My two year old daughter came running to me in tears at the park. “They said I can’t play with them” she cried, pointing to a couple kindergarten aged girls. I gave my daughter a big hug while scenes of the movie, Mean Girls, flashed through my head. “It’s all happening too fast,” I thought to myself, wishing I could keep her protected longer from the harsh realities of the world.
But we can’t protect our kids forever. As parents, we deal with situations like this everyday, whether it is the sting of social rejection or any other issue that generates uncomfortable, painful, and frustrating emotions. But moments like these are excellent emotional coaching opportunities for your child. And as I shared in my last post, the best person to be their emotional coach is YOU, the parent.
The emotion coach is a concept that John Gottman, a relationship expert, coined to help parents understand that emotions and feelings need to be taught to your children in order to help them navigate through life’s ups and downs. This coaching can start as early as three years old, and the results validate its significance. Studies have shown that children who are coached in their emotions perform better in school, are physically healthier, have better friendships, and are able to cope with life’s stressors much better than kids who haven’t been emotionally coached.
So how do we do emotion coaching? John Gottman provides five steps in his book, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, which I have summarized for you below. The first three steps creates an environment of dialogue by help us have the right mindset and informing the child that their feelings are valid. The fourth step helps the child learn to identify, label and put into words what they are feeling. This is crucial because this gives the child the tools to remain calm and talk about their feelings rather than throw tantrums. The last step helps your child to think logically about the situation, while empowering them to problem solve through different options. This gives the child the ability to take ownership of their emotions and handle them productively in the future.
1. Be aware of your child’s emotions
It was easy for me to be aware that my child was sad and hurt by the rejection in the park – because I was focused on playing with her that afternoon. Most of us are aware when our kids are sad, upset or happy. But as we go through the busyness of life, it’s easy for us to become less conscious of our kid’s emotions or ignore them when we are trying to deal with the never-ending tasks on our to-do lists. It’s important to remember that our children experience emotions based on life circumstances just like we do, and so it is always a helpful reminder be mindful of our children’s emotional state even when our schedules may be busy.
2. Identify your child’s emotions as an opportunity for intimacy and relationship bonding
When my child throws a tantrum in public, my first reaction is that this behavior is a problem that needs to be fixed… and fast! My thoughts rush to determine the action I need to take to change her behavior immediately, especially as people around me are starting to give me the look. It is important, of course, to take the appropriate disciplinary measures when our children act up. However, Gottman encourages us to take our mindset one step further and see these stressful situations as an opportunity to deepen our bond with our children, and not just a fire to put out.
3. Listen and validate your child’s feelings
I’m a problem solver. You throw an issue at me – my instinct is to try to fix it. So at the park when my daughter was crying, my first reaction was to jump to the conclusion. What should we do? Should we go yell at the girls? Should we go to a different park? Should we play our own game? Finding solutions is not a bad thing, of course, but Gottman encourages parents to take a moment to acknowledge and validate your child’s feelings. So I asked my daughter what happened and she explained the story. As she was sharing, I reminded myself to first just listen and validate. “You felt sad? I’m so sorry. You are right – it is a sad situation.” You will be surprised how much the tone of the conversation can change by not rushing to fix the problem and first acknowledging the feelings.
4. Help your child label their emotions in words they can understand
Often my child can’t describe her feelings in detail because she’s only two. But this doesn’t mean that what she is actually feeling is simple or basic. Teaching our children different words to describe their emotions – such as sad, happy, angry, frustrated, disappointed, and mad – can really empower them to express themselves in stressful situations. Teach your child different emotions either through books, videos or personal examples. For instance, our daughter learned the word frustrated when she was driving with her frustrated mom stuck in traffic.
5. Assist your child to find options to handle their situations that are causing these emotions
After I listened and validated my daughter’s hurt, I worked to help her address the situation that made her sad, by providing some options that she could choose herself. Older kids may be able to come up with different options on their own. I shared that she could play with other kids in the park or play hide and seek with daddy. My daughter chose to play with me – excellent choice if I do say so myself. Soon her mood was elated again as she was screaming and chasing me around the park.
Now this park scenario was just a very small incident, but by making it an opportunity to be coached emotionally, my daughter experienced that her feelings of sadness are legitimate and that there are ways she can embrace, address and move on from her hurt. And hopefully, as my wife and I continue to coach her emotionally, our daughter will be equipped with a valuable tool to confront greater challenges in the future.
Whatever stage of parenting you are in, don’t stress or be hard on yourself if you haven’t been the emotional coach you want to be. Parenting is a learning experience and a journey, not a perfect science. Be encouraged that you can be the emotional coach that your child needs. As a parent, your influence and ability to help coach your child through these everyday situations can really change their lives. Try it out and let me know how it goes!