Orthodoxy Today
Smart Parenting III. Developing Emotional Control

The article Smart Parenting II went over the behavioral management techniques that bring about appropriate behavior in children. The main point was that in order for children to acquire Christian virtues, their parents must first model those virtues in their own behavior. This relationship was first discussed in Smart Parenting I.

This essay expands the theme by examining emotional control. Modeling appropriate Christian behavior and the ability to use behavioral management techniques involves the ability to exercise emotional control.

When parents lose control of their emotions, a child is affected in various ways. The child learns that emotional outbursts (screaming, temper tantrums, etc.) are appropriate behaviors. Further, the parent tends towards negative rather than positive punishments and other ineffective behavior techniques. As mentioned in Smart Parenting II, parental responses -- whether rewarding (e.g. attending to the child) or punishing (e.g. yelling at the child in an angry tone) -- also leads the child to focus on the anger of the parent rather than their own behavior thus cutting off the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

Intelligence, the Church Fathers point out, is one of the chief characteristics that illustrate the biblical teaching that man is created in the image and likeness of God. It is a parent's duty to use their intelligence in raising children (Morelli, 2004). The area of the brain that contains the intelligence faculty is the same area that triggers anger, anxiety and depression. When the intelligence part of the brain is not thinking clearly, the resulting irrational beliefs, attitudes and cognitions activate the dysfunctional emotion (Ellis, 1962; Beck, 1995; Burns, 1989; Morelli, 2004).

Situations (an event that has happened or something that someone has said or done) do not produce or cause emotional upset. Rather, emotional upset occurs by irrational interpretations of specific situations.

English syntax can lead us to conclude our emotions caused the upset. We say, "you made me angry" or "you upset me when you said that". But this is scientifically wrong. We hear it so often however, that we tend to believe it.

A simple example illustrates how language subsumes the scientific understanding into an emotional one. We say the sun "rises" or "sets." These words are technically incorrect since the sun is stationary and the earth rotates around it. In everyday life this fact is not very important. However, to an astronomer or astronaut, the scientifically correct understanding is crucial. No practical application, such as getting a rocket to the moon, could be accomplished without it.

Parents must be like a scientist and develop a correct understanding of what provokes their emotions (Kelly, 1955). If they don't, the parents will be significantly less effective in raising their children than they could be. It goes without saying that for Christian parents this scientific understanding must be predicated on authentic communion with Christ and the expression of genuine Christian love for their children.

There are eight cognitive distortions that trigger parents to lose control of their emotions:

  • Selective abstraction is focusing on one event while excluding others. An example would be a parent that selectively focuses on a bad grade their child just received on their report card, while ignoring good grades in other subjects. This irrational perception might lead to anger or depression. Such a parent might lash out at the child instead of praising the child for the good grades the child received and coming up with a solution to improve the bad grade.

  • Arbitrary inference is drawing a conclusion unwarranted by the facts in an ambiguous situation. A parent, in a situation similar to the one described above, might conclude the child's next grade report would continue to be unsatisfactory. This would lead to further anger and depression.

  • Personalization is attributing an event that occurs in personal and subjective terms. For example, a father may become angry or depressed thinking that her child is deliberately getting bad grades to "get back at him." A typical statement that reveals personalization is taking place is, "why are you doing this to me?" The parent immediately personalizes the statement with no evidence that the child was deliberately trying to do this to him.

  • Polarization is perceiving or interpreting events in all or nothing terms. A parent may become depressed after the child receives a B rather than A on the child's report card and feel that the child is a poor student. This parent polarizes events into two categories, in this case good student vs. bad student, and fails to see that all events can be graded on a continuum that extends beyond the two poles. On such a scale a B grade is closer to an A than to an F, for example.

  • Generalization is the tendency to see things in always or never categories. A parent becomes depressed when viewing their child's bad behavior. The parent irrationally concludes that the child will "never change and will always" be the same. The dysphoria may lead to a self defeating pattern of behavior which further distances the parent and her child thereby setting herself up for the very thing she did not want: a badly behaving child.

