Becoming an emotional coach parent
Traditional parenting was based on a patriarchal model; Dad was the head and earned the money, and mum stayed home to care for the children. The traditional family worked with some success because society was relatively stable and a family could live on one wage. Today though, our world is vastly changed. Our family structures are more democratic and the old rules aren’t effective any longer. Parenting models must be updated if they are to be meaningful and relevant for families that live in a rapidly changing world.
Recent research has found that the emotional world of a child is the key to helping a child be successful. Traditional child management focused almost exclusively on a child’s behaviour through reward and punishment techniques. But as many parents are finding, these techniques don’t work when the society that created them no longer exists. Drs. Brazelton and Greenspan in their book The Irreducible Needs of Children, state “Nurturing emotional relationships are the most important primary foundation for both intellectual and social growth.” Simply knowing how to use a discipline technique is not enough today. Parent must understand the emotional world of their child if they are to help their child be their very best.
Dr. John Gottman, a world renowned family researcher, encourages parents to become “emotional coaches” so they can guide their child to understand their world of feelings.
Learning to be…
An Emotional Coach Parent
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.
- Be aware of what your child is feeling
Your child feels emotions regardless of whether they can verbalise what is troubling them. The first step to becoming an emotional coach is to identify what emotion your child is experiencing.
Application: what emotion (anger, sadness, or fear) Is my child experiencing when they misbehave?
- See the emotion as a teaching opportunity to get close to your child
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 is the very time your child needs you the most!
Misbehaviour indicates that your child is feeling disconnected from you. It is a cry for understanding. If you push your child away, you continue the hurt, or worse still, add to it. The cause of the misbehaviour hasn’t been dealt with, so the misbehaviour is likely to continue.
Turn the misbehaviour into a teaching moment. All learning begins with nurturing care: acceptance, trust, closeness, warmth, gentleness, and empathy. As an 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.
Application: essentially you have two choices when your child misbehaves. You can:
- Focus on their behaviour; get annoyed and punish them by pushing them away.
- Or, you can become an emotional coach: focus on their emotions, see their misbehaviour as a teaching opportunity, draw your child to you, and seek to understand what is going on in their life.
- Listen empathetically and validate your child’s feelings
Empathy occurs when a parent understand 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 the child for feeling how she/he does. Feelings are never bad. They are responses to events that are happening in your child’s life. 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 feel connected to you, and you gain influence in the relationship.
Application: having identified my child’s emotion (step 1), and drawn him close to me (step 2), I now understand why he feels the way he does (empathy), and that it is alright to feel that way (validation).
- Help your child find words to describe how he or she feels
Research shows that when children can name their feelings, they deal with 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. This in turn helps children calm down.
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 define the emotion, it’s no longer a mystery, or something to be scared of.
- It provides your child with boundaries. A boundary means that the emotion is identifiable.
- The emotion is a normal part of life – everyone experiences these feelings.
Application: 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.
- Set limits while you help your child solve the problem
While all your child’s emotions are okay, not all their behaviours are okay! 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 bet 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 finding solutions to the challenges they face. As a parent create a process that teaches your child that 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. But when they get stuck, suggest an option. By teaching your child that problems have solutions, you are giving them a powerful life skill.
Application: Develop a simple process for solving problems. Teach and model it to your child.
You Can Do It!
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.