Like a sports coach, an emotional coach parent teaches their child specific ways to deal with emotional experiences. The emotional coach parent recognises and understands that negative emotions are part of life. So when they occur it becomes a learning opportunity to nurture their child. Becoming an emotional coach is a new way of parenting for most of us. While the strategies are easy to understand, it requires commitment
and personal discipline to actually apply the learning insights. As someone has aptly said, “The problem is not learning new ideas; it’s getting rid of the old ones!” Dr. Gottman suggests emotional coach parents learn and
practice five steps.
Step 1: Be Aware of What My Child Is Feeling
Being aware of what your child is feeling is the first step towards helping him or her learn about emotions. Children feel hurt, but can’t always express how they feel. Imagine your child coming home and saying, “Dad, I’m sorry for being such a grouch tonight. I’m feeling cross that my Kindy teacher took away my toy this morning without even asking.” Or “Mum, I feel so scared when I hear you and Dad arguing over money.”Your child feels emotions, regardless of whether they can verbalise what is troubling them. Emotions never arise in a vacuum – something has caused them. So the first step to becoming an emotional coach is to identify what emotion your child is experiencing.
Your child’s emotions can be hard to identify, but most children’s reactive emotions fit within the following three categories:
ANGER frustration, cross, confused, mad, irritated, annoyed, jealous, rage
SADNESS hurt, upset, gloomy, teary, disappointed, unhappy, broken hearted
FEAR scared, afraid, concerned, uneasy, worried, frightened
Even before a child can talk, you can learn about their feelings by listening closely to their body language and tone of voice.
What emotion (anger, sadness or fear) is my child experiencing when they misbehave?
Step 2: See the Emotion As a Teaching Opportunity
For young children emotions are new and sometimes overwhelming. When a child expresses strong reactive emotions, parents can have a tendency to physically (go to your room) or emotionally push their child away. But that’s the very time when your child needs you the most! Misbehaviour indicates your child is feeling disconnected from you. It’s a cry for understanding. If you push your child away, you continue the hurt, or worst still, add to it. The cause of the misbehaviour hasn’t been dealt with, so the misbehaviour is likely to continue.
A better way is to understand the misbehaviour as a cry for help (not simply naughtiness), and to use it as an opportunity to get close to your child. Turn the misbehaviour into a teaching moment. All learning begins with nurturing care: acceptance, trust, closeness, warmth, gentleness, and empathy. As a teacher (emotional coach), you draw your child towards you because you want to pick up on what is happening in your child’s life; to understand the emotion behind the behaviour.
Someone has wisely said, “Don’t yell at a learner!” It’s a sure way of killing motivation, and co-operation. Your child is a learner, so resist any reaction that pushes your child away from you – like yelling, blaming, humiliating, or spanking.
I have two choices when my child misbehaves. I can:
- Focus on their behaviour; get annoyed and punish them by pushing them away.
- Or, I can become an emotional coach: focus on their emotions, see their misbehaviour as a teaching opportunity, draw my child to me, and seek to understand what is going on in their life.
Step 3: Listen Empathetically and Validate My Child’s Feelings
Nurturing love is the foundation of effective parenting. Nurturing love begins with empathy. Empathy occurs when a parent understands why their child is feeling the way they do. Without such understanding, a child will believe their emotions of anger, sadness, or fear are bad. Empathy allows your child to feel understood. It doesn’t judge or label a child for feeling the way she does. Feelings are never bad. They are responses to events that happen in your child’s life. When your child has been hurt, it’s understandable that they’ll feel angry, sad or fearful. The emotional coach parent seeks always to understand, and not to dismiss, or diminish their child’s emotions. They understand that all their child’s emotions are good because they are expressions of their child’s hurt.
Why is empathy so important? If your child believes their emotions are bad, they will feel bad. And children who think they are bad, usually behave badly too! When your child receives your understanding, that what they
are feeling isn’t bad, they also believe they aren’t bad. They feel connected to you, and you gain influence in the relationship. For young children emotions are new and sometimes overwhelming. When a child expresses strong reactive emotions, parents can have a tendency to physically (go to your room) or emotionally push their child away. But that’s the very time when your child needs you the most! Misbehaviour indicates your child is feeling disconnected from you. It’s a cry for understanding. If you push your child away, you continue the hurt, or worst still, add to it. The cause of the misbehaviour hasn’t been dealt with, so the misbehaviour is likely to continue.
