When the issue of death first reared its head in our son’s mind, it kept us up for weeks.
He didn’t speak of death but all of a sudden, getting him to sleep was a nightmare and keeping him asleep all night a Herculean task. “I’m thirsty”, he’d scream at 2.00 am. An hour later he needed a wee. At 3.30 a.m he’d be thirsty. Again. And on it went.
Death is a subject that can seem especially big for someone small.
“What if when I wake up you and daddy are dead?” The night he put his fears into words was the night we changed our perception of “acting out”. We had been too quick to put everything down to “acting out” and had never questioned why our threats had been met with lukewarm success at best.
Emotions in a child matter.
They are a very big deal. And they do not go away when ignored: they fester and can have far reaching consequences.
Studies on emotional intelligence suggest that:
• Children cannot express their emotions in an appropriate manner if they do not understand those emotions first.
• Young children, especially, often experience many emotions but are unable to differentiate between feelings such as sadness, anger or frustration.
Yelling or tantrums may be an expression of guilt, hurt or embarrassment, and nightmares, and sudden poor eating behaviours or even physical symptoms such as headaches could be a sign of underlying emotional turmoil.
• Children who are more aware of their emotions tend to be more ready to start school, are happier and have better educational outcomes during the childhood years and beyond (some of these studies are available here and here).
• How we respond to an emotional child has an impact on how he/she learns to view and manage his/her emotions.
Inspired by Gottman’s studies, “Emotion Coaching” has been found to be an effective approach to discipline.
Emotion coached children have better social relationships, fewer behaviour problems, better academic outcomes, practice self-regulation, are in greater emotion and physical health and are less likely to turn to violence.
Becoming your child’s emotion coach
Emotion coaching is based on teaching emotional intelligence, i.e., on teaching children to identify and respond appropriately to their emotions. So how do you go about it?
1) Increase your child’s awareness of his/her emotions
Children so often lack the words to express themselves because they are not always able to understand their feelings.
An important lesson to teach children is that everyone has emotions.
Your child needs to know that his/her emotions do not define him/her: feeling a certain way (anger, frustration) does not make him/her bad or good. What matters is how he/she reacts to those feelings.
According to Professor Diamond, helping a child put feelings into words is an important skill to develop.
Helping your child identify and understand different feelings and express his/her feelings out loud helps develop self-regulation.
What can you do? Listen attentively to the spoken and unspoken. Ask questions. Help your child “name the emotion”. Resources such as The Feelings Book and Feelings Flash Cards can help you explore different emotions with your child.
When we finally understood the reasons behind our son’s sleepless nights, we began speaking to him about death.
Death had always been present in our family but had remained an unspoken issue. His first grandfather had died when he was 6 months old, the second right after his second birthday. We’d always thought that this would hardly affect him seeing as he’d never really known them. Yet it did.
The memories of the little-known grandfathers returned to haunt him. On that night, several years ago, I made our son hot chocolate at 4 a.m, then we talked.
We talked about death. We talked about where his grandfathers had gone. He wanted to know whether they could see us, whether they’d be back, whether they were in pain… so many questions we didn’t even know existed and had long left unanswered.
Dealing with a child’s difficult emotions such as anger, anxiety or jealousy is never easy but it provides an opportunity to help your child express these emotions and deal with them appropriately.
“Distancing” your child from the emotion may make it easier for him/her to identify difficult emotions. For instance you can ask your child how his/her friend may feel in a similar situation, then apply the response to him/her.
Further reading: Why and How to Talk to Kids about Emotions
2) Identify the triggers
We all have emotional triggers. Someone makes a comment about you and you suddenly find yourself feeling angry and resentful for the entire day.
Our child’s sleeplessness was triggered by his fear of losing us. Other common triggers include helplessness, fear of rejection, a need for autonomy, etc.
Helping identify the triggers that set your child off can help him/her explore the origins of the emotions and manage them better.
3) Teach your child appropriate ways to react
Teaching your child how to react requires him/her to know your limits. It is important to focus on the reaction rather than on the feelings to teach your child that while feelings are normal, he/she is responsible for his/her reaction.
What can you do? Be clear on what is acceptable, tolerable and unacceptable behaviour.
Be clear on the consequences of misbehaviour.
A key objective of emotion coaching is to teach your child how to react to emotions. Brainstorm together acceptable ways of reacting to emotions. Offer opinions but as far as possible, let your child choose the solutions. Help him/her write down different emotions, the warning signs, and different ways he/she can react to the warning signs.
To guide your child, you could ask questions such as “do you think this will work?” “how will you feel? “will it hurt anyone’s feelings?”
Our son’s angry outbursts are often preceded by whining and are often a sign of boredom. When he begins to whine, we draw his attention to his behaviour and ask him to choose a pre-selected activity or we take 10-minutes off our schedule to hang out.
Coaching your child to soothe him/herself when faced with strong emotions is also a key component of the emotion coaching approach.
For example, deep breathing exercises or “blowing up a balloon” can help calm anger. Focusing on positive thoughts or using positive affirmations can also be helpful.
Further reading: Positive Affirmations for Kids: 6 Things You Should Know
4) Talk and Listen
Taking even five minutes each day to talk to each of your kids can work wonders.
Talk about your feelings – what made you happy? Sad? Angry?
How did you deal with it?
Ask your children the same questions. What did they enjoy about their day? What was the least favourite part of their day? What made them laugh? Talk about everything and nothing.
5) Work on your own emotions
When our son first began talking about death, I realised that I hadn’t actually explored my own emotions after my father’s death. Understanding how I felt about his death gave me the tools I needed to talk to our son.
It’s difficult to deal with children’s emotions when our own emotions get in the way.
It’s OK to get upset and let your child see that you’re upset, but children learn to manage their emotions by watching how we manage ours.
Over the years, I’ve come up with some “emergency techniques” when I feel my anger rising: I take a deep breath, I briefly turn away from the situation and I tell myself “I’m going to keep calm”. Seriously. Sounds cheesy but it works! Find your “emergency technique.”
Things to keep in mind when emotion coaching
- Teaching children to handle their emotions is no easy feat. It requires repeat practice. When one solution fails, be willing to change tactics and go back to the drawing board. Keep focussed on the long-term objectives.
- You need to be fully present for emotion coaching to work. It’s not a good idea to attempt coaching in public or when you’re overworked or stressed.
- There is a big difference between the strong emotions your child is unable to express and serious misbehaviour (manipulation, direct disobedience, physical aggression, etc.). It is important to identify the difference. Emotion coaching is not appropriate for addressing serious misbehaviour.
So where do you go from here?
• Explore different feelings with your child this week. Help him/her recognise different feelings. Resources such as The Feelings Book , Feelings Flash Cards and The Way I Feel are great for illustrating different moods in vivid ways.
• If you child is struggling with particular behaviour, try to help him/her put feelings into words “I know you’re angry …” “I can see you’re frustrated …”
• Choose ONE behaviour you would like to change and help your child come up with appropriate ways to behave when he/she experiences the emotions that trigger the behaviour.
If you’d like to take Emotion coaching further, Gottman’s online video program “Emotion Coaching: The Heart of Parenting Video Program” is an invaluable resource.
Is your child struggling with anger or anxiety? Join my free E-mail course to get practical resources to help him/her learn to identify and respond to strong emotions.