying

Then we said, “Want to know what makes us angry as parents?” I don’t think they actually cared, but we told them:

·      When children disobey

·      When children ignore what they are being asked to do

·      When we are misunderstood by each other and other people

·      When we are hurt

Our anger problems were not solved that night. That wasn’t the goal. Instead, we hoped to simply help our children understand that the feeling of anger is a normal emotional response. The problem is how we often express anger—that’s what usually turns it into a negative, sinful situation.

We spent hundreds of hours correcting our children’s inappropriate, hurtful ways of expressing their anger, hurt, disappointment, and fear. Thousands of times we said things like, “You may not hit your brother when you are angry at him.” ... “You may not scream at your sister.” ... “You may not break something when you feel overlooked.”

Human emotional expressions are never totally pure, righteous, or good the way that God’s are. Our brokenness and depravity compromise our every intention. It is why we so desperately need the power of God’s Spirit within us to make our marriages work and to raise our children in a healthy way.

Remind your children as often as necessary to express respect for others, including their siblings, for we are all made in God’s image. We all have dignity before Him. Respecting one another’s dignity is crucial in building a stable identity that says, “The way God made me is good.”

Children want and need feedback from their parents, especially as they get older. You are their measuring line. You are their report card. You are their most important cheerleaders who must celebrate every good decision, rejoice with all right attitudes and reinforce all the good they choose to embrace.

Listen to their hearts, their emotions. Children want to be heard and understood, not lectured. Make your home a safe place for self-expression, for processing the hardships of life, for learning emotional boundaries. And daily reaffirm your love and acceptance of each child, even when they make mistakes. Model God’s unconditional, grace-filled love in your home.


Take at least 30 minutes with your spouse to talk about how you can improve intentional relationship building with each of your kids. Start by reviewing your families of origin and how emotions were handled or not handled in your childhood. Talk about how that impacts your parenting today with your children. Then talk about changes you want to make overall or with each child.

Then plan a time with your children. Describe your day to the family using one positive emotion and one negative emotion to tell how you felt about something good and something that was hard. Start practicing what you want to pass on. You might focus on this for a week or a month like our daughter did with her sons.

If your children are upper elementary to late teens try getting them more involved like we did with our kids when we discussed how anger feels.

·      Have your family brainstorm healthy and unhealthy ways to express the emotions they name. And write them down in two columns on a poster board which makes each persons’ contribution feel important and easy to see and remember.

·      Do the same with other emotions like anger or gratitude (the feeling of being appreciated). Ask them to share how anger feels or how being appreciated feels and again write it all down for emphasis.

·      At another family time ask everyone, “Is it easy or difficult to use our emotions wisely and honorably? The answer should be, “It’s hard.” Then ask, “Why?” Truthfully it is impossible for any human to use them as God intended. Then talk about how we need God and the power of His Spirit to help us do what we cannot do on our own.

These are great opportunities. These times with your kids will not magically make them all perfect kids, but they will guide them into understanding their emotions more than the did without your help. And the conversation gives all of you language to use in your everyday interactions.

This is a huge topic where we all need a lot of help. If you have read to this point you deserve a hearty congratulations! I wish I had known half of this a lot earlier in my parenting journey. I pray it helps at least one of you equip your children toward healthy emotional well-being.

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