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Parents as Emotional Competence Coaches
Children can have BIG emotions that are challenging for us as adults to comprehend. I think we’ve all been perplexed as we observe a young child have a melt-down over seemingly insignificant or daily occurrences, such as crusts on their sandwiches, a dead fly on the window sill, or someone looked at them.
While it can be confusing to us as adults to understand why their responses seem so ‘over the top’ at times, we must remember that young children have to be coached to build emotional competence, or what is sometimes referred to as emotional intelligence. Personally, I prefer the word ‘competence’ because it signals skill building, whereas ‘intelligence’ is often used when talking about innate knowing or the learning potential that we are born with.
Strategies for Parents
Because children can be overwhelmed by their own emotions, it is very important that we as parents and adults who guide children that we are in a place of ‘calm, steady confidence’. Dr. Laura Markham suggests these strategies to help. I’ve built upon these suggestions based on my own experience in this field.
1) Calm yourself first: Just like that example of using the oxygen mask first on the plane, it is vitally important that you calm yourself first when dealing with children’s BIG emotions. Try not to take your child’s outburst personally, as it can be embarrassing when children erupt in public places. Even in the privacy of home environments, children can toss out those ‘I hate you’s that burn into our hearts, but know that these verbal eruptions come from an under-resourced and under-skilled place. You can also help avoid similar future outbursts of those oh-so hurtful words by not over reacting. Sometimes children learn our emotional buttons and use them as leverage. By not getting ruffled, you are also teaching your child to remain calm though example. Take a break if you need it. Step into another room if you need to regain composure before returning to help your child with a calm heart and quieter mind.
In short… do what you need to do to RESPOND rather than REACT. Become RESPONSE-ABLE. You may need to practice in order to build your own skill in this area. Be compassionate with yourself if you are just learning too.
2) Connect and create safety: Reach out and connect emotionally with your child, including being physically close. Touch your child as you speak calmly. Get on your child’s level by lowering yourself to the floor. Smile at your child as you speak so that they don’t misread your facial expressions as angry and become further triggered through fear. You can even say to your child “You are safe” and “You can handle this” or “I’m here to help you”. Reminding them of your role as a leader can help them to feel safe and secure. Ensure that you breathe deeply to help your child breathe more slowly. Teaching your child through modeling is much more resourceful than telling them. This is also profoundly self-regulating for the child, especially if they are crying or screaming. Their nervous system needs soothing first. Think of soothing first as emotional first aid.
Another skill that I use here is to tone with children. Toning is matching the sound without words. If your child is crying, begin making a pleasant sound in the same range as your child, and they may join you. Toning is one way to transform big emotions without saying a word. You both sing your way out of the emotional eruption.
Capsule: Help your child calm down with deep breathing, offer comfort at their level and shift the energy through vocalizations if possible.
3) Empathize: Showing children compassion when they have temper tantrums is one of the best ways to diffuse the situation, but even more importantly, it helps the child to feel safe in your presence which increases the bond and trust between you. We all mess up occasionally because we are human. Just try to ensure that you are adulting MOST of the time.
If your child has yelled directly at you, instead of defending yourself with a typical parenting quip like “Don’t you talk to me like that” or “Tone, young lady”, offer something that is not only more compassionate, but also helps them to build the skills they need to develop emotional competence. Try instead saying something like “You must be very upset to speak to me like that. What is happening?”. Dr. Markham suggests that if you don’t know the specific emotion your child is experiencing, using the word ‘upset’ is resourceful to capture all the BIG emotions that are upsetting, such as fear, anger, frustration, loneliness, and possessiveness. Later you can drill down to find out what emotion they were feeling.
And don’t forget that sometimes words are overrated. Sometimes all that is needed is your soft and safe proximity to a child to help them regulate. Sit with them, breathe with them and offer hugs if they want them. You can also help your anxious child by saying “You don’t have to talk right now if you don’t want. We can sit here together until you feel ready”. Remind them that they are safe, and then ensure that they feel that way by being compassionate rather than judgmental. Showing children that we can handle their big emotions helps them to feel safe and secure. Showing children that we understand their big emotions helps them to learn how to handle them because they feel seen, heard and known.
4) Check-in for understanding: Once you regains composure, check in with them to see how they were actually feeling. For very young children, you may coach them by saying something like “You looked very frustrated when you were screaming”. They will tell you if they are able whether you are correct or not. I’ve used this line with kids who immediately corrected me, saying “I’m very angry”. Knowing how a child is actually feeling is tremendously helpful in guiding them.
