The term “emotion-coaching” was coined by John Gottman, the author of How to Raise an Emotionally Intelligent Child. His many years of research observing families in his Love Lab in Seattle led him to the conclusion that being a loving parent, while essential, is not enough to raise children who can self-regulate. Kids also need our help with the tough emotions that challenge them: jealousy, anger, fear.
To help children with emotions, we first need to understand that once we let ourselves feel an emotion, it begins to dissipate. If, on the other hand, we try to push the emotion away, we end up stuffing it down in our unconscious, where we’re no longer in control of it. That’s why we get “triggered” and explode: those pent up emotions are always jostling to come up and get healed, but since they aren’t under conscious control, they pour out unregulated. So our goal in emotion-coaching children is to help them feel safe to feel their emotions, which heals upsets as they occur, and helps kids learn to manage their feelings. Once they can manage their emotions, they can manage their behaviour.
“As you try this empathic approach, you’ll see an immediate change in your child. She may even start offering you hugs when you’re upset”
Emotional intelligence skills begin with the child’s ability to soothe himself when he’s upset. Some children are born with more innate ability to regulate themselves. But all parents have a huge influence in helping their children develop emotional regulation. Since the brain takes shape in the first few years of life in response to experience, babies’ brains build the neural pathways to soothe their upsets every time you soothe them. Simply by comforting your baby or toddler when she’s upset, you prompt her body to release calming biochemicals and strengthen her future ability to soothe herself – the most fun-damental emotional intelligence skill.
FEELING SAFE WITH EMOTIONS
The most important emotion- coaching skill for parents is empathizing with a child’s emotions, which both soothes the child and helps her develop her own capacity for empathy. Virtually all children are born intuitively able to understand the emotions of others through their mirror neurons and limbic system. But unless children experience feeling understood, they don’t learn to feel safe with emotions, so other people’s upset feelings scare them. Your commitment to empathize with your child, therefore, is an important determinant of his ability to offer understanding to others.
Your empathy also helps your children develop self-regulation. When a child feels understood, he feels closer to his parents, so he’s more likely to accept limits and cooperate. He learns that emotions aren’t dangerous, and he has a choice about whether to act on them, so he develops more self- control. This helps him handle disappointment better, so he becomes more resilient. By contrast – and this is important – a child who thinks his feelings aren’t okay will stuff them down. Unfortunately, repressed emotions aren’t under conscious control, and will burst out in “bad” behaviour later on.
What do you actually do when you empathize? Empathy just means recognizing – in your heart, not only with words – what the other person is feeling. The trick here is to suspend our own agenda so we can really listen and notice what our child is feeling. Whenever children are having a hard time, empathy is the place to start. ‘It’s hard when you want to play, but your brother wants some time alone.’
‘It can make you feel left out when it’s your sister’s birthday, and yours is still months away.’ ‘Oh, sweetie, I’m so sorry your sister tore your painting . . . you’re so sad and mad that you want to hit. Let’s go tell your sister in words.’
REWIRING FOR EMPATHY
Empathy is not automatic for most of us. That’s not because we’re unkind. It’s because we go through daily life seeing other people through the lens of our own needs and desires. When our child is upset, we don’t automatically see it from her perspective. We see it from our own. That means that we’ll often see her emotions as inconvenient, overreacting, and maybe even purposely making our lives difficult.
But if we want our child to have empathy, we need to offer empathy to her. That means that whatever she says or does, the goal is to acknowledge her perspective with understanding – even when you don’t agree with her view.
What if you can’t be empathic 24/7? That’s okay. It’s a goal, and like most worthwhile goals, it takes a lot of practice. Sometimes you’ll be too mad, or too distracted, or too tired. Your child doesn’t need you to be empathic 100 percent of the time. Just work on increasing your percentage.
OPENING YOUR HEART
Many parents fear that accepting their child’s emotions will create a “drama queen”, but in fact it’s just the opposite. When parents truly open their hearts to allow whatever their child wants to express, the child learns: ‘My emotions are normal, not dangerous.’ Emotions can feel overwhelming, but the child learns that it’s okay to feel them, and once he does, the emotions lose their charge. ‘When I say how I feel, I don’t get so mad.’ The emotions stay under conscious control, so the child can better regulate his behaviour, even when he’s upset. ‘Noticing what I feel helps me use words to express my feelings instead of hurting my brother.’ You may not like your child yelling about how upset she is, but it’s a huge step forward from physically lashing out. As you try this empathic approach, you’ll see an immediate change in your child. He may even start offering you hugs when you’re upset. A child raised by emotion- coaching parents will understand the feelings that motivate others, and ably navigate the complex emotional world of relationships with friends, classmates, and teachers.
THE FIVE STEPS OF EMOTION COACHING
STEP 1: Be aware of emotions The more aware you are of your own feelings, the better you will understand how your child is feeling.
When appropriate, share your emotions with your child.
Children are learning about emotions by watching how you show yours.
Listen to your child for clues about what she is feeling.
STEP 2: Connect with your Child Take your child’s emotions seriously.
Be willing to understand your child’s perspective. Encourage your child to talk about feelings.
STEP 3: Listen to your Child Listen to your child in a way that lets her know you are paying attention.
Try not to judge or criticize emotions that are different from what you expected.
Research shows that it is important to understand the emotion before you give advice on the behaviour.
STEP 4: Name Emotions
Start identifying emotions even before a child can talk.
Talk about emotions like happy, sad, and angry and when people feel them.
Name a range of emotions. Talk about what these emotions mean and when people feel them.
Avoid telling children what they ought to feel – try to identify the emotions they are feeling.
Model identifying your own emotions – children learn by watching and copying what adults do.
STEP 5: Find Solutions
When children misbehave, explain why their behaviour was inappropriate or hurtful.
Encourage emotional expression, but set limits on behaviour. Help children think through possible solutions.