Few tasks are more important as a dad than to help our child develop an awareness of her feelings, and the ability to manage them. You can teach her how, guided by the five simple steps of emotion coaching.
It’s Saturday morning and my youngest son is restless, fickle and uneasy. I hear his muffled cries through the floorboards as he leaves his mom and brother in tears, and makes his way up the wooden stairs to where I am sitting in my office.
I close my computer, pick him up, and hold him as we sit down on his bed. And I hold him. And I let his tears soak my shirt.
When his tears subside, I gently ask him what he is feeling, and what has happened. After some hesitation and silence, he gradually shares that he is afraid that his birthday party tomorrow will be boring, and that his friends won’t like it.
[bctt tweet=”Men are just as capable of empathizing and responding to emotion as women are.”]
We spend a good twenty minutes slowly being with his fear and sadness. For a moment, it’s as if I can glimpse into my son’s world. I sense how overwhelmed he is by all the options, how much he wants his birthday to be fun, and how lost he is in knowing what to do.
When he has expressed himself as fully as he can, I ask him what will make it fun for him and his friends. Together we get creative, remembering the purpose of the gathering, and imagining all that might make it a lovely day with his friends.
Empathy is the foundation
As fathers, we’re crucial role models to our children on how to handle feelings. Though our culture may have us believe that as men, we don’t know as much about feelings as women, this is simply not true. Men are just as capable of empathizing and responding to emotion as women are, though we may have different ways of expressing ourselves. And we pass on what we know and what we are capable of to our children.
Developing an awareness of her inner world and feelings has a huge impact on our child’s wellbeing as an adult. I think it’s by far the most valuable skill a child can develop.
There’s a great process to help us teach our children about their feelings. It’s called Emotion Coaching , and I want to share it with you here.
The roots of this approach were developed by Haim Ginott. He was a child therapist and clinical psychologist who explored how to respect children’s feelings while setting limits on their behavior.
The core understanding of his approach is that what we resist, persists. Or put differently, when we deny our feelings they grow more intense and confusing. And when we acknowledge our feelings, we heal and learn how to solve problems.
Clinical psychologist John Gottman (who is a fantastic resource on relationship and parenting) did extensive clinical research to confirm that Ginott was right: empathy is the foundation of effective parenting. And, more specifically, dads who learn to guide their child with empathy have a huge impact on their emotional development, according to Gottman.
‘When fathers are aware of their kids’ feelings and try to help them solve problems, children do better in school and in relationships with others. In contrast, an emotionally distant dad—one who is harsh, critical, or dismissing of his children’s emotions—can have a deeply negative impact. His kids are more likely to do poorly in school, fight more with friends, and have poor health.’
[bctt tweet=”As fathers, we’re crucial role models to our children on how to handle feelings.”]
Five steps of emotion coaching
Gottman found that emotionally intelligent parents do five simple things when their child is overwrought. Here’s an adapted version of emotion coaching from his book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.
Become aware of your child’s feelings
This is deceptively simple, as it first asks that we ourselves are aware of our own feelings. The more comfortable we are with our own emotions, the more accepting we become of our child’s feelings.
This means that we are able to tune in to our children’s feelings, and welcome their experience without any judgements.
I had heard my son yell downstairs, and I heard his cries coming up the stairs. I had ample time to check in with myself, to notice some stress in me around interrupting my work, before I felt ready to welcome him with an open heart.
Recognize the feeling as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching
We may find our child’s feelings uncomfortable, threatening, disruptive. Imagine then what it must be like for her?
It is in these moments in particular that she needs an ally. That’s you! By holding your child, talking to her, acknowledging her in the midst of turmoil, you are showing her that you stand by her side.
She doesn’t have to face her challenges alone, without support. You are here to help guide her through this, her trusted confidant. You can learn to see her overwhelm as a chance to grow closer.
It makes a world of difference, to feel spacious enough to see our child’s intense emotions as a chance to bond and teach problem solving, rather than as a reason to impose our strength, rational intellect or authority.
Listen with empathy, validate what your child is experiencing
This is perhaps the core of teaching our child about her feelings: empathetic listening.
Anyone who has been in the same room with a child who is overcome with feelings knows there are many ways to listen.
We most likely will hear her cries, or perhaps a more subtle shift in her voice or even notice complete silence that tells us she is challenged.
