Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Helping Children Recognize and Manage their Emotions

One of the things we're asked most about here at Help Me Grow is how to help children, especially toddlers, identify and manage their emotions. One of the things we suggest to parents is something called Emotion Coaching. The idea of emotion coaching was developed by Dr. John Gottman as a research-based tool to help parents in not only understanding their children's emotion, but why they occur and how to handle them. Emotion coached children learn to self-soothe and understand how their emotions lead to their actions.

In his book, "Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting," Gottman lays out five steps to effective emotion coaching.

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Step 1: Be Aware of Emotions
Part of being aware of emotions is understanding how you handle your emotions. If you feel out of control when you are angry, you may discourage your child from feeling anger. However, in order to effectively emotion coach parents must:
    • Acknowledge that their child's feelings are important
    • Recognize that their children's feelings and wishes are okay, even if their actions aren't
    • Understand that experiencing negative emotions, such as sadness, anger or fear, is important
    • Realize that negative feelings are a chance for problem-solving and for parents and children to grow closer 

Step 2: Connect with your Child
This means believing that your child's negative emotions are an opportunity for closeness and teaching. Children are more likely to be relieved of negative feelings when they can talk about them, label them, and feel understood by an adult. 
Some advice Gottman gives for doing this is:
    • Take your child's emotions seriously
    • Be willing to understand your child's perspective
    • Encourage your child to talk about feelings 
Step 3: Listen to your Child
Listen with empathy and understanding, then validate. Empathetic listening is a key component to emotion coaching. After your child feels understood, it is okay to tell them that their while their feelings are valid and acceptable, sometimes their actions are not. It is important to show that you understand their emotion, before trying to correct their behavior.
Gottman's advice for emphathetic listening and validating feelings is
    • Share simple observations. Instead of asking questions about how your child is feeling, simply state your observations about their actions. For example if your child is misbehaving after being told they can't have another desert, say to them, "I can see that you are frustrated. It can be frustrating not getting something that you really want."
    • Avoid asking questions you already know the answer to. This can create an environment of mistrust. Instead, simple address the issue at hand. If you observe one child hit the other instead of asking them if they did, say "I saw you hit your brother. I am very disappointed."
    • Share examples from your own life. This helps children understand that their emotions are normal and okay. 
Step 4: Name Emotions

For children, especially young children, emotions are especially hard to deal with because they don't fully understand what they are feeling. By giving these feelings names, it transforms a scary, unidentifiable feeling into something identifiable and normal. Labeling emotions can soothe a child's anxiety about how they are feeling.

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One of the most important things about naming emotions, is being sure not to tell your child how they ought to feel, but rather through empathetic listening try to identify the emotion they are feeling.

Gottman suggests starting to identify emotions before children can talk. This can be done through reading books about emotions or by simply talking to children about them. By beginning early, children develop a knowledge and vocabulary consisting of a wide range of emotion words they can use when they do begin to express themselves verbally.

Step 5: Find Solutions

Set limits while exploring possible solutions to the problem that caused the negative emotions. This is a five-part step.
  1. Set limits. As I mentioned earlier, validating feelings and emotions doesn't necessarily mean validating behavior. It's important to teach children that their reactions to emotions must be within boundaries and behavior outside those boundaries is subject to discipline. It's important to follow through on the limitations set. For example, if child A takes a toy away from child B and child B reacts by hitting, an appropriate response would be to say to child B, "You're upset because child A took your toy, and that's okay, I would be too. But hitting is not okay. What could you have done instead?" 
  2. Identify goals. If your child misbehaves as a result of their emotions, try to identify (by asking them) what they were trying to accomplish by their actions? 
  3. Think of possible solutions. After identifying what your child aimed to do by misbehaving, help them think through other solutions to their problem. Try to let them talk as much as possible before offering your own suggestions. If your child makes an unreasonable suggestion, instead of dismissing or criticizing it, try asking them questions that will help them see the error of their solution.
  4. Evaluate the proposed solutions based on your family values. Ask questions like, "Is this solution fair?" "Is it safe?" "How are you likely to feel? How are other people likely to feel?"
  5. Help your child choose a solution. Help them come up with a plan to accomplish their chosen solution. Even if the solution isn't workable, move through it (as long as it's harmless, of course), letting them learn the consequences of their solution. Be sure to leave room and opportunity to rework the solution when your child begins to realize it might not be the best one.
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There is no one right way to raise a child, but emotion coaching has been shown to have many positive benefits. As parents begin to recognize and validate the emotions their child is feeling while helping them find appropriate solutions, children learn to recognize and handle their emotions in healthy ways. Emotion coaching enables children to develop empathy--the ability to identify and relate to the feelings or thoughts of another person.

1 comment:

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