  • Demanding expectations are beliefs that there are laws or rules that have to be obeyed. For example, a parent may be depressed because his child talked back to him. They may (irrationally) believe that a universal law disallows the back talk and, once broken, allows the parent to become upset. The parent forgets that obedience cannot be coerced. Even God asks, rather than compels, us to obey Him; a contingency that exists because mankind is created free (another characteristic of man being created in the image and likeness of God, Morelli, 2004).

    One psychologist has labeled demanding expectations as the "tyranny of the shoulds" (Ellis, 1962). Christ respected the free will of man as shown by the gentleness of His admonitions. Like Christ, parents should prefer reasonable obedience from their children and constructively work towards it. A program of reward for appropriate behavior and punishment for inappropriate behavior discussed in Smart Parenting II administered without anger, anxiety or depression is essential. Depressed and angry parents cannot offer any creativity toward helping their children.

  • Catastrophizing is the perception that something is more than one hundred percent bad, terrible or awful. Citing the example above, a parent who reacts to her son's talking back as if it's the end of the world falls into catastrophic thinking. The response is usually an out of control anger.

  • Emotional reasoning is the judgment that feelings are facts. A parent may feel that her child does not like her. When she is asked how she knows this the response is usually that "my feelings are always right." She confuses the reality of her feelings with the tools needed to objectively prove a fact (which feelings are incapable of doing). An effective response that clarifies the distinction to a person bound to emotional reasoning is, "No matter how strongly some people felt at the world was flat, the world was really round. Feeling that something is true does not mean that it is true.

Once parents recognize their thinking is distorted (distorted cognitions) regarding their children, they have to change or restructure the irrational thinking. Three questions can be posed to help them change their thinking:

  1. Where is the evidence?
  2. Is there any other way of looking at it?
  3. Is it as bad as it seems?

Take for example the parent who concludes (arbitrary inference) that after a bad grade his child's performance will never improve (generalization). Answering the three questions might help the parents come up with a more rational approach and be less angry or depressed.

For example, the parent might reason:

True my child did get a poor grade, but with the teacher's help and specific tutoring my child could improve and raise his grade. Another way of looking at it is I do not even know why the poor grade was earned. If I talk to the teacher and find out more, maybe we can find a solution to the problem. It is not as bad as it seemed a moment ago. I see I can do something about it.

Following this change in thinking (called: cognitive restructuring process), parents begin to feel less angry, anxious, and depressed. They become more behaviorally pro-active in dealing with their child's problem.

In a sense parents are debriefing their thinking errors. They learn to understand what brought on their irrational thinking and develop a plan to think and function more effectively in the future. Effective behavior problem solving interacts with ongoing cognitive restructuring and leads to more effective parenting. This cognitive restructuring technique and problem solving plan works with all the distortions listed above.

Special cognitive considerations are advised when demanding expectations and catastrophizing behavior is evident. As indicated above, parents with demanding expectations frequently try to impose (sometimes forcibly) a personal set of rules on their children. Laws of nature like gravity are inviolate. God made the universe to function by these laws. Social laws and norms however, are of a different type. They implicitly recognize a person's capacity for freedom, particularly his volition in determining whether or not to obey them. Man cannot violate the natural laws like gravity, but he is free to disobey God's commandments as well as social norms, laws, and family rules.

Of course neither God nor Godly parents want these social rules to be disobeyed. In fact the modeling and behavioral management techniques discussed the Smart Parenting I and Smart Parenting II are intended to help parents teach their children to obey God's commandments and the reasonable family rules set by parents.

The recognition that obedience to the commandments of God as well as the reasonable norms of society cannot be coerced is not meant to diminish a person's responsibility toward them. Understanding that the expectation of obedience functions as a preference rather than a demand however, avoids the emotional overreactions triggered by demanding expectations and catastrophizing.

