Just like learning to name oranges, zebras, and fire trucks, our children need to learn how to name their emotions. They need to understand what emotions are and how to handle them.
When we dismiss our children’s emotions, what is this teaching them? It’s teaching them that their emotions don’t matter which in turn teaches them that they are not important. Emotion Coaching is when we take the time to listen to our children’s fears or frustrations and coach them along to identify the emotion and let them discover how best to handle the situation. It teaches our children that they’re important. We don’t necessarily want to solve their problems, but can guide them on how to find acceptable solutions.
Let’s try this example, your child is afraid of the dark, but as you’re tucking them in it’s discovered that the night light bulb has burned out.
Dad says, “Uh-oh, the bulb is out.”
Son says, “Oh-no, Daddy, I don’t like the dark.” with just a bit of panic in his voice.
Dad says, “Oh, Buddy, I know you don’t like the dark...
Option 1: ...but get over it. Show daddy what a big boy you can be and sleep without it tonight.”
Dad clicks off the room light and shuts the door on his way out.
Option 2: ...it makes you feel afraid, so, let’s figure this out. What can we do?”
Son says, “Well... I can sleep in your bed tonight.”
Dad says, “That might work, but I’m not going to bed yet. What else do you think might work?”
Son says, “Ummm....What if we turn the hall light on and leave my door open?”
Dad says, “That’s a great idea! I’m so proud of you for figuring it out.” Dad turns on the hall light and cracks the door. “How’s that?”
Son says, “That’s great. Thanks, Dad.”
Dad says, “You’re welcome, Buddy. I love you. Goodnight.”
You can see the stark difference in option 1 and option 2. In option 2, the dad takes the time to talk his son through this problem. He validated his son’s fear by identifying the emotion. Then, he didn’t solve it for him but he guided him into a workable solution. He “coached” him through the process.
Emotion coaching is something that we can do as parents starting with newborns. By answering their cries, cuddling them and consoling them as a newborn, you let them know that they’re important and that you’ll be there to help them when they’re upset and not just be there for them when they’re happy.
Emotion coaching has shown to make for happier, healthier children. Learn more about emotion coaching from Dr John Gottman here in a recent webinar from the Talaris Institute. Dr Gottman also has a book you can read for more on this topic.