Updated: Sep 9, 2020
We are going through a challenging time but this is just one of many on our parenting journey and so we often wonder: how do I make sure my children continue thriving during prolonged periods of stress. It may be that a family member is ill and your energy has to be channeled towards taking care of that loved one; you might have started a new, demanding job that takes away all your free time and attention; perhaps it is a challenging transition that your child has to go through, such as starting a new school or saying goodbye to a best friend moving away. No matter what the challenge is, it will be affecting the intra-familial balance, your established routines and coping strategies. So how can you make sure that your children stay well, feel loved and cared for all while you are juggling multiple responsibilities or trying to handle changes life presents you with?
The short answer is to stay in the moment and make time to see your child's inner world, to help him make sense of it and gently guide him during stressful times. Parents play an important role in teaching their children about emotions and helping them to understand their emotional experiences. By being responsive to children's emotions, talking and making sense of emotional experiences, we help our children to understand, accept, and label their emotions (1,2,3). Therefore, an important role that parents need to undertake on their parenting journey is being their children's emotion coaches. Parents usually have overarching ideas about their own emotions and their children's emotions. In other words, while parents engage in helping children identify and label their own and others' emotional states on a daily basis, they do so in different ways (4). Specifically, we learned from research that there are two types of parental attitudes towards handling children's emotions: emotion coaching and emotion dismissing (2,3). In essence, emotion coaching is based on identification, labeling, and acceptance of the child's feelings, whether they are positive or negative. In contrast, emotion dismissing conveys rejection of expressed emotion, especially if it is a negative one, because the parent views their child's sadness or anger as toxic, or potentially harmful to the child. The parent believes that it is their job to change these negative emotions as quickly as possible. Therefore he ends up conveying to the child that her feeling is not meaningful or important.
So how can you practice emotion coaching with your children? First, it is all about paying attention - once you notice your child’s emotion, even if this emotions is of low intensity, attend to these first signs of sadness and anger and connect with the child before negative emotions escalate to a high intensity. Second, try and consider child's negative emotion expression as an opportunity for you to connect with him and teach. Even negative emotions, such as sadness, provide you with an opportunity to open a window into the your child's inner world and try to understand what is missing.
It is important at this stage not to view sadness as something to get over with and not dwell on, or anger as sufficient reason for a punishment or time-out. Do not try to distract the child from whatever they are feeling at that moment. For example, it is not a good idea to say to your child when he is expressing sadness by lovingly saying, “Cheer up, buddy. Where is my favorite smile? Now that's much better, isn’t it? There's my big boy”. In this case, even though you want to be helpful by ignoring negative feelings or denying them as much as possible, you are not helping your child to gain the skill that he will need to handle difficult emotions in the future. He will learn to hide or ignore them. In fact, if you ask yourself why are you reacting this way, you will most likely discover that you are not comfortable when experiencing your child's negative state. However, by allowing the child to express, experience and understand the emotion that he is experiencing, you will create a learning opportunity that will create new understanding of oneself and the world surrounding him.
Next, you will need to validate or empathize with the child's negative emotions. You may say "It is OK to feel angry or frustrated when you do not get to choose a toy in a store". Then, you can help the child by verbally labeling their emotion: "It looks like you are are feeling sad. Am I right?" That is, you are helping your child to put her feelings into words to increase her understanding of her emotional experience. Finally, you will want to engage in problem-solving with the child. For example, you can set limits: “It’s OK to be angry, but it’s not OK to throw yourself on the floor in the middle of the store”. However, it is equally important to go one step forward and describe the appropriate, desired behavior: "Use your words and we can think about a small prize that you would like to get and the things you need to do to earn it on our next trip to the store". By following these steps, you will not only let your child feel seen and validated but also help him to understand what is expected and get suggestions for appropriate behaviors to help him achieve his wish.
(1) Gottman, J. M. (2001). Meta-emotion, children's emotional intelligence, and buffering children from marital conflict. In C. D. Ryff & B. H. Singer (Eds.), Emotion, social relationships, and health. New York: Oxford University Press.
(2) Gottman, J. M., Katz, L. F., & Hooven, C. (1996). Parental meta-emotion philosophy and the emotional life of families: Theoretical models and preliminary data. Journal of Family Psychology, 10, 242-268.
(3) Gottman, J. M., Katz, L. F., & Hooven, C. (1997). Meta-Emotion. How Families Communicate Emotionally. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
(4) Parke, R. D. (1994). Progress, paradigms, and unresolved problems: A commentary on recent advances in our understanding of children's emotions. Merrill-Paimer Quarterly, 40(1), 157-169.