Help Your Kids and Step-Kids When Emotions Are High
In an earlier post I shared about my personal eye-opener! How I came to realize the importance of understanding and responding to difficult emotions our kids may experience as they deal with loss and grief. Sometimes, kids in stepfamilies face feelings of sadness, guardedness, anger and fear. My daughter experienced these, and other negative emotions, as she struggled to make sense of her complex family dynamics.
Some adults hold onto the belief that kids are "emotionally sturdy" and able to easily bounce back from difficult experiences and painful emotions (I thought so), but this just isn't the case. Looking back, this is one area where I feel that I could've done better and often failed my child. I wish I'd known about the value of emotional coaching early on in our step family's journey.
Why Emotional Coaching?
In his book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, John Gottman, Ph.D. suggests several reason why Emotional Coaching is beneficial for children and their parents:
- When parents recognize that negative emotions can serve useful purposes in our lives, they are able to accept, understand and guide their children in ways that are helpful. This kind of parenting creates connection, trust and loving bonds. Parents (and step-parents) are able to build bridges of loyalty and affection with their kids, through the process of emotional coaching.
- When children feel emotionally connected to the adults in their life, and this bond is used to help them process their emotions, good things happen. These children will have fewer behavioral problems and are better able to recover from distressing experiences. Through this process, kids develop an emotional intelligence that will prepare them to handle the challenging emotions they'll face throughout life.
What is Emotional Coaching?
Parents who use Emotional Coaching, serve as their child's guide through the world of emotion. They go beyond accepting their kids' emotions, to setting limits on inappropriate behavior and teaching kids how to regulate their feelings, find appropriate outlets and solve problems. The goal is to coach kids toward mastering their emotions in healthy and productive ways.
How: The Five Key Steps
The book offers five key steps for emotional coaching:
1. Being aware of the child's emotions
Kids often express their emotions indirectly and in ways that adults find puzzling. If we listen carefully with open hearts, however, we can often decode messages children tend to hide in their interactions, their play and everyday behavior. Children have reasons for their emotions, whether they can articulate those reasons or not. When kids get angry or upset over issues that seem inconsequential, it may help to step back and look at the big picture of what's going on in their lives. When you feel your heart go out to your child, when you know you are feeling what your child is feeling, you are experiencing empathy. Empathy is the foundation of emotion coaching.
2. Recognizing the emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching
Some parents try to ignore children's negative feelings in the hope that they'll just go away; however, emotions rarely work that way. In reality, negative feelings dissipate when children can talk about their emotions and feel they're understood. Whether the crisis is forgetting to pack a treasured item, missing a friend from their old neighborhood or a disagreement with a step-sibling, such negative experiences can serve asopportunities to build intimacy with our children and to teach them healthy ways to handle difficult situations and emotions.
3. Listening empathetically and validating the child's feelings
Empathetic listeners don't just use their ears, they watch for physical evidence of their kids' emotions (upset tummy, slouched posture and signs of stress). They use their imaginations to see the situation from the child's perspective. They use soothing words to reflect back what they are hearing and connect on a heart-to-heart level with their child. Engaging kids in open dialog is much more effective than applying adult logic or jumping into fix-it mode. Children need to be affirmed in their feelings; they need a parent who offers a safe space for sharing and who doesn't dismiss or disapprove of their emotions. When children experience this, they feel comforted and see their parent as a confidante who understands them (this alone can help relieve much of their struggle).
4. Helping the child verbally label emotions
Studies show that the act of labeling emotions can have a soothing effect on the nervous system, helping kids to recover more quickly from upsetting incidents. It's best when kids can use precise words to express their feelings, so see if you can help them hit the nail on the head. If your son seems angry, he might also be feeling hurt, embarrassed, jealous, betrayed or frustrated. This doesn't mean telling kids how they ought to feel - it simply means helping them develop a vocabulary to express their emotions. Mixed emotions can be confusing and troubling to kids. A child going on an extended vacation with Dad's family, for example, may feel excited about visiting Disneyland and also fearful that he'll miss his mom. We can help in these situations by guiding the child to explore his range of emotions and reassure him that it's often normal to feel two ways at once.
5. Setting limits while helping the child problem-solve
While experiencing negative emotions like anger, it may be necessary to set limits around inappropriate behaviors (such as: hurting themselves, others or being destructive). It's important for children to know that their feelings are not the problem, their misbehavior is. The child should understand she has a right to her feelings, but they need to find better ways to express those feelings.
Next, help the child identify a goal around problem solving: "Do you think you'd like to work things out with your friend who wouldn't share his toy, or look for a new friend to play with at recess?" Then, help her explore options for solving the problem: "What could you say or dothat might help you and your friend to share better?" Encourage the child to come up with her own ideas. Here are some things to consider with the child:
- Is this solution fair?
- Will this solution work?
- Is it safe?
- How are you likely to feel?
- How are others likely to feel?
Now you can help your child choose a solution and create a concrete plan moving forward.
Emotional coaching can have a buffering effect for children navigating through family disorder, such as divorce and remarriage, as well as step family dynamics. According to John Gottman, "When parents are present for their kids emotionally, helping them to cope with negative feelings, and guiding them through periods of family stress, their children are shielded from many of the damaging effects of divorce."
I highly recommend John's book to every parent and step-parent. The research-backed insight, strategies and practical tools are invaluable and can be used through every stage of development. There's also an eye-opening and hopeful chapter that specifically addresses divorce. You don't have to look back in regret of having failed your child in this area, like I have (although I'm happy to report we've had success emotionally coaching my now young adult daughter and our teens). Learn the skill of emotional coaching so that you and your child can build a close, trusting bond while working through life's emotional ups and downs together!
QUESTION: What are some safe and healthy ways you've discovered for your kids or step-kids to express their emotions? Leave a comment below: