Your child’s emotions – positive and negative – provide important resources and information that help them navigate their strengths journey. This means that developing your child’s ability to tune into and harness their emotions in effective ways is a central part of Strength-Based Parenting.
How do you help your son or daughter to understand, manage and make the most of their emotions? To answer this question we turn to John Gottman’s research on the role of parents as emotional coaches.
But first, let’s start with your own parents. Think back to your childhood and answer how your parents most typically responded in situations like the following two:
If your pet died and you got upset would they:
(a) Tell you they felt sad too;
(b) Tell you not to think about;
(c) Let you have a good cry;
(d) Make you feel ashamed of being a 'cry-baby'.
If you were excited and playing loudly in the kitchen would they:
(a) Ask you to play more quietly or suggest you keep your game going and play elsewhere;
(b) Make you feel guilty or ashamed for being too loud;
(c) Let you play and have fun;
(d) Get annoyed with you.
The actions in answers a and c for both scenarios are typical of parents who are emotional coaches. But, if in the scenarios above, you answered b or d for your parents it probably means that your parents were what researchers call ‘emotion dismissing.’ Read more about both types below...
Emotional Coaches (A, C)
Parents who are emotional coaches consider that talking with their child about emotions is an opportunity for learning, connection and intimacy. These parents understand the function of emotions and are okay with the fact that kids feel a range of emotions. They see emotions as a portal that allow them into their child’s world. They know when to sit down and explore their child’s emotional reaction with them, when to give the child space so he can work through his own emotions and when to coach the child to not get overly attached to an emotional reaction. ‘Things will look better after a good night’s sleep and if you still want to talk about it in the morning I’m here for you.’ The key issue in all three of these responses is that the emotional coaching parents first think about the child’s emotions and decide whether to coach through direct intervention or by being more of a ‘guide from the side.’
Children growing up with parents who are emotional coaches learn to thoughtfully reflect on their emotions. They have an implicit sense that all emotions are acceptable. They recognize the early warning signs of distress and call on emotion adjustment strategies (e.g. deep slow breathing, re-framing, talking to a friend, exercising) before the emotion gets the better of them.
Psychologists and Neuroscientists have also found that children who grow up with parents who use emotional coaching have a calmer central nervous system, a lower resting heart rate and a healthier emotional brain circuitry. These are the kids who stay cool under pressure!
Emotion dismissing parents can often be loving parents who want to be helpful but have formed the belief that emotions get in the way of thinking clearly. They believe that negative emotions are harmful, or they are uncomfortable themselves with negative emotions, so they seek to get rid of the emotion as quickly as possible by sweeping it under the rug. They may see positive emotions as trivial or a luxury. Some even see positive emotions as a bad thing.
These parents use dismissing strategies such as ignoring, distracting or shaming their children for having emotions.
Emotionally dismissive parents can sometimes be this way because their own negative emotions take priority in the relationship. This is often the case with parents who suffer from depression or anxiety. If your parents were like that then they probably reacted with impatience towards you when you were upset and possibly even punished you with their disapproval, ridicule or sarcasm for expressing your emotion.
Children who grow up with parents who are emotion dismissers learn very little about their emotions. Compared to children of emotional coaches, these children have poor emotional literacy, cannot label their feelings very well and do not cope well with stress. Their feelings either end being ‘bottled up’ or ‘blown up.’ Good old emotional hydraulics, ey?
It is not just that emotionally dismissive parenting robs a child of the benefits of emotional coaching. Psychologists have shown that emotion dismissive parenting is a risk factor for poor mental health and poor physical health in children and teenagers. What’s more these kids are likely to experience depression and anxiety which has been shown to be negatively related to strengths.
Most of us practice with our kids the methods we learned from our parents unless we make deliberate effort to change.
You might be feeling a little bit daunted at the idea of being an emotional coach, especially if you were raised with emotionally dismissive parents. Believe me, I get your nervousness, but the good news is that becoming an emotional coach is a skill you can learn.
You too can become an emotional coach.
The first step in becoming an emotional coach is to question your own beliefs about the nature of emotions. If you have grown up believing that they should be avoided, now is the time to question that belief for the sake of your kids.
The second step in emotion coaching is to help your child to tune into and harness their emotions. More on that next week…
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As a University researcher, Lea Waters, PhD, turns her science into strength-based strategies to help organizations, educators and parents around the world build resilience in their employees and children, helping them to thrive. Lea’s keynotes and talks offer her audience a unique blend of science and practice. To find out more about working with Lea or to book Lea for your next event, please fill out this online speaker request form.
Photo credits (in order of appearance): Ksenia Makagonova, Sebastian Leon Prado, Caroline Hernandez, and London Scout on Unsplash.
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