Perhaps we will see her struggle with all that is happening too–she may be thrashing about, her face may show signs of sadness, perhaps her gestures change, or something about her body signals pain or confusion.
We can also feel her energy–sometimes it’s so strong it feels like it ripples through the air that jolts us. Sometimes it’s a far more subtle signal that she may need a compassionate ear.
We can also use our imagination to begin to understand our child’s experience, maybe by remembering how it was for ourselves as a child in a similar situation.
Whatever way we sense our child’s struggle, this is a chance to acknowledge her experience by reflecting back what we’re seeing, hearing, feeling, sensing or imagining. We may feel an urge to offer facts, logic or rationality to help her out of her dilemma. But we then are likely to rob her of a chance to learn more about herself and her way in this world.
Our role here is to empathize, be generous with our time, and allow her to reach her own conclusions. Empathizing with our child, allows us to understand and describe their intense feelings. We are not telling her what she feels. We are gently sharing what we are sensing and recognizing about her, and exploring her experience with loving curiosity.
Help your child label her emotions.
A child is easily overwhelmed by her feelings. And there may be an underlying fear that all this intensity is too much for her mom and dad too.
As fathers, we can help our child orient herself by labelling her emotions as they arise, and support her in developing a vocabulary for her feelings. Defining the feelings helps our child sooth herself, recover more quickly, and build resilience. It also allows her to recognize her feelings as a normal part of her self-expression.
“You feel very sad, don’t you?”
This question shows our child she is understood, and offers her a word to describe an intense feeling.
Set limits while problem solving
Once your child has expressed herself fully, and has some words to describe what she’s feeling, there’s a natural space for setting limits and solving problems.
This is the work that kept Haim Ginott busy–allowing children to express all their feelings but not all their behaviors.
This is about setting limits on your child’s behavior and exploring other ways of expressing herself.
An angry child may lash out at a sibling, throw a toy, slam a door. “You’re afraid that your party will be boring, and sad that you don’t know what to do about it. I know I’ve felt like that too. But it’s not ok to throw your books down the stairs. What can you do instead?”
Pinata and hugs
The beauty of this process (which becomes easeful with time), is how it nurtures a loving relationship with our children.
After our time being with all of his feelings, my son realizes he wants a party that will be enjoyable for all his friends. And he surprises me with the idea of having a pinata filled with bouncing balls. And a fire in the woods. And a game everyone can play.
Once he’d found a way to create the party in a way that answered his fears and concerns, he was delighted. He hugged me and kissed me and said I was the best dad ever.
And you know what?
For a moment there, I felt I was too!
(See here for Miki’s free ebook for depleted dads: ‘7 Steps to a Lot More Energy As a Dad.’)
My wife just sent me this link. I read the article and find it VERY interesting. I have a lot to learn. Have learned a lot from my wife over the past 20 years- We have 5 kids under 10- I want to know if you have a book recommendation? Maybe on a kindle? It is better on my eyes 🙂
Until then, I will study your 5 five steps- thank you so much!
In addition to books recommended by Miki, I would highly recommend Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.), by Thomas Gordon. P.E.T. I’ve taught this course for many years, with a large number of fathers attending the course, who found big improvements in their relationships with their children.
The book is highly practical, explaining how to empathically listen (emotion coaching); how to be respectfully assertive while maintaining the relationship, and how to resolve conflict peacefully, without using punishment or reward. I understand it is available on Kindle.
I hope this is a useful addition to your library.
It’s been a while since you posted, so I’m not sure you’ll see this.
There are very many really great books to read on parenting in general, and on fatherhood as well.
It would be helpful to know if you’re sitting with anything specific at the moment, a challenge as a father, or a dream for your children, that you could use some inspiration, insights or tools to explore.
For emotion coaching, I highly recommend exploring the work of John Gottman (gottman.com).
For a deeper understanding of what it takes to parent with heart, I really love the work of Robin Grille. His book Heart-to-heart parenting is lovely.
And with 5 children under 10 years of age, I’d imagine you’re an expert already.
