Emotion coaching children is giving them everything they need to thrive in this world; to lead their lives and influence others with compassion, empathy, sensitivity, vulnerability, and love.
When I was four years old, we moved from the Ukraine to Israel. That night is one of my earliest memories. I was terrified. My father put me to bed without too many words, covered me, and left the room. That night I peed in bed. In the morning, when we woke up and my misdemeanor was discovered, my father yelled at me with everything that he had. Sure, he was stressed; but so was I. And I was four.
We went down for breakfast; the absorption center was crowded, noisy, and it was hot. So very hot. Nothing like cold Ukraine I just came from. And no one spoke to me. They served soup. I tried to eat like a good girl, but my hand was shaking, just like my soul. And so I spilled soup all around me, and I was sent back to the room until I’m able to present myself in public again respectfully. I have no idea when that finally happened, maybe when I was six? 🙂
Emotions, you see, are a discomfort to most of us.
Most of us were sent to our rooms and ordered to come back once we’ve relaxed. Most men were taught that boys don’t cry. Most girls were taught to be seen, but not heard. Most of us still believe that expressing emotions is a sign of weakness. But take a look at our world. Divorce rates are skyrocketing across the globe. So are depression and suicide rates, violence, and bullying.
We are, clearly, on a troubled path.
Why Should We Coach our Children to Emotions?
Being aware of our needs and feelings is knowing who we are; it is knowing what we want, what we don’t want, what serves us and what doesn’t, it is about being true to ourselves. It is about building the courage and living a life of authentic self-expression, an autonomous experience that we control, rather than allowing ourselves to be controlled by others. This, to me, is the purpose of parenting: raising children who are free from harmful social structures, children who are open to being themselves, who know that they are loved and accepted, who are free to love and accept others.
Approaching Emotion Coaching Children with Confidence
There is a “right” way to address emotion coaching if we want it to be meaningful, and that way is the way of responding, rather than reacting.
When we react to our children’s emotions, our reaction comes from our own emotions, meaning that we act as an absorption center where all these feelings that have nothing to do with us mold into something we call our own that triggers a reaction.
When we respond, on the other hand, we acknowledge the fact that these feelings are our children’s. As such they (1) have nothing to do with us, (2) have nothing to do with the way we see the world, (3) they are not created by our children to trigger anything within us, and (4) that as their parents it is our job to guide them through the process.
Thus, if we are triggered, if we are not calm and present with the emotion – our children won’t be, either. So the first step to emotion coaching someone else is emotion coaching ourselves.
#1 Check-In With Yourself
When our kids burst out with emotions, our reaction is triggered by our thoughts.
This morning I was enjoying my coffee on the balcony when I heard Ilay is crying. He was there with his dad, so I continued Facebooking 🙂 And then I heard Jon calling me. “VIKI!!!!”. I walked in and asked what happened. “Ilay wants to put Ketchup on his Krispies!”. “And?” I asked. “Well, I’m not allowing it!”. “Okay, so what do you NEED from me?” I asked. “I NEED you to support me on this one!” he candidly answered. Which is great! However, I was not about to support him on this one.
The Ketchup Incident
“And why is that a problem”? I asked. “Because Ketchup on Krispies is….” and he turned away and I saw that he was already smiling. “What is it? “Not normal”? And Jon didn’t answer. So I had my green light to take care of this.
You see, Ilay doesn’t yet know that Ketchup on Krispies is “not normal” (whatever that even means), that was Jon’s thought, his interpretation of the situation, his judgment that he was willing to pursue even at the cost of a fight.
I told Ilay that I don’t think he would like the taste, “but let’s take another plate, put one Krispie on it, and you can put Ketchup on it, and give it a try. See if you like it”. He didn’t, of course. But even if he would have – it would have been HIS OWN EXPERIENCE, his OWN DECISION. And that would have been fine. Just fine. This is how we learn what SUITS US.
The Trick That Makes IT Happen
Observation without evaluation is the only way for us to let our children experience the world themselves. It is the ability to live in the NOW without giving the stories in our thoughts the control over our lives, and the lives of others.
