This is an article I wrote for my Hands, Hearts and Minds blog. It is about acknowledging children’s feelings and emotion coaching. A beautiful technique for fostering understanding and resilience with your children (partner, parents, etc).
Imagine the following scenario…
You like to collect things or grow things or build things. It’s an interest of yours, and it makes you feel happy.
But this hobby of yours is not compatible with growing, rambunctious children.
During one vigorous play session, your children break one of your things.
You are upset. It cost a lot of money or took a long time to acquire. It was one of your favourites.
After grumbling at the kids, your partner/mother/friend tells you how futile your hobby is, how it shouldn’t have been in that place where the kids could wreck it, and s/he starts giving you lots of advice. So you grumble at him or her as well.
You don’t want the advice or the criticism. You want someone to listen to you. You want someone to acknowledge your feelings, to empathise, and to hear you. You want someone to tell you how much it sucks that your thing was broken, and how disappointed you must be. It would feel good for someone to kneel beside you and help you pick up the broken pieces.
And, so it is with children.
Acknowledging your children’s feelings won’t make them soft or sooks or cry babies. It will make them feel understood. They will feel seen and heard, valued and loved. And they will get over their hurt quicker with less resentment because meeting the need extinguishes the need. It will help them bounce back from disappointment, because life can be full of hurt and disappointment and it’s nice to be able to have someone to talk to about it. A child that experiences empathy will become empathic. In the field I work in, this is called “emotional intelligence”.
In the Circle of Security programme, there is a process called “being with“. You ride the wave of emotion with the child rather than butting up against it. You do this by:
- reflecting what the child is saying or the sounds she is making;
- mirroring the child’s facial expressions;
- observing and describing what you see the child doing;
- and labelling the emotions that you think the child is feeling.
You can do this with children of any age, even newborns. You don’t hush them or try to make them feel happy or distract them from what they are feeling.
Toddlers have tantrums because the emotional part of their brain (the limbic system) is super active around 2 and 3 years old. They can’t control it and they can’t help it. They need you to show them how to soothe. You start by saying what you think the little one is feeling and describing what you are observing. Something like this “you look so mad, your face is red, and you are stamping your feet, it’s such a big, big feeling”. And then you wait. Sometimes the child will say something like “Not mad, I’m sad”. Great! Don’t ask any questions just keep acknowledging the feelings. It’s not like a running commentary but it’s in a kind, wondering, gentle, quiet kind of way. Breathe the way the child is breathing, follow his lead. As his breaths get calmer. breathe those too. If he sighs, you sigh. If he has a sad face you mirror his sad face. When he smiles you smile back. Acknowledge how hard it is depending on the circumstance, “it’s hard when you are little and you want to do something that isn’t safe”. Keep riding the wave, don’t push against it. Trust that your child is processing the emotions the way she needs to.
You don’t ask any questions at all. I say to parents that questions like “why did you do that”, “how are you feeling”, “what happened” should be removed or limited from the parenting vocabulary. Reflective listening should be part of every parent’s toolbox, as you can use it with little ones, teens, partner, neighbours, everyone.
A parent that I worked with a little while ago, had a child who was having tantrums that were four hours long. She was able to do this “being with” process for one of those tantrums, and it was his last. She said that by the end of the four hours, they were both a sweaty mess and completely exhausted. The next tantrum he had, lasted ten minutes and she sent me a message on my mobile phone saying “thank you”. I think I replied with ”it wasn’t me, it was you” – that was a champion effort. The more often you follow this process with the child, the smaller the upsets become because your child internalises how to soothe herself.
In the Tuning In To Kids programme, there is a process called “emotional tuning” or emotion coaching. The steps are:
1. Notice the emotion
Notice how you think your child is feeling. It’s ok if you guess incorrectly, your child will usually tell you what he or she is feeling if you approach it this way.
Example (this actually happened with my youngest son a few months ago) …
Parent: ”You look really sad today, your head is down and your shoulders are hunched over”.
Child: “I spilt my drink bottle on my shorts at recess. I had to get some new pants from the office, but they are too big. I had to hold them up all day.”
2. Clarify with a question
A question will help your child figure out how he or she feels.
Parent: “How did you feel about having to hold your pants up all day?”
Child: “Frustrated, because I couldn’t run properly at lunchtime. And embarassed too.” (He has a great emotional vocabulary.)
3. Reflect the emotion
Reflect the emotion your child is telling you or state what you believe your child is feeling.
Parent: “I can see why you would be frustrated and embarassed about that.”
4. Locate the emotion in the body
Emotions can be felt in the body and the head. Part of emotional intelligence is recognising when you are starting to feel a strong emotion by noticing what your body is doing and what your mind is thinking.
Parent: “Where in your body do you feel your frustration?”
Talk about how you would feel in the same situation.
Parent: “Oh, I’m so sorry that happened to you, I would have felt the same if I couldn’t keep up with my friends.”
You might like to follow up with a question or comment to get more details about the situation or explore more emotions.
Parent: “This little string on the waist of your pants is loose. No wonder they were falling down. Let’s see if we can tighten it up a bit.”
Child: “Thanks Mum.”
Notice how in this process, there is not a barrage of questions, advice, or moral reasoning. The parent does not dismiss or deny how the child is feeling or try to distract him from his feelings. The parent does not tell him to “get over it” or “get on with it” or “don’t worry, it could be worse”. The parent does not jump into solving the problem or talking about what happened to her once upon a time. The parent does not take the other person’s side. If I had ten dollars for every time I heard a parent say their child was “doing it for the attention” or as we say in Australia “bunging it on”, I would be retired by now and living a sedate lifestyle on the South Coast.
It’s a process of delving down into the child’s feelings and emotions with him and coming out the other side together. If you do this often enough, your child will learn to accept and manage her own strong emotions, learn how to solve problems, and learn to know when she is coping well or when she needs to get help. This is emotional intelligence.
Sounds good, doesn’t it?
But this process can be difficult for parents. If you are not comfortable with some of these strong feelings, you will try to push your child through it as quickly as possible to resolve your own discomfort. Most parents say they can deal with extremes of most emotions, but anger pushes their buttons. The important thing is acknowledging that you are uncomfortable with some emotions and working your way through it too. If you think back to your childhood, your own parents may not have been comfortable with the same emotions you have difficulty with now. That’s why it’s called a process, every day we do a little bit better.
“When you know better, you do better.” Lisa Nichols
Giving your children the brush-off – Janet Lansbury