Research has found that kids with similar IQ but higher EQ (“Emotional Quotient”) tend to perform much better as adults. Most of the books and theories focus on helping parents set structure and use the method of negative and positive reinforcement to help them deal with their kids’ misbehavior.
Gottman Institute, through several years of research on parents and kids, found that the goal is not only to control the kids’ behavior, but to teach them how to think for themselves, how to identify and regulate their emotions, and how to make better choices as well as how to become compassionate human beings.
To be able to achieve the above goals, aim for what Gottman calls Emotion Coaching. To better understand what emotion coaching is, the research distinguished between two kinds of parents: the dismissing parents and emotion coaching parents.
Dismissing parents perceive emotions as something that can be controlled. Dismissing parents get impatient with their kids when they are experiencing negative emotions and expect them to see the positives and not dwell on the negatives. Dismissing emotions sends kids the message that “your emotions and needs are not that important and that dwelling on them will get you in trouble”.
On the other side, emotion coaching parents will notice even subtle emotions in their kids and will try to use it as an opportunity to connect. Parents will model processing emotions and will encourage kids to understand, label and regulate emotions. Parents want to minimize their kids’ emotional pain thinking that they will feel better if they distract them. However, in the long run, dismissing and distracting will not help kids develop healthy ways of dealing with emotions, and will end up suppressing emotions and always feel on the edge of bursting out in anger.
The good news is that Gottman identified 5 steps to become an emotion coach:
- Awareness to Notice Low Intensity Emotion:
Parents are encouraged to notice their kids’ emotions even the small ones. Notice the body language and facial expressions. Parents are encouraged to become mindful of those moments and reach out. When parents are sensitive to those moments, they are sending a message to their kids that you do not need to rely on negative behavior to get my attention.
- Use this Moment as an Opportunity to Connect and Empathize:
Parents are encouraged to listen to their kids, be curious and ask questions. Parents are encouraged to leave their agenda aside and rather empathize and express lots of understanding and support. Those moments help kids value their feelings and experiences rather than feeling ashamed.
- Help Kids Understand their Emotions:
Sometimes, kids cannot put their emotions into words. Parents are encouraged to help the kids label their emotions. Parents are encouraged to label their emotions in front of their kids and encourage them to reciprocate. Example: create an emotion bank and use it with your kids when they feel stuck. For younger kids, use puppets or stuffed animals; younger kids might be more comfortable talking through a puppet. For older kids encourage them to start writing a journal where they focus on naming their feelings.
- Communicate Empathy and Understanding even when Kids Misbehave:
This is a crucial point. Parents get upset when the kids misbehave and sometimes start yelling or criticizing. Criticizing is harmful and is not recommended. Parents’ voice becomes the kids’ internal reality. Instead of criticizing, empathize. For example, “I understand why you got mad when your brother took your toys”.
- Set Limits and Problem Solve:
Not all behaviors are acceptable and need to set limits. Parents are encouraged after empathizing with the feeling to communicate that all feelings are valid, yet not all behaviors are. Confront kids gently and state what behavior was unacceptable, explain to them what you saw happening and explain why that behavior was not acceptable. Stay calm and in control. Parents are encouraged to clarify the limits and rules and provide reasons why the behavior is not acceptable and why limits are important. Then present them with a consequence that needs to be logical, fair but not harsh. Stick with the consequence, even when kids escalate. Kids need to get the message that you are the parent and understand the importance of hierarchy. In case kids did not misbehave, parents are encouraged to problem-solve with them. It is important to help children think. During that process there will be two sets of goals; the kid’s goals and parents’ goals. The process is a two-way communication where you share ideas, listen to your kids’ ideas and come up with a good compromise.
In conclusion, As Gottman found in his research “most problems occur because kids do not have a way to shine for their parents”. Parents are encouraged to create an environment where the kids feel loved, cared for and feel that they can have fun and make memories.
Kristelle Mallah is Lebanese and bilingual; fluent in Arabic and English. As an MFT Kristelle uses structural and emotion-focused therapy to help individuals learn better ways of relating and communicating with one another. As well as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy to help clients modify dysfunctional emotions, behaviors and thoughts. Kristelle is a wife and a mother of a fantastic daughter who uses her experiences to empathize and relate to families and couples’ struggles.