And this is the purpose of the emotional check-in – am I reacting? If I am, then what thoughts or beliefs am I reacting to? Once we have these, it’s clear to see that we are reacting to ourselves, rather than responding to what is actually happening.
#2 Create a Safe Space for the Feels
Now let’s assume it wasn’t Ketchup what we were talking about, but something else, something undebatable, something that we really can’t allow or cannot happen. We, for example, only allow one snack a day, and it has to be in the middle of the day, not at night or in the morning. While usually there are no issues with it, sometimes, if Ilay is tired or overwhelmed, this can turn into an emotional outburst.
Creating a safe space means allowing the child to do whatever he needs to vent his unpleasant emotions. This is HIS space, and it has nothing to do with us. Everything he says there is his and cannot be taken personally by us, as it is not against us. It’s for him. Taking things personally, by the way, is one of the things parents do that make parenting so much harder. Because someone else’s emotions never-ever have anything to do with us.
The Wall of Futility
In this safe space, we will be whatever our child needs us to be to allow him to vent and to relax, until his feelings hit the Wall of Futility, as Gordon Neufeld calls it, the inner understanding that these unpleasant emotions will not lead to the desired change. While at it, some children allow touch or respond well when spoken to, others don’t.
I just sit there, on the floor, letting Ilay know that I am there for him, whenever he is ready. This is what works for us. I’ve worked with parents who were asked to leave the room, parents who were asked to hug and cuddle, parents who were asked to remain in sight, but not too close… We all consume our empathy in different ways 🙂
This is the hardest part. Of everything. We’re not used to empathy, we don’t know how to practice it, we don’t know how to show it. Some of us even struggle with the idea of empathy. If you are one, you’re okay – given what you were taught, there’s very little you could do differently. But you are learning now, and this is the best thing you can do for yourself and for your family.
Empathy is about accepting the pain. Being with the pain, being in the pain. Not trying to change it, affect it, alter it, make it better, or push it away. Pain that is seen, recognized, and given its space is pain that we learn from, it’s the pain that we grow from.
I like imagining children’s emotional being like a bucket of white paint (it doesn’t apply to too many adults, does it?). If we allow drops of other colors the process of blending in, there would be no effect to the grand mass of paint, but if we leave them, push them away time after time, they will accumulate somewhere along the side of the bucket, and they will be back to haunt us. That’s what unprocessed emotions and unmet needs do.
So let’s say your child really wants to hang out with kids who can’t make it that day. He’s disappointed, upset, sad, maybe even lonely, and this is when we come with “pain-pushing” responses. “Common honey, we can play with someone else/do something else/go somewhere else/ hey – did you see that bird?/want to go for ice cream”?
These are the classical tactics that we’ve been parented by, and the primary way in which we learned to push our feelings away, suppress them under momentary distractions and alleged happiness. But it doesn’t help the black drop of paint to blend in, it only pushes it to the side, where it will patiently wait for more drops to join until the pain is too significant to handle.
So how do we empathize?
We start by welcoming and mirroring all feelings. We welcome all feelings because we want our children to learn how to handle their emotions instead of being handled by them.
We then mirror because when the child feels that his pain is seen and heard, he is no longer controlled by his pain. When children’s pain is not understood, they NEED to make us see and hear that they are in pain, and so they scream louder. “Wow, you really like your friend Tom, don’t you? You had so much fun playing with him last week, and you really want to do it again. I get it”.
Observation, Repetition, Mirroring
To really give our children the feeling of being seen and heard, we can repeat their words. “I hear you. I understand you. Tom is your best friend”. Another way to meet this need is to describe our children’s physical representations of feelings. If they are biting their lips, frowning their mouths, holding their hands tight, hugging themselves or bluntly hitting the couch; all these are physical representations of emotions.
Once we start noticing these representations with our children, they will slowly learn how to recognize their emotions by their body language, and the best thing about it is that it will help them identify and react to emotions with other people, too. No learning is ever one-sided. “I see that you are frowning your lips, this means you are really sad.”