A better way is to understand the misbehaviour as a cry for help (not simply naughtiness), and to use it as an opportunity to get close to your child. Turn the misbehaviour into a teaching moment. All learning begins with nurturing care: acceptance, trust, closeness, warmth, gentleness, and empathy. As a teacher (emotional coach), you draw your child towards you because
you want to pick up on what is happening in your child’s life; to understand the emotion behind the behaviour.
Step 4: Help My Child Find Words for How He or She Feels
Research shows that when children can name their feelings, they can handle them better. Scientists aren’t sure why this is so, but suggest it may be because by naming emotions it may help different parts of the brain communicate with each other, which in turn helps children calm down.
Dr. Gottman states, “Kids who can calm themselves from an early age show several signs of emotional intelligence. They are more likely to concentrate better, have better peer relationships, higher academic achievement, and good health.” Help your child fi nd words to describe how they are feeling. Their body language provides a good indication of what emotion they are experiencing. For younger children, model how they are feeling by your tone of voice, and body language. For your older child, ask how they are feeling. Even two-year-olds can tell you when they are cross, sad or scared. EXAMPLE “You feel cross that Daddy is playing with your baby sister, don’t you?”
When your child can label their feelings, it does three important things:
- The emotion ceases to be a threat to your child. If Mum can defi ne the emotion, it’s no longer a mystery, or something to be scared of.
- It provides your child with boundaries. A boundary means the emotion is identifiable.
- The emotion is a normal part of life – everyone experiences these feelings.
Having shown your child you understand how he or she feels (empathy), and also given them permission to feel the emotion (validation), you need to take the next step and help your child find words to describe how they are feeling. If your child isn’t talking, use your words, body language, and tone of voice to model how they are feeling.
Step 5: Set Limits While You Help Your Child Solve the Problem
While all your child’s emotions are okay, not all their behaviours are okay! For example, imagine your oldest child has recently got a new sister. For 3 years they have had your undivided attention; now they have to share it with younger sister. So to get attention they pull sister’s hair. Here’s how an emotional coach parent would respond: “Son, it’s okay to feel cross when daddy spends time with your sister. You want daddy to play with you and you don’t want daddy playing with baby. Daddy understands. If daddy was a little boy and had played with his dad for 3 years by himself, he would cross too if someone else came and took his daddy’s attention. It’s okay to feel cross . . . But it’s not okay to pull your sisters hair!”
The parenting challenge is to accept and value your child’s emotions, while setting limits on inappropriate behaviour. Setting limits is an essential parenting skill. Your child needs clear and consistent boundaries (limits) to feel safe and secure. Children flourish and become their best when their world has guidance and structure. Once you have made it clear what your child shouldn’t do, the next step is to help them come up with an effective solution to their problem.
An important goal of good parenting is to help your child solve problems. Life is a series of problems that you either solve, or keep repeating the mistakes. So children should be taught that
problems are a natural part of life, and they are there to solve. While problem solving is difficult for a toddler, by the age of three your child should be involved in fi nding solutions to the challenges they face. As a parent, create a process that teaches your child problems can be solved. Don’t always solve the problem for your child, but encourage them to think of options for dealing with the dilemma they face. When they get stuck, suggest an option. By teaching your child that problems have solutions, you are giving them a powerful life skill.
When your child’s hurt has been recognised, and he or she has been given permission to feel angry, sad, or fearful, your child now has the energy to solve their problems. As long as the emotion is hidden, your child’s energy is expanded on dealing with the hurt, rather than fi nding a solution.
You Can Do It
Imagine the co-operation a coach would get from his players if his team believed he was working for the opposing team! Same with parenting. If your child thinks you are playing on opposite teams, you will have a hard time influencing your child. It’s vital that your child believes you are both playing on the same team. The emotional coaching five step plan is a powerful way to encourage your child you’re on their side. Without an understanding of your child’s emotions, it’s easy to begin power struggles with your child. Emotional coaching breaks power struggles because it brings healing to your child’s emotional hurts. They feel accepted, understood and valued.
The emotional coach parent knows that unexpressed feelings never die – they’re buried alive and come forth later in uglier ways. By allowing your child to express their hurt in appropriate ways, it doesn’t get expressed in uglier ways: temper tantrums, defiance, aggression, power struggles, etc. Parenting can be tough . . . That’s the truth. But don’t make it any tougher than it needs to be. Focus on building the emotional connection between you and your child. That’s how your child will become their very best.