Raising Responders vs. Reactors: How to Navigate Emotions

Posted by | October 01, 2018 | Blog | No Comments

By Amanda Jackson, KPA Mom

What could be more common to the human experience than our daily interactions with our emotions and the emotions of those around us? Not one of us will escape this life without navigating them in some form or fashion. Thankfully, we can choose to do so with intentionality and care and thereby walk in a peace that passes understanding. As we entered the pre-teen/teen years in our home, this subject was constantly on my mind. To be honest, it wasn’t until I started looking at the emotions of my children that I really started learning about my own and about the necessity to engage them purposefully.

The fact is, emotions can serve us well. We need them! God gave us our emotions to benefit us in this human experience. What will happen if we are not intentional, however, is that we will unwittingly become a slave to them. We will find ourselves riding the roller coaster of reacting all day long with an inevitable mess left behind when we go to bed. What we must learn, and what we must teach our children, is how to let our emotions serve US instead of us serving them.

What even are emotions? How can we categorize the most common emotions that the average person feels on a day to day basis? The list I liked best summed them up as such: love, joy, surprise, anger, sadness, and fear. There are sub-categories that I believe are also worth mentioning based on the frequency with which we tend to experience them. Those would be envy (sub of anger), shame and disappointment (sub of sadness), and anxiety (sub of fear). While certainly not an exhaustive list, I believe these are a fair summation of what we most commonly experience. It’s helpful to define these different emotions for ourselves and notice how we experience them and what tends to trigger them in us and then to teach our children to do the same. I believe it to be crucial to understand them properly and from there know how to engage them. Emotions ARE necessary. They can provide us with warning in a dangerous situation. They can be indicators to us of areas we need to address in our lives and of relationships that need attention. They are NOT, however, always reliable, justifiable, or, to put it bluntly, trustworthy. It’s worth repeating (especially to our kids): OUR EMOTIONS ARE NOT ALWAYS TRUSTWORTHY. How many times have we seen this played out? I for one experience this almost daily. And even when they are not necessarily untrue or even un-justified, they can be unhelpful in the moment we experience them. We have to hold our emotions with care. We have to learn to discern when to listen to them, and when to lay them at the foot of the cross.

So, how on earth do we apply this knowledge? What do you tell your teenage daughter caught in the throes of envy or fear or shame? You tell her to become a responder and not a reactor. We have the choice, all day every day, to either react to the emotions as we experience them or respond to them. These are two very different approaches with vastly different outcomes depending on the scenario. A reactor is one who applies no filter, gives no pause, and rushes headfirst into however they are feeling in the moment. In anger this looks like lashing out verbally at the person who ignited you. In sadness this can look like sitting in your misery, eating a whole tub of ice cream. You catch my drift? Being a slave to our feelings is a miserable way to live. Even euphoric feelings of happiness, when reacted to, can lead to hasty decisions and inevitable regret later on. A responder, on the other hand, is one who patiently evaluates what they are feeling. They take the extra beat to run their emotions through a bit of a filter to see how reliable they are or are not in that moment. Is my anger justified? Is my fear truly warning me of harm? Is my anxiety just my imagination running amuck? Responding takes practice but I have found it to be a truly beautiful and sanctifying exercise in weeding out what is enslaving me from what is serving me.

Practically speaking, the way to become a responder is to bring our feelings to the feet of Jesus and allow Him to tell us the truth about them. 2 Corinthians 10:5 says we are to take our thoughts captive to obey Christ. I’d like to suggest that we can take our emotions captive as well as our thoughts (they are arguably intertwined anyway). Would it be fair to say that we all have a basic emotion that we kind of default to in times of stress or unrest? Mine is without a doubt fear. Fear comes at me mostly in the specific form of anxiety and it rears its ugly head in the most absurd situations. I can experience fear over just about anything. It’s my default. What I have learned over time is that I can engage the fear head on and know if it’s trustworthy or a lie. (It’s almost never trustworthy, by the way.) When I feel it coming on I have learned to pray about it and ask the Lord what needs to be dealt with in it. Is there a root that we need to deal with? Is there any actionable response I can make to alleviate it? Nine times out of ten I feel like He just wants me to give it to Him. Name it and move on. Does the fear immediately resolve? Sometimes. Other times it might still linger but the way forward is usually made clear to me and I will feel equipped to push past the fear and engage the situation in a thoughtful, RESPONSIVE way. I also experience days of just feeling blue. I find it extremely helpful to pray about that feeling and, again, ask if there is anything I need to confront in it. Is there an obvious situation I need to pray through? Or is it just kind of there, needing to be named and prayed over. There have been numerous times when just acknowledging a feeling of sadness before the Lord alleviates it. Oh the power of bringing things into the Light. There is no more powerful or effective action in responding well to our emotions than that of bringing the power of the cross over them and allowing the Lord to do His work in them.

At the end of the day, what we want for ourselves and for our kids is to practice the discipline of engaging emotions. Not only for the benefit of ourselves, but ultimately for the benefit of our relationships. What Light and Life we can bring to our community by not being reactors but rather prayerful responders! We will also experience the benefit of a steady, constant interaction with the Lord. We will be transformed by His power and His love. We will be compelled to choose joy as our prevailing emotion. Psalm 27:6 speaks of offering a sacrifice of joy. I love that. It paints a picture of choosing joy maybe when we don’t feel it. One thing I’ve learned, however, is that the feeling often follows the action. The bottom line is that we do have opportunities every day to journey with the Lord as the waves of our emotions try to toss us about. He is our steady anchor and ever-present help. We need only ask.

*A kind disclaimer: I am writing about the run-of-the-mill day where we encounter any number of emotions based on any number of circumstances. I am NOT writing about lingering depression or anxiety that may require more help than what has been mentioned here. I am an advocate for seeking help when needed and have personally benefitted from doing so in the past.


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