What do you want most for your kids? The answer I frequently hear is happiness. Parents want their kids to be happy. I mean what could be better than happy kids, right? It’s a great idea, with one inherent problem… happiness is a temporary state that can be 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? A goal that ultimately resulted in your child’s well-being while improving their learning, immune function, friendships, care for others, exploration of their talents, resiliency, sense of purpose, and their relationship with you!? And, it has evidence-based research to prove it works!
I’m talking about a process of emotional attunement called “Emotion Coaching” which if used regularly, will help kids develop the emotional intelligence they need to navigate life’s complexities. According to John Gottman, “researchers have found that even more than IQ, your emotional awareness and ability to handle feelings will determine your success and happiness in all walks of life.”
According to neuroscientist Dan Siegel, “As parents, we 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.”
Good parenting isn’t about intellect or making kids happy, it requires something that has been largely ignored by most parenting methods… emotion.
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.
Keep in mind that when you’re emotion coaching children it’s important to stay calm and set aside your own emotions to be with their feelings. The goal is to understand how they feel and never to dismiss or minimize their feelings. Children and teen brains do not have a fully developed prefrontal cortex like adult brains, which means they rely more on their limbic system, or emotions, to make decisions. At times it can seem like they’re overreacting, but instead of judging their feelings, communicate your empathy and let them know you’re there to listen.
And remember, don’t jump immediately to problem-solving. It’s important to understand what you’re trying to solve before looking for solutions. Use 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 can relax and generate new ideas. The more you use emotion coaching, the more your child will trust you to open up and share.
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.