Then, speak the child’s desired reality, so that he would know why he feels the way that he feels. “You wish you could have played with Tom again today. You had so much fun last time. This day didn’t turn out exactly as you wanted it to, did it”?.
You might get the guess right, you might be wrong; if you’re wrong, your child will correct you and if so – no harm was done, and the same result was achieved – you little one gained the sense of being seen and heard, of expressing his feelings to someone who accepts, someone who is connected, and doesn’t judge. “No, mom, I wanted Tom to see my new car.”
The concept of empathetic guesses is a revelation brought to us by Nonviolent Communication; the difference between guessing and stating is that we never imply the knowledge of someone else’s experience, but rather, ask for their permission to take part in their pain.
Many people mistake validating for agreeing. Validating one’s feelings doesn’t mean we agree with the cause of the feeling, it doesn’t mean we would feel the same, it doesn’t mean we perpetuate the pain. It means that we see how something makes someone feel.
You Can Feel It Too…
There’s a child in every one of us. Deep inside, under the layers of self-protection, we’ve laid over our souls for as long as we’ve lived, deep down there’s a child who knows the pain of not being able to have something they want. It’s our adult thoughts telling that us not being able to watch more TV now, or not being able to play with the one friend we want to play with is not so bad, because we can do that tomorrow, or because we’ve watched enough. A child’s pain is not there yet. A child can’t see into reasons, into the past, or into the future. Children are present in the present, and when the present hurts – it’s the only thing there.
Here are a few sentences to help you validate your child’s feelings without letting your adult thoughts the opportunity to negate:
“Wow, that must hurt so bad”
“That must feel so awful/embarrassing/distressing/scary”
“I hear how <insert feeling> you feel about this. What do you need from me”?
“I hear how <insert feeling> you feel about this. Would you like to tell me more?”
Mind The BUT
There’s a colossal stop word that is very easily inserted after any of these sentence examples, it’s a word we use all the time, and unknowingly this word takes us away from empathy and validation and back into the sphere of “I want to change the way you feel.” This word is but.
“I can see how sad you are feeling about this, but it’s really not that bad”
“I can see how disappointed you are, but it’s really not the end of the world”
When we feel the word but crawling out, it means that no, we don’t see how bad or scary it was. Because for the child, it is that bad. Avoid this word; it doesn’t only take the child away from his current experience, but it also prevents you from being there with him.
#5 Problem Solve
If you were worried we would not be looking at the actual problem and just spiral in the sphere of feelings, here it is. Problem-solving is an essential part of this process, but it’s not the first part (where it merely works to push feelings away), it’s the last part after all feelings have been internalized and processed.
Problem-solving when the soul is a turmoil is not possible, and pushing this part to the very beginning of the list is one of the biggest mistakes parents do when handling their children emotions. In the heat of the moment, a child is not free to even look for possible solutions, he is, literally, blinded by his pain. Trying to problem solve without addressing the emotions and going through the process above creates more pain by intensifying the feelings that are already present.
Usually, if all previous steps were taken, the child will come up with the solution himself. He won’t need your help, and if he will – hell ask for it.
The Benefits of Emotion Coaching Children
This sounds time-consuming, I know. But the truth is, that it’s the shortest and fastest alternative. Actively trying to convince your child to do something he doesn’t want to do while screaming and crying takes much longer. And the more practice you’ll get with this process, the faster and more natural it will become. And this is in addition to the variety of emotional benefits emotion coaching comes with:
- Giving children the knowledge of feelings and how they respond to different feelings
- Normalizing the different feelings
- Teaching coping strategies
- Teaching recognition of feelings
- Preventing the aftermath of unrecognized pain
- Avoiding the consequence of unmet needs
- Fostering an environment of acceptance
- Teaching problem solving
I always say that no learning is ever one-sided; anything a child learns how to do with regards to himself, he will learn how to do with regards to others. Everything that we show our children is what they will learn and bring to the world when they grow up.
Making the right decision here is crucial not only for us and for our children, but for the entire world. Our children are our future leaders, and it is up to us to determine which qualities they will lead with.
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