I’m finding we try so hard to empathize with our nearly 7 year old boy. He has always had the strongest emotions and reactions. I started my parenting journey trying to control and it made my life with this child so much harder. I wish I could go back. I’ve really tried to be my son’s rock and given him firm boundaries (when I’m not emotionally available, or he tries to hurt me or I’m just exhausted etc) and it has been great and it has changed our world. My husband has been in resistance but has been summoning up all of his empathy to follow my lead and it has really helped their relationship so much. Often times I just find myself saying to my son something like “wow you’re really having a hard time I see you and I’m here to listen but we need to use our words and not hurt others” (or whatever has happened) etc but over and over again I’m at a loss for what triggers him each time. He wakes up in the morning looking to pick a fight more often than not since he was very little. Such a terrible start to the day(s!!!). We’ve tried diet, more sleep (he hates sleep but has gotten better and gets enough now). It so hard. It’s also extremely hard becasue he doesn’t talk his feelings or what’s going on so I just have to throw things out there but usually when I find out what it is, it’s something that’s totally different. He doesn’t recount things about school, or if someone did something what he’s feeling, what’s going on for him, only shows us something is off via actions. It has gotten better with age but it’s so hard some days!! He’s so loving and helpful also and really dislikes when kids aren’t doing the right thing or being kind. I’d feel like such a parenting failure if we didn’t have two other kids that don’t feel things as strongly (and frequently) and act out at home. Thank goodness it’s only at our house. I try and make sure I have space to breathe deeply and know we’ll get through it and that he feels safe to show us these emotions.
Sara–This is so much you and your husband are holding, and I’m awed at your willingness to continuously learn, adapt and be the rock your son needs.
It’s hard, challenging and triggering, and I hear you do what you can to set boundaries and give yourself space to breathe and ground yourself. I can’t help but think your son choose you for a good reason!
And, I wonder what you make of your observation that he shows this range of feeling in your house only (if I got that right)?
Also, boys are more challenged verbally than girls, and he may not be able to articulate what is going on in his body, or even know why. Just having that safe space to allow these energies to move through him can be just what he needs to learn to accept himself and, with time, find greater equilibrium.
I think it’s not that our culture makes us believe that men don’t know much about emotions. Rather, it restricts men from exploring those emotions because it’s not “manly.” Which is sad because then, the energy is bottled up, so frequently resulting to explosions (manifested in wrong major life choices).
However, like Jenn above, I agree that these 5-step emotion coaching can do wonders for all sorts of relationships. Especially steps 3 and 4, which we often forget once we start focusing on our own feelings instead of the other person’s.
It’s also useful to understand that emotions tend to come in groups. If we want to get to the root of the problem, we must know all the emotions we have at that given moment.
Hey Annie–yup–learning to listen deeply is a practice for sure, and being able to devote our undivided attention to another person, especially our children, is a skill most of us can continue to develop.
Due to some very poor life choices, I spent time incarcerated on and off during my son’s early years (ages 6 – 10, but only a total of three years during that time). When I was released for the final time, after our “honeymoon,” my ex and I had a very angry young boy on our hands. For his part, my ex have our son the most precious gift in the world: be forgave me, allowing our son to forgive me as well. Obviously, that did not happen over night. For my part, I “allowed” or not to be angry and to talk about how he felt. He would call me “poo poo mommy” and tell me I was bad. I explained to him that I did some bad things, but I was not a bad mommy. When he would scream “I hate you Mommy!” I would just tell him “that’s OK. I love you enough for both of us.” today, I have a fantastic relationship with both my ex and my son. I believe that by encouraging our son to express himself without judgment, his dad and I literally saved his emotional life.
Karilinn this is such a wonderful story. Your ex husband sounds like an amazing man and you have put up a brave and honest fight to nurture your son’s emotional wellbeing. I’m so pleased the three of you have been able to look after each other the way you have.
Thank you Karinlinn for sharing your story, and how you created the safe space for your son to release and reconnect in a family dynamic that must have been very challenging for all of you. It’s so heartening to hear the unconditional way you held your boy, and it’s inspiring for me as a father to hear how your ex found it in his heart to forgive and role model such beautiful compassion.
Lovely post – thank you. I am so pleased when I see this gentle approach to parenting being described in such warm and practical terms.
I am a huge fan of Dr Thomas Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training (P.E.T.). I think it was with this far-sighted course that the importance of parents recognising their children’s emotions first began (1962). In P.E.T., parents are taught the skill not only of emotion coaching (which Dr Gordon called ‘active listening’), but also assertiveness, how to deal with resistance, and problem solving. I feel saddened, however, when P.E.T. is not acknowledged.
