Parenting is one of the hardest jobs we’ll ever have. More than anything we want to help our kids grow into healthy, happy adults. The more good options we have for laying that foundation the better off we and our children will be.
Emotion coaching is a parenting technique about teaching your child how to recognize and express the way he's feeling in an appropriate way; diversifying his coping skills as he faces different situations.
It's an alternative to old-fashioned discipline, that can be used with babies, toddlers, preschoolers and young kids. And it encourages kids to be internally motivated. Ultimately, it gives parents the know-how and confidence to build strong, productive relationships with their children.
There are four common roadblocks that trip up even the most well-meaning parents. Read on to see if these obstacles are holding you down and to see how emotion coaching can offer another strategy:
Control-Based or Hands-Off Parenting?
Picture this: It’s late afternoon and you’ve finally found five minutes to make the phone call that’s been on your list all day. Meanwhile, your children are running up and down the hallway—feet pounding on the floor and yelling after one another as they erupt into a game of “tag.” As the noise level rises, your patience wanes and you feel your frustration start to boil over.
So now what do you do? If you’re like many parents, you may gravitate toward one of two “traditional” responses. Maybe you blow a gasket, screaming at your kids to pipe down and go to their rooms—or else. Or maybe you simply raise your white flag and find a way to excuse yourself off the call, sighing heavily and throwing your hands up in surrender—because kids will be kids no matter what you do.
Emotion Coaching Solution: Find the middle road.
There's a middle road here. In this particular case there’s no need for punishment, but the kids shouldn't be allowed to disrupt their mother’s phone call either.
Instead of yelling or ignoring, the emotion-coach mom takes a deep breath and says, "Guys, you are being really loud. I can see that you have tons of energy—can you take it outside, please? I’ll come out and play with you as soon as I’m off the phone. Right now, I need your help, so please head out back."
Discount, Minimize or Deny Your Child’s Feelings?
Everyone does it—and usually without realizing they're doing it in the first place. Discounting, minimizing, or denying a child’s statements or feelings are knee-jerk reactions sometimes.
For example, if your child complains of being hungry 30 minutes after you ate lunch together, you think about the fact that you just ate and you aren’t hungry, so there is no way that she can be hungry either. You discount her feelings and brush off her request with a dismissive, “Oh, you couldn’t possibly be hungry!” rather than stopping to truly consider what she's said.
Or, let’s say Tommy falls down on the playground; you pick him up, brush him off and tell him he’s all right. You may think you're doing the right thing by parenting him to not be overly sensitive and to “get back on the horse.” In actuality, you're (unintentionally) neglecting to think about what emotions that incident may stir up for him: pain, fear, or embarrassment, for example.
Emotion Coaching Solution: Put yourself in their shoes.
Emotion coaching teaches us to explore a situation instead of immediately discounting or denying a child’s statement and feelings. As an emotion coach parent you'll always come from a place of empathy. Your first thoughts should always be, What is really going on here? What is my child feeling?
So when Tommy falls, you might ask, "Did you hurt yourself? Or are you just scared?" If he says that he's scared, you should affirm his emotions—tell him that it’s scary to fall down and ask if he wants to come sit with you for a few minutes before returning to play. Whether or not he does, the key is to be supportive.
Bribe with External Motivation and Rewards?
What parent doesn’t love to reward her children for good behavior? Sticker charts, treats and, let’s face it, straight-up bribery are all tactics that are nearly as old as parenting itself. If you want to get your kid to pick up his room, you may reward him with TV time or a new toy.
However, asking your child to behave a certain way for a treat is generally not a good idea. We must all learn to cooperate in life without expecting something in return—so giving external rewards teaches the opposite.
Emotion Coaching Solution: Re-think your reward system.
Parents are often perplexed about what to do instead of offering up a reward and the solution is simple: offer your attention instead. If your two-and-a-half-year-old doesn’t want to leave the park and you're running late for an appointment, resist the urge to bribe her by saying, “If you come with Mommy now, I’ll give you a cookie.” Instead, try, “I know you like to play at the park and you’re mad that we have to leave. I’m sorry, but we have somewhere we need to be. Can you help Mommy pack up our things?”
While she may still be upset about leaving, your acknowledgment and empathy will help her feel validated, and her anger will subside more quickly. Plus next time you need to get out the door, she won’t expect a treat in return for her cooperation.
Negative Consequences as Punishment?
When children misbehave parents feel as though we must lay down a consequence for their action in hopes of deterring it from happening again in the future. Spanking, yelling, and time-outs don’t offer a replacement behavior—they don’t teach our children what to do instead of misbehaving.
Emotion Coaching Solution: Use natural consequences.
I encourage parents to assess the situation at hand before throwing out an unconnected negative consequence. (“You won’t come in for dinner? Fine, no TV tomorrow!”) I'm not against consequences; I simply believe they should be natural. For instance, a child who doesn’t come in for dinner when his mother calls him may miss out on dessert because his tardiness pushed his dinnertime later.
Then, according to the emotion coaching method, the mother might empathize and discuss solutions with her son: “This really stinks. How can we be sure to get you inside for dinner on time?”
With emotion coaching you empathize, talk about what went wrong, identify the feelings involved, then come up with a plan.
Successful emotion coaching takes time and diligence, but so does parenting in general. The most important thing to remember is that it’s not going to work for you every single time—so don’t be discouraged the first time you don’t have a success. If you put in at least 50 percent effort, the results will be favorable—and your relationship with your child will be stronger and healthier.
Kimberley is a national child development expert and a licensed family and child therapist specializing in working with children newborn to six years old.