Preferences trigger "cool" emotions. When the rich young ruler did not follow our Lord's counsel, the Gospels do not report that Jesus displayed a "hot" emotion. If anything, the emotion of Jesus could be described as disappointed but "cool" (Matthew 19: 16-30). If this were a parenting situation, it would be an opportunity to use the previously discussed behavioral management tools.

The "Mental Ruler Technique" is a special cognitive technique has been shown to be effective with catastrophizing (Burns 1979, Morelli, 2004). (When actual trauma situations in a family occur frequently the priest or a mental health clinician will be involved; a situation addressed below.) The technique involves evaluating family situations on a zero to 100 scale, with zero being the most pleasant thing a parent could imagine happening to him. Parents sledom have trouble imaging a very pleasant event (zero). Sitting on a sun drenched tropical beach is a typical image. They often need help however, imaging a worst event scenario (100) in graphic terms.

In pastoral and clinical counseling I use of the example of the particularly horrifying death of a medical missionary in South East Asia several years ago to help parents create their 'Mental-Ruler.' After starvation failed to kill the physician quickly, his captors placed chopsticks in his ears and hammered them in a little each day, until the chopsticks penetrated his brain, resulting in an agonizing death.

Parents will frequently say the untimely death of their child is the most awful thing on earth. The word "death" is an abstract sanitized term. During such an event however, the priest or clinician should take care not to inadvertently endorse a catastrophic mental ruler appraisal. The loss of a child is a bad thing. Appropriate sorrow and grief is a natural and normal human reaction. Unless the type of death the child suffered reaches the 100 point on the "Mental Ruler Scale" however, it is less than the most terrible thing that could happen to a person.

In the case of the death of a child the parish priest or clinician would usually be available to the family during this time. It is important to let the grieving process occur and allow the parents and loved ones to express their deep feelings. Pastoral or clinical intervention during this time would be highly inappropriate. Simply being in the presence of the grieving parents and family with compassionate love, support, and prayer, would be an appropriate application of Christ's healing ministry.

A priest or clinician may unintentionally say something like, "Oh! isn't it awful," or "Oh! How unbelievably terrible," thereby adding to the hurt of the grieving parent. An more appropriate response would be "I am sorry for your loss, may God have mercy on us, may your child be numbered among His loved ones," to avoid affirming and contributing to the catastrophizing the parents display.

Further, catastrophic evaluations frequently broadcast a lack of commitment to Christ. As true followers of Christ, Christian parents must understanding that God who freely gives life also calls us all back to Him. No one has the right to even a single breath not to mention a set number of years of life.

All events, even tragic ones, have some meaning. God can make all things new - even out of the worst tragedies (Revelation 21:5). We have to trust in God and his purposes. It falls to the priest and Christian clinician to use spiritual as well as psychological means to aid parents who are struggling with the meaning of the death of their child. Except for prayer, these means are employed later in the grieving process.

For parents who are trying to master emotion management, prayer, selected spiritual reading, and the holy mysteries have to be the foundation of any psychological change. Parents called to experience God in their hearts. If God indwells in us, all things are possible. The words of our Lord can motivate us to learn the sometimes difficult task of emotional control: "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible" (Matthew 19:26).


Beck, J.S. (1995). Cognitive Therapy: Basics and Beyond. NY: Guilford.

Burns, D.D. (1989). The Feeling Good Handbook: Using the new mood therapy in everyday life. NY: William Morrow.

Ellis, A. (1962). Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy. Secaucus, NJ: Lyle Stuart.

Kelly, G. A. (1955). The Psychology of Personal Constructs. NY: Norton.

Morelli, G. (2004). Christian Asceticism and Cognitive Behavioral Psychology. In S. Muse (Ed.),

Raising Lazarus: Integrating Healing in Orthodox Christianity. Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press.

Morelli, G. (2005, September 17). Smart Parenting Part I. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliParenting.

Morelli, G. (2006, February 04). Smart Parenting Part II. https://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting2.php.

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: March 25, 2006

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