Emotion Focused Parenting

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:
  1. Be aware of your child’s emotions
  2. Recognize emotions as an opportunity for teaching and connection
  3. Help your child verbally label the emotions
  4. Communicate empathy and understanding.
  5. 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.

The Grieving Process

I have been thinking recently about the grief process and how to support others in their grief. Despite the inevitability of our mortality, grieving and being with others in their grief is not something we generally talk about or are taught. Instead, we might try to avoid grief, to try to cheer someone up who is grieving, to ignore our own feelings, or be unintentionally dismissive of grief.

Grief is important because it embodies the entire emotional process of coping with loss, and it can last a long time. Grieving allows us to mourn the loss and continue living in a healthy way. Miriam Greenspan says, “We grieve because we are not alone, because we are interconnected, and what connects us to one another also breaks our hearts.”

Healthy grieving often involves both grief work, complete with a host of different emotions (denial, anger, sadness, etc.), as well as distracting from grief by doing new things, attending to life changes, and participating in relationships. It is important to remember that grief looks different for each person.

Grief may overtake our whole system, impacting us physically, emotionally, cognitively, and behaviorally. Grief is a very individual journey. It is important to allow ourselves and others to heal in our own way.

To be intentional about your own healing, it is recommended that you exercise, nurture yourself, eat well, be loving toward yourself, and reach out to others for support. It is also important to listen to your own needs and communicate them to others. Self-care is very important when we are grieving as it can give us strength for the grief journey.

When those we care about are grieving, we can be most helpful by being compassionate, being present with them in their pain (certainly a very hard thing to do), accepting and acknowledging all of their feelings (even the difficult ones), expressing concern when necessary, and offering ongoing support.

It is important to avoid minimizing or comparing loss (all grief is different and valid), to avoid making assumptions about how the other person is feeling, to stay out of judgment with how they are responding to the loss, and to avoid the following well-meaning but often hurtful statements:

“I understand.”

“I know how you feel.”

“It is part of God’s plan.”

“Look at what you have to be thankful for.”

“They are in a better place now.”

“This is behind you now; it’s time to move forward.”

“You should/shouldn’t…”


Instead, you might say things like:

“I can’t imagine what you are going through, but I want to be here for you.”

“Let me know how I can support you.”

“Can I bring you anything or do anything for you?”

Of course, if you or someone you know are experiencing suicidal ideations, difficulty functioning, excessive bitterness, alcohol or drug abuse, hallucinations, or constant feelings of hopelessness over a prolonged period, it is important to seek help.

Ultimately, grief is about trusting the process. And, while we don’t want to experience sadness or grief, suffering can be an opportunity for transformation. Oftentimes, people who have come out on the other side of grief describe feeling more appreciative of life, more compassionate, empathic, peaceful, and grateful.

I love this quote by Miriam Greenspan’s Healing Through the Dark Emotions: “The first phase is not about moving on, but about being broken…healing through grief does not begin when we give up feeling bad; it begins with the agony of loss. The merciful numbing of shock must wear off and the reality of death take hold. Grief must sink in. In the alchemy of grief, going down always precedes coming up. Understandable but misguided attempts to speed up the process tend to derail it. Generally, a grief deferred is a grief prolonged. There are no short-cuts in the alchemy of the dark emotions.” She also says, though, “In the seed of grief, there is the promise of a blossoming.”

Keeping Your Relationship Alive

After having our first child this past summer and experiencing a series of life transitions and stressors, I became keenly aware of the impact these events had on my relationship with my husband. While we used to spend much of our free time playing and enjoying each other’s company, connecting through conversation and shared interests, our relationship quickly shifted into almost one of a business- complete with to do lists, caring for our daughter, and navigating the challenges at hand.

Certainly, we still loved and cared deeply for one another, and we both are very committed to our relationship. However, the stress was taking its toll on the fun side of our partnership, and it was easy (especially with little sleep and lots to do) to be short with one another and to put our relational happiness off until things calmed down.

We soon realized, however, that things would likely not slow down anytime soon. And, we both enjoy being connected and having warmth in our relationship. We also recognized that we were neglecting our individual and family self care plans, which include exercising, connecting with friends, and making time for spirituality. In addition to   incorporating more of these activities, we also began practicing a principal that my husband deems one of the most important lessons of having a successful partnership: being gentle with one another.

The truth is, life can often be full of stressors and challenges. And having children certainly is a major transition. But a relationship can still thrive if both partners are committed to nurturing their relationship and intentional about practicing their love for one another.

couple embrace in keeping their relationship alive

In thinking about thriving relationships, I was reminded of Gottman’s Five Magic Hours. Marriage researcher John Gottman found that couples in positive relationships invest an extra five hours each week in their marriage in fairly specific ways (even though it may look different for each couple). Following are his tips for incorporating the magic 5 hours into your relationship:

Using the MAGIC 5 Hours to Help Keep Your Relationship Alive

1) Partings: Before you leave in the morning, be sure you have learned at least one thing that is happening in your partner’s life that day.

Time: 2 minutes/day x 5 working days= 10 minutes

2) Reunions: Engage in a stress-reducing conversation at the end of each work day.

Time: 20 minutes/day x 5 working days= 1 hour 40 minutes

3) Admiration and Appreciation: Each day, communicate genuine affection and appreciation toward your partner.

Time: 5 minutes/day x 7 days= 35 minutes

4) Affection: Hug, kiss, hold, and touch each other during the time you are together. Remember to kiss before you go to sleep. If possible, try to let go of irritations that have built up over the day.

Time: 5 minutes/day x 7 days= 35 minutes

5) Weekly Date: This can be a relaxing, low pressure way to stay connected. Ask one another questions that help you know one another better and turn toward each other.

Time: 2 hours/week= 2 hours

Grand total: 5 hours!

Certainly, relationships will go through ups and downs as issues arise and life happens. However, by intentionally incorporating some of Gottman’s tips, remembering to be flexible with one another, appreciating each other as evolving human beings, supporting one another’s dreams and goals, and being kind to one another can help keep your relationship stay alive even when things get really tough. It can also be helpful to seek out marriage or family counseling for additional support.


“Love doesn’t commit suicide. We have to kill it. Though, it often simply dies of our neglect.” ~Diane Sollee

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