Christmas holidays are a time many children look forward to but sometimes they can also be a time of family fighting, upsets and disappointments. Some research suggests that Emotion Coaching is the key to raising happy, resilient, and well-adjusted kids. Thirty years of research shows that it is not enough to be a warm, engaged, and loving parent. We also need to Emotion Coach our children, particularly about difficult feelings.
Emotion-Coached kids tend to experience fewer difficult feelings and more positive feelings.
Step One: Become aware of, accept and empathise with your child’s feelings
This first step to coping with difficult emotions (in yourself, your children, or in your partner) is to figure out what they are feeling and to accept those feelings. Even if we don't accept the challenging behaviour that often accompanies difficult emotions, we still want to send the message that all feelings are okay, even the worst ones. Terrible feelings like jealousy and fear and greed can help us to understand ourselves better and to become a better person. When you see these 'undesirable' emotions in children, think of them as opportunities to both learn more about their inner-world and—importantly—to teach them how to deal with difficult emotions now and in the future.
Step Two: Label and Validate the Feelings-at-Hand
Before we can accurately label and then validate our children's feelings, we need to empathise with them—first to understand what it is they are feeling, and then to communicate what we understand to them. This is simple, but not always easy.
Say Mia is feeling bad because she got into some trouble at school for talking too much in class. Children frequently displace negative emotions onto their loving parents and caregivers, meaning that while Mia might be mad at herself, a classmate, or her teacher, it would be normal for her to displace that emotion onto her parent or carer when she got home. So when Mia’s parent tells her she can't meet up with her friend right that second, it provokes an angry fury, during which Mia throws her backpack against the wall she’s been asked her to hang it on and calls her sister a "stupid idiot" she would never want to play with "in a million years."
Instead of dealing with the unacceptable behaviour right away (time out!) this is a terrific opportunity to accomplish the second step in emotion-coaching: validating and labelling the negative emotions.
Adult: "Mia, I can see that you are very angry and frustrated. Is there anything else that you are feeling?"
Mia: "I am SO SO SO MAD AT YOU."
Me: "You are mad at me, VERY mad at me. Are you also feeling disappointed because I won't let you play with your friend right now?"
Mia: "YES! I want to talk with Madison right NOW."
Me: "You seem sad."
(Crawling into the adult’s lap, Mia whimpers a little and rests her head on her parent’s shoulder.)
The adult has now helped Mia identify and label several feelings: angry, frustrated, disappointed, sad. The larger our children's emotion vocabulary is, the easier it is to label emotions in the heat of the moment. The adult has also validated how Mia has been feeling: she knows her parent thinks it is okay to have felt all those 'difficult' things. Interestingly, now Mia is calm, tired—clearly needing a snack and a cuddle.
Step Three: Deal with the unacceptable behaviour (if applicable)
At this point, parents might just want to move on and forget about the back-pack throwing and name calling. But it is very important to set limits so that children learn how to behave well even in the face of strong, difficult emotions. A parent might tell Mia that she needs to go to her room and have a 5 minute time-out, and make it clear that these behaviours are not okay: "It is okay to feel angry and frustrated, but it is never okay to throw things or call people mean names. When the timer goes off, please check if your sister is okay and come have a snack." Ten minutes after the initial incident, the parent is sitting with Mia while she eats. Time for step four.
Step Four: Problem Solve
Now is the time to dig a little deeper, to help Mia figure out how to handle the situation better in the future. After you've labelled and validated the emotions arising out of the problem, you can turn to the problem itself:
"Mia, did anything happen at school today that is also making you feel bad?" At this point, Mia told her mother all about the scene at school where she had to sit at a table by herself because she was too disruptive during reading.
An adult might relate to how bad it would feel for Mia (who is hyper-social and teacher-pleasing) to be both isolated from her friends and to have disappointed her teacher, so it might be easy for you to empathise here. You might talk about how sad and lonely she felt doing her work alone when the other children were working together, and how embarrassed she felt by being singled out. You could also talk about how Mia felt hungry and exhausted when she came home from school.
Adults do not tell her how she ought to feel ("Mia, I hope you feel bad for throwing your backpack against the wall") because that would make her distrust what she did feel (the backpack-throwing might well have felt good). The goal is to put her in touch with her emotions, easy or challenging. So even during the problem solving, adults can be labelling and validating more of her feelings: lonely, embarrassed, hungry, tired.
Next, brainstorm together possible ways to solve a problem or prevent it from happening again. The more parents can stay in our role as a coach—holding back all of your terrific (bossy!) ideas and letting kids come up with their own—the better. When we talk about what Mia can do when she feels angry (instead of throwing her backpack, for example), she is more likely to actually try the solutions if they come from her. She decides the next time she comes home from school feeling frustrated and disappointed, she'll walk the dog around the block while she eats her snack until she feels better.
That's all there is to it! First be aware of accept the difficult feelings your child is displaying without judging these. Second label and validate the emotions you see. Third, deal with misbehaviour if you need to in a non-shaming way. Finally, help your child solve the problem.