As most children do, our kids torpedoed their way through the terrible twos and thunderous threes. Some days we thought we might not survive, the tantrums left us so exhausted. Despite confusion and fatigue, our children’s emotional pitfalls kept me on my knees. Many nights when everyone is snoring in their beds, I will drop in the hall and seek the LORD’s protection and intervention. Despite how much I “get right”, I recognize that His involvement will turn my children’s hearts toward Him. The Holy Spirit convicts and changes, not me.
That said, over the last 8+ years, various situations have prompted us to seek outside help (counseling, resources, and natural helps). The more I talk to professionals, the more I realize how vastly complex and intricate God designed our bodies (and I barely understand a fraction).
So, what I’m about to share with you comes from my own personal experiences and some doctor’s and psychiatrist/therapist’s input. I write, not because I have all the answers or because my experiences will mirror yours, because the more we learn, the more we seek and the more we know what questions to ask. That said, I’m not a doctor or a counselor and cannot be a substitute for either, so please seek medical help (as we did, if you child needs it).
Our six-year-old has had numerous digestive issues for years; in addition to the constipation and IBS problems, we noticed him suppress and then explode in an almost uncontrollable way. We’d love him through those episodes and coach him through his feelings, but in the height of those animalistic explosions, he couldn’t verbalize his thoughts. All emotions–fear, frustration, rejection and sadness–came through as anger. Few people outside our home saw these episodes, but my research and techniques weren’t helping him cope. After talking to an experienced child therapist, we purchased the book, The Whole Brain Child, seeking a deeper understanding of how the amygdala and prefrontal cortex work (or in layman’s terms, the upstairs and downstairs brain). When we engage the upstairs brain (cerebral cortex) we are functioning at our higher human level: sound decision making, control over emotions and body, self-understanding, empathy, morality (40).
“The upstairs brain is a like a muscle: when it gets used, it develops, gets stronger, and performs better. And when it gets ignored, it doesn’t develop optimally, losing some of its power and ability to function. That’s what we mean by ‘use it or lose it.'”
- Let your child make decisions. We often make decisions for our kids instead of teaching them how to discern and make wise choices for themselves. Obviously, depending on the child’s age, encourage them to make as many decisions for themselves as they can (especially in the non-essential areas of life).
- Help your child articulate their feelings. My child couldn’t put syntax behind the “why’s” of his emotional eruptions, but he could draw pictures. I could give him a piece of paper and pencil and have him show me how he felt. Drawing pictures will connect your child’s left and right brain more fully than verbal communication can (at times). Doing so gave him something to focus on and a way to gain a better self-awareness. I also purchased one of those little mood magnets. When he shrugs his shoulders or gets edgy, I ask him to show me where he is on this chart and then we go from there:
“The more your kids think about what’s going on within themselves, the more they will develop the ability to understand and respond to what’s going on in the worlds within and around them. The more you give your child’s upstairs brain practice at thinking of others, the more capable he will be of having compassion” (55).
- Tell stories with consequences. One of the first ways children learn is through storytelling. They understand a good plot arc even if they can’t articulate the points/terms. Jesus Himself taught through parables and helped people understand larger concepts by metaphorical illustrations. Children grow in understanding and wisdom when they grasp cause and effect. Every choice in life leads to a consequence: some good, some not.
When understanding our child’s emotional state, we can’t ignore the physical body. Every parent knows that a tired child will be cranky and moody and one loaded up on sugar will ping-pong around the house until the sugar crash comes. Food allergies also play a role in mental health. If our bodies are constantly fighting inflammation and fatigue and working to digest foods they become sluggish and irritable. My son grouches around when he’s dealing with constipation.
After talking to a healthcare professional, we found out that our son was allergic to foods that were taxing his body and leading to digestive issues (wheat, corn, and dairy). We also found out that his body doesn’t product a certain enzyme that helps him assimilate B vitamins, which promotes a healthy nervous system and digestive problems, among many other things (list of benefits). I also have the gene mutation (not an X-man, but sounds cool, huh?) that doesn’t allow me to process B vitamins the way I should. That said, we put our son on a natural source of B vitamins with the extra enzyme and since then, our story has altered greatly. He’s become more calm and even in his temperament. He reacts as a near-seven-year-old would and we have far, far fewer melt-downs.
Here are some other helpful supplements our children need for brain development and growth:
- omega 3 (fish oil)
- vitamin D
- vitamin C
Foods that help your child’s brain grow healthy:
- fish (be sure you get quality fish that’s mercury free)
- walnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds
- spinach, kale, and broccoli
- obviously avoiding sugar and chemical additives helps your child’s emotional stability too
As my mom always encourages me, when you (or your child) is facing turmoil, you combat it from every angle: mind, body, and spirit. So, we regulate diet, exercise, and sleep. We encourage and train, and most importantly, we pray. We pray to the One who sees all and understands all–who created us and knows exactly what we need. And through the highs and lows, we trust Him as we proceed forward–regardless of the outcome.
Resources: The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, Daniel Siegel, M.D. & Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.
Kristin Hanley is the author of Navigating a Sea of Emotions
This book explores scriptural anchoring points, personality influence, and past experiences to give us a new vision of the weighted tension between letting loose with our feelings or cinching up and ignoring them altogether. As human beings, we are created with emotional dimension, and within Christ, we are called to surrender these feelings, using them in a healthy and biblical way.