As a therapist, I am frequently asked why feelings and emotions matter. Certainly, our feelings are constantly changing, and may not even give us an accurate assessment of the situation at hand. However, they ARE always valid. Our feelings alert us to how we are doing in the world and give us the opportunity to respond instead of react. Our emotions give us a great deal of information, including alerting us when our boundaries being violated, our physical or emotional safety is being threatened, knowing when we need to ask for help, and when we feel safe and our needs are met. As a parent, we can help build our child’s emotional intelligence by helping them recognize what they are feeling and what is driving those feelings.
Being emotionally connected to our children will greatly enhance our relationship with them and is the foundation of attachment. Regardless of their age, and despite the way they may act, children and teens of all ages still need help in learning how to manage and regulate their emotions. Part of emotional intelligence includes helping children manage their feelings in a positive way so that eventually, they can regulate their own behavior, have successful social relationships, and feel confident in themselves.
To teach emotional intelligence and to be connected emotionally to our children, we must remember that humans are hardwired for emotional communication. We all feel emotions, and we all need to express them. It is important to recognize our child’s expression of emotion as an opportunity for connection. Perhaps some parents only encourage more positive emotions and dismiss or become frustrated when their child displays negative emotions. Or maybe they feel overwhelmed when their child displays intense feelings. Part of emotion focused parenting means that you will have to tolerate your child’s big feelings, recognizing that the best thing you can do is encourage healthy expression of emotion, explore why your child is feeling a certain way, and help them figure out what to do about the reaction they are having. It is very important to not shame your child for their feelings or be dismissive of their emotions.
Many parents fear that by encouraging their child to talk about their negative emotions, the child will feel worse. However, the opposite is true. When we lean in and express our emotions, we tend to feel better and they tend to become less overwhelming. On the other hand, bottled up feelings can lead to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and other negative symptoms and outcomes.
Certainly, we will all mess up sometimes as parents and miss opportunities to connect with our children. However, we can use these situations to repair with our child, an important relational tool in which we apologize and repair the interaction. If we ourselves are becoming overwhelmed by emotions, it is important to take a break to self-soothe and calm down, just as we can help teach our children self-soothing skills when they are flooded with emotions.
Goals of emotion coaching:
- Be aware of your child’s emotions
- Recognize emotions as an opportunity for teaching and connection
- Help your child verbally label the emotions
- Communicate empathy and understanding.
- Set limits and problem solve
Examples of emotion dismissing versus emotion coaching:
Child: Mommy, I just stubbed my toe.
Emotion dismissing: You’ll get over it. You shouldn’t have been playing over there anyway.
Emotion coaching: Ouch! Let me see where you hurt it. I hate it when I stub my toe! Do you need a hug?
Child: I don’t want to play with Charlie anymore.
Emotion dismissing: Too bad. Charlie is your brother and you have to play with him.
Emotion coaching: It sounds like something happened between you and Charlie to make you sad or angry. Do you want to tell me about it?
Child: I don’t want to take a bath.
Emotion dismissing: Tough. It’s bath time.
Emotion coaching: I know you are sad it is time to stop playing to take a bath. It is almost your bedtime now, though. We can definitely play more tomorrow.
Teen: I hate English! I am not even going to try anymore.
Emotion dismissing: Oh yes you are. School is important. Now go upstairs and start your homework.
Emotion coaching: It sounds like something is going on in English. Are you frustrated or angry with your teacher? Come tell me what is going on.
Information adapted from the Gottman Institute’s Emotion Coaching: The Heart of Parenting.