I’m a big fan of emotion coaching, particularly when helping young children manage their emotions. Emotion coaching is an approach to caring for children that values their feelings while guiding their behaviours. It takes effort and patience and it’s not always easy – but there are big payoffs. In his book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child*, John Gottman says this approach encourages healthy emotional development so that “children delight in the happy times and recover more quickly from the bad ones”. I am a firm believer that helping children to manage difficult or complicated emotions is a big plank in raising resilient children.
This week it was my turn to collect my two year old grandson from childcare. He was delivered there in the morning by his dad who starts work late and is able to punctuate the 30 minute car trip with time for news, a stop at the park and the occasional chocolate treat. When I arrived late in the afternoon the toddler looked at me and burst into tears. I decided to use this occasion for emotion coaching. I stopped and knelt at the doorway and stated quietly “you’re sad to see me”. He cried “I want my daddy”. I responded “you’re disappointed that dad isn’t collecting you”. He ran into my arms and buried his head into my neck and sobbed noisily for about 20 seconds. Then he cheered up, took my hand and led me from the room. This happened while one caregiver attempted to distract him from his sadness by saying “It’s all right – you love Nanny” and another enticed him to continue to play with a toy horse. He wasn’t distracted and I think he knew what he needed – time to feel distressed and have his feelings identified and acknowledged.
We don’t always get it right when we are helping our children to understand their emotions. And that’s OK. Our job is to keep guessing and be a partner in their learning. The more we do it the easier it gets.
There are times when emotion coaching is less useful:
- When you are in a hurry – emotion coaching takes time
- When you are too upset yourself to be effective
- When the emotion doesn’t match the situation: crying for no apparent reason – the child might just be tired or hungry
- When safety is more important
Once we are comfortable in helping children identify their emotions we can use this information to set limits and problem solve with them. Your child might be upset that their favourite classmate sits with someone else. Once we have acknowledged the disappointment that goes with this situation we can help with problem solving by asking “who else in your class looks like they might be fun to know?” Brainstorm some ideas. The idea is to help but not take over and allow your child to choose a solution.
*1998 Gottman J.M. and DeClaire, J. Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, Simon & Schuster
One of the feelings we often have as parents is Guilt. Guilt that we are not spending enough time with our children, guilt about the food we feed our children or even guilt about losing our temper with our children.
As parents we often forget that we are humans too, and that with our humanity comes mistakes. We can’t (and wont) always be the perfect parent that we want to be. Work, relationships, hormonal fluctuations, mental health issues, and financial stress can cause layer, upon layer, upon layer of stress that can impact on our ability to parent at an optimal level.
As a result we can sometimes only parent at a “good enough” level. That is we can only do the best we can do at the time under the circumstances. So, if as parents we are sometimes faced with adversity but the quality of our parenting behaviour is still adequate then our children should not be compromised.
In addition it is extremely powerful to admit to our children that “we got it wrong”.
It models to them that it’s ok to make mistakes, that it’s not the end of the world. In addition it teaches our children how to make amends in relationships and gives permission for imperfection.
So next time you are feeling guilt around your parenting be gentle with yourself and remember that sometimes you can only do the best you can do at the time and that is good enough!!