Your child may also say “I’m not mad” or “I’m not frustrated” when clearly they were feeling something BIG. Take this as a signal that your child may not feel safe telling you how they really feel. They may feel judged or analyzed rather than understood. If this is the case, you’ll need to work on building trust first, then come back to emotional competence.
You want your child to become AWARE and be able to EXPRESS how they are feeling in PROSOCIAL ways. Help them by noticing what they are feeling, checking in to see if that corresponds with their experience, and then help them to direct their feelings in appropriate ways. Often the process of acknowledging your child’s big emotions without any intervention is enough. Learn to be patient with the process before being so quick to offer a fix.
5) Deepen the conversation: Dr. Markham suggests ‘offering support and validating your child’s emotions” as profoundly helpful in building emotional competence. Remember that offering validation is not the same as condoning the behaviour. By saying to your child “You seemed very angry just now”, they may feel so relieved that this can often diffuse the situation right then. There is nothing quite so satisfying as feeling validated.
We can even say things like “I didn’t understand how important this is to you, let’s find a way to make this work for you”. This is so useful when helping a child learn to share, by acknowledging their strong preferences first, and then offering skill building tools after, such as “Would it work for you to play with this toy first, and then you can offer it to your friend when you are done?”. This is so much more respectful to the child’s level of development than just forcing your child to share.
Sanya Pelini suggests that a number of studies suggest that fear is the most difficult emotion for toddlers, so be sure to be especially tender with your toddler if you suspect they are afraid. First, make it safe to express fear and then help them to build skills to deal with their fears. If they are afraid of meeting new people, you can help them by remaining very close to them as they interact with people they don’t know.
Pelini also suggests looking for emotions in the environment and naming them as a way to help children learn what they are. For example “She sure looks angry… what do you think?”. Your child may see the situation differently, and that gives you some very valuable information into their emotional worlds. These are great conversation starters too, if you want to explore more emotions with your child. Be mindful. I once had one of my sons interrogate a cranky server in a restaurant. I heard all of my words come through him, and it was a marvelous thing to witness, the server brighten under the light of my son’s compassion.
Coping with Big Emotions
Dr. Azine Graff reminds us that our children have fewer tools in their toolbox than parents, so compassion, patience and practice are always a good ideas. Dr. Daniel Siegel says we have to “name it to tame it”. One of the best tools we have in helping children cope with BIG emotions is to name them, then help them to tame them.
“I’m wondering if you are angry right now”
“I see how proud you feel about making that huge tower, and how disappointed you were when it fell down”
“Do you feel sad when you see that dead fly?”
After naming the emotion, you can then help them to tame it by offering suggestions for ‘next steps’.
“Do you know what made you so angry, or would you like some help in figuring that out”
“When you’re ready we can try to put the tower of blocks back together”
“Shall we take the fly outside and say a little prayer for it?”
Here are a few of Dr. Graff’s more sophisticated suggestions of things you can say to help your child to cope with big emotions:
“We can take some deep breaths together, so it can help you to feel better”
“I will move over to the couch and I am here for you when you want a hug”
“I can help you with your scratched knee”
“Would you like to ask her if you can play with that toy once she is done? We can play with this while you wait”.
By putting reflections, explanations and coping skills together, Dr. Graff believes that you are giving your child the foundational skills to manage emotions as they develop through life. One of the best tools I discovered with my own children was to apologize and explain if I lost my own temper. I’d say “If I could do this over again, I would do this…..” And I let them know that I learned from my own mistakes.
Demonstrating healthy coping with big emotions is vital, because as you well know, Children follow what you do more than what you say. Be mindful. And allow yourself the space, time and compassion to practice.
Pelini, S. (2017). An age-by-age guide to helping kids manage emotions. Mother-ly (On-line magazine). https://www.mother.ly/parenting/age-by-age-guide-to-helping-kids-manage-emotions
Markham, L. (2018). 6 strategies to help your small child process their big feelings. Mother-ly (On-line magaine). https://www.mother.ly/child/6-simple-steps-to-help-your-small-child-manage-their-big-feelings
Graff, A. (2018). 13 phrases to build your child’s emotional intelligence. Mother-ly (On-line magazine). https://www.mother.ly/child/13-phrases-to-build-your-childs-emotional-intelligence