Helping children deal with strong feelings
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