Use the Psalms to Teach Kids About Feelings

Springwell   -  


In his book The Vanishing American Adult, Ben Sasse makes a case for raising resilient kids. He talks about the value of perseverance, hard work, and learning how to suffer. He attempts to counter the prolonged adolescence he observed in his work as a college president, while providing a path forward for America’s next generation.

Though we likely agree with Sasse that it’s important to help kids develop resilience, this is easier said than done. Aiming for resilience inevitably brings up questions about how to help kids navigate their emotions, and there are two pitfalls we can easily stumble into.

One is to protect children from anything difficult; the other is to discourage children from expressing their feelings. On the one hand, parents don’t want to see their kids hurt by the brokenness of this world, so they protect them from hard things at any cost. On the other hand, parents don’t want their kids ruled by the brokenness inside them, so they inadvertently encourage stuffing emotions.

There’s a more biblically faithful way to raise emotionally resilient kids. We can use the psalms to teach kids how to feel—in both the good times and the bad.

Feelings Are Good

God created us as feeling beings. We feel joy. We feel pain. We feel grief. We feel excitement. All these feelings tell us something about the world we experience. Sometimes our feelings direct us to do something—like when we feel scared by a big dog and move away from it. Sometimes our feelings reveal our desires—like when we feel love for family and friends. Sometimes our feelings remind us of our limitations—like when we feel anxious or overwhelmed. We can help children acknowledge the goodness of their feelings by pointing them to the God who created them to feel.

When a child says, “I feel sad,” rather than immediately trying to cheer him up, point him to the psalms, where other Christians felt sad but found God lending a faithful ear in their sadness. The psalms are often parallel to narrative events in the Old Testament, giving us a window into the souls of biblical characters.

We see David dealing with betrayal (Ps. 55), Moses reminding us of the brevity of life (Ps. 90), and Heman the Ezrahite walking through doubt and disillusionment (Ps. 88). The psalms are the Old Testament believers expressing and praying their struggles, feelings, trials, and doubts back to God.

In a variety of situations, parents can take children to the psalms as a model for how to process their feelings before the Lord.

Feelings Aren’t a License to Sin

Parents can take children to the psalms as a model for how to process their feelings before the Lord.

We shouldn’t ignore feelings, but we shouldn’t necessarily indulge them. Sometimes our feelings are an indicator of our sin. For example, a child might feel jealous over a friend’s new toy or sports success. Don’t pretend the feeling doesn’t exist; acknowledge it and show the child how it can lead to sin in our lives (covetousness). Feeling jealous shouldn’t be regarded the same as feeling sad or happy.

Psalm 4:4 says, “Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent.” The psalmist isn’t commanding us to not feel angry; he’s commanding us to not sin in our anger. There’s a way to be angry without giving license to sin—to feel without sinning. The psalmist assumes our feelings aren’t an excuse to sin. When your children have outsize feelings, whether anger or otherwise, teach them to ask if their feelings are leading them to sin, and if so, to repent and find forgiveness. Psalm 51 provides a model for repentance.

Feelings Can Be Shared

While Psalm 4:4 tells us to ponder anger in our hearts and be silent, other psalms talk about pouring out our hearts to the Lord. The majority of psalms are cries for help in distress. Often psalms are prayers to God, but many are directed to the corporate gathering. The assumption is that God’s people would cry out together, pouring out their feelings about their suffering as a congregation.

It’s not always wise to give full vent to our feelings when we’re frustrated, but the impulse to talk about how we feel with others is a biblical one, even if we exercise restraint in whom we tell. As we talk to children about their feelings, it’s important they know that we want to hear how they feel and that they can also share their feelings with trusted friends. Christians should feel free to discuss feelings and to bring them before the Lord together.

Feelings Can’t Always Be Trusted

In Psalm 73, the psalmist looks at the prosperity of the wicked and is tempted to doubt God’s goodness and care. He’s tempted to give himself over to envy and covetousness. And it’s a strong feeling (v. 22). He nearly slips (v. 2), meaning he nearly loses his footing in walking faithfully. But we see that when he takes his feelings to the Lord, his heart and perspective are changed.

When your children are tempted to trust their feelings, take them to psalms like Psalm 73. Teach them to deny the idea that they’ll elude the effects of this broken world but also to counter the notion their feelings are the driving impulse in their lives. We often hear people talk about “their truth” or say things like “I can’t help it, that’s just how I feel.” We want to honor people’s feelings, but we need to remember the heart is deceitful (Jer. 17:9–10). If we trust in feelings, we’ll eventually be led astray because our feelings will lie to us.

Teach children that feelings aren’t the standard of truth—God is. Even our feelings submit to him and to his will. There will be times when our feelings betray us. To know if our feelings are lying to us, we put them up against Scripture. If they betray God’s Word, they’re betraying us.

Show Kids a Better Way

In moments of heightened emotion, feelings can seem like the only real thing to our children. So we can’t lead with the idea that feelings aren’t trustworthy. We want to get kids to the point where they can acknowledge both the goodness of being created as a feeling being and the reality of being a broken feeling being.

To know if our feelings are lying to us, we put them up against Scripture. If they betray God’s Word, they’re betraying us. 

After we’ve talked through our feelings, acknowledged their place in our lives, and fought the urge to sin, then we can look with our kids at their hearts to discern the validity of their feelings.

Our culture seems to offer two options for feelings—trust your feelings always or deny your feelings completely. Neither of these will lead to truly resilient kids. Instead, help children acknowledge the difficulty of this world and find healthy ways to express feelings. Using the psalms as your guide, show kids a better way to engage emotions—one that’s guided by the God who created us as feeling beings and gave us an entire book of the Bible to teach us to feel rightly.