When parents are surveyed about what they want most for their child, the answer is usually happiness. It’s perfectly reasonable and something we can all admit we want for ourselves. But there’s one inherent problem in making this the goal for your child… happiness is a temporary state and elusive to maintain. Case in point: you didn’t let them finish their video game, you were late picking them up, you made vegetables for dinner, you made them do homework, and you gave them chores! Yikes. Let’s face it, parents aren’t exactly harbingers of happiness.
But what if there was another parenting goal, one that resulted in your child’s well-being while improving their learning, immune function, friendships, compassion for others, resiliency, sense of purpose, and their relationship with you! It’s a process of emotional attunement called “Emotion Coaching” and evidence-based research shows a parent who Emotion Coaches at least 40% of the time helps their child develop the emotional intelligence they need to navigate life’s complexities. “Even more than IQ,” John Gottman says, “your emotional awareness and ability to handle feelings will determine your success and happiness in all walks of life.”
The tricky part is, neuroscientist Dan Siegel points out, “parents… are wired to try to save our children from any harm and hurt, but ultimately we can’t. They’ll fall down, they’ll get their feelings hurt, and they’ll get scared and sad and angry. Actually, it’s often these difficult experiences that allow them to grow and learn about the world. Rather than trying to shelter our children from life’s inevitable difficulties, we can help them integrate those experiences into their understanding of the world and learn from them.”
Ultimately good parenting isn’t about making kids happy, it’s about tuning into their emotions and using the 5-Steps of Emotion Coaching:
1. Be aware of your child’s emotions. Notice low-intensity emotions, like when your child first starts to feel disappointed or frustrated.
example: You look a little sad… or, I can see that you’re pretty angry about this…
2. Recognize their emotional expressions as a good time to connect. A conflict or expression of emotion is an opportunity to demonstrate your concern and support.
example: Would it be okay if we sit down and discuss this? Can we go for a drive and talk?
3. Listen with empathy and validate your child’s feelings. All emotions are valid. Listen and avoid judgment. Even though not all behaviors are acceptable, all feelings can be expressed.
example: Gosh, that would be so hard! I would feel mad too. Yeah, that would be confusing.
4. Help your child label their emotions. Instead of telling kids how they “ought” to feel, try offering feeling words that identify how they are feeling. Expand their emotional vocabulary.
example: Are you also feeling misunderstood? It sounds like you might be feeling lonely…
5. Set limits to help your child behave appropriately. Problem solve together. If they’ve misbehaved, consider asking them what they think is an appropriate consequence. Set reasonable limits and avoid excessive rules and punishments.
example: I know you’re mad, but you still can’t hit. I know you’re upset, but we don’t slam doors in our house.
It’s important when Emotion Coaching a child to stay calm and be with the child’s feelings, setting your own feelings aside. The goal is to understand how they feel and never to dismiss or minimize their feelings. Keep in mind, children and teen brains do not have a fully developed prefrontal cortex like adults so they rely more on their limbic system, aka. emotions, to make decisions. If it seems like your child is overreacting, try not to judge their feelings, instead, communicate your empathy and let them know you’re there to listen.
And remember, don’t jump immediately to problem-solving. Seek to understand the situation before you look for solutions by using open-ended questions like, “What’s the hardest part of this?” or “How does that make you feel?” to draw out more information. When children and teens feel heard their bodies and brains relax and generate new ideas. The more you use Emotion Coaching, the more your child will trust you to open up and share. And guess what… that means your child is more likely to feel happy with themselves and who they’re becoming in the world. So while not the goal, a happy child can be the outcome!
If you’d like more information about how to use this strategy, you can read John Gottman’s book, “Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting,” or consult with a trained Gottman Emotion Coach.