Updated: Nov 15, 2019
Emotional moments are an opportunity for teaching. Do you shut the door on your child's negative emotions?
Teaching children emotional intelligence is teaching them to identify and recognize emotions and helping them to understand where the emotions are coming from and how to appropriately cope with them. Children often make sense of their world and base ideas off of their emotional experience. We are quick to teach children how to read and write from a very young age yet we fail to provide them with emotional awareness and strategies to deal with their emotions. Gottman suggests that emotional moments are an opportunity for teaching.
“Researchers have found that even more than IQ, your emotional awareness and ability to handle feelings will determine your success and happiness in all walks of life, including family relationships” -John Gottman, Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child
Just like you would teach your child to ride a bike or play baseball, teaching emotional intelligence takes commitment and patience from the parent. When your child is displaying negative emotions it is critical that we don’t shut down or ignore their emotions but instead use this as a moment to engage with the child and offer them guidance e.g. coping skills.
Ask yourself if you are one of these parents:
1. The Dismissing Parent: those who disregard, ignore, or trivialize a child’s negative emotions
2. The Disapproving Parent: those who are critical of their child’s display of negative emotions and reprimand or punish them for emotional expression
3. Laissez-Faire Parent: those who accept their children’s negative emotions and empathize with them but fail to offer guidance or set limits on child’s behaviors
As a therapist, I welcome feelings of anger, sadness and fear. Shutting the door on negative emotions can portray the wrong message to children; that they shouldn’t feel those emotions or we shouldn’t talk about those feelings. Even when it seems that children are being irrational and negative emotions are not warranted because of a broken toy, use this as an opportunity for open dialogue to discuss emotions, develop a coping plan and problem solve with your child on ways they can feel better. If we simply say “You’re fine, don’t be sad!” this communicates to the child their feelings are wrong and do not need to be validated. The child begins to accept the adult’s estimation of the event and learns to doubt their own judgement. When adults constantly invalidate their feelings, they will lose confidence in themselves and begin to develop patterns of dysregulation. You can take your child’s feelings seriously by using these 5 steps as suggested by Gottman:
1. Be aware of the child’s emotions- parents who are aware of their own emotions can use their sensitivity to tube in to their children’s feelings and empathize with their child no matter how subtle or intense the expression of the emotion
2. Recognize the emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching- use this opportunity to bond with your child and help them come up with self-soothing ideas
3. Listen empathetically and validate the child’s feelings- you do not have to agree with the rationality of why your child is upset however you can still listen with open ears and reflect back in a non critical way
4. Help the child verbally label their emotions- avoid telling your child how they are feeling, help them to label their emotions by providing words they can use and simply stating what you are observing e.g. body language, facial expressions and gestures
5. Set limits while helping the child problem solve- anger, sadness and fear are negative emotions however we as humans are meant to experience these emotions; it is how we express these emotions that can be problematic. Set limits around inappropriate behavior/expressions and encourage healthy coping skills
Gottman, J. (1997). Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. ss