I agree with you about Dads and emotions. I’ve found that fathers really seem to appreciate an approach to parenting such as you’ve described.
Thank you again.
Hi Larissa–Thank you for sharing your passion for P.E.T. I hadn’t heard of it before. There are so many threads woven into this warm, genlte way of holding our children. This is what our children are born to expect, and it’s also the parenting that comes naturally to most earth-based cultures. We’re only rediscovering what we have known for most of our history of guiding children towards adulthood–that our task is to make sure they always feel safe and connected.
Thank you Miki. I agree – respectful and warm connection is key. I have taught (and used) P.E.T. for many years, and a high proportion of fathers attend the courses (over 35%). They comment about the importance of the skills you’ve discussed (and more) in building and maintaining a positive and on-going relationship with their child – and their partner.
This is such a valuable piece that I wish all dads would read! I’ve sent it along to my husband.
Also, I just took a look at your blog, Miki, and am so inspired by your personal journey. You are amazing and a true inspiration. I’m glad you found what seems to be your true calling, and are spreading that light wherever you can shine it. Shine on!
Thank you Elizabeth! Will do.
great article; clear, simple and easy to follow to know what to do ~ and also a very important topic. thanks for sharing ~ Darcy
I’m glad you find it helpful Darcy.
Great read, thank you! For labelling emotions you suggested to say something like “you feel very sad, don’t you?” I have heard that with children below 6 years this might be problematic because they tend to perceive this as the statement “you ARE sadness” which makes them confused, afraid or angry, because little Fin will think that he is Fin and not Sadness. Which is why with smaller children visualisations of things or animals that have this emotion are very effective and valuable. What is your take on this, do you have any experience or tips about this? All the best, Claudia
That makes a lot of sense Claudia. And I think falling back to common sense, our own gut feeling for what is needed in the moment to comfort a specific child, is oftentimes the best we can do.
When it comes to helping a child validate and release her feelings, our most loving response is often to simply listen, comfort and be present. Words can be superfluous and labelling the emotions for a small child may be confusing or unnecessary as you suggest. The aim is to help our child fully express and accept her emotions.
As long as we’re coming from our most tender, empathetic self in being with our suffering child, I think we’re doing really well. With time, if it feels right, we may help our child identify and name her feelings with a gentle, compassionate curiosity.
I could not agree with you more. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of parents out there whom have found themselves co-parenting with individuals with NPD, Sociopaths and Psychopaths. These distorted individuals don’t feel empathy or compassion and view their children and others as mere objects that they use for self serving needs, mainly giving them Narcissistic Supply / Attention. They are the abusers and the parents that screw their children up by raging at them and causing them emotional distress. These children grow up to either become like their unempathetic role model or they end up in therapy and recovering from their childhood. How does someone show a child empathy when they don’t have the ability to feel any themselves. They can’t. And then the cycle through generations continues….
Hi Carla–I profoundly hope that each one of us have partners who are like ourselves are intent on holding our children with great care and attention. And I recognize that this is unfortunately not always so. There are quite a lot of studies–including the Harvard Grant study–that show the lifelong impact on a child of having at least one loving, supportive, aware adult in their lives. This can go a long way for that child to grow up resilient and whole, despite possible trauma. I believe we can each be that one person for a child.
This is very lovely. In my mind it is simply mindful parenting though I totally aporeciate it being put the way it has been as some people are turned off by labels such as this 🙂
I know what you mean, so many labels, techniques, tools. Emotion coaching, mindful parenting, conscious parenting, attachment parenting, village parenting, awareness parenting–there are so many ways we begin to learn and to practice how to be more present with our children, and to intentionally create a home environment that honors our children’s blueprint for connection.
At heart, it’s about staying with our children through their overwhelm, fears and their abundant joy too, doing what we can to create a safe place for them to grow.
I love this. Not always easy to practise but so powerful and not just with kids. I was stuck in a situation at work where I was dealing with a really angry mother. I know what it’s like to feel angry in regards to my children even if I didn’t agree with her. All I did was acknowledge her feelings and try to empathize and I was amazed at how quickly the atmosphere changed. It made my job so much easier the next three shifts because she trusted me. I’ll admit it’s harder with my kids but I’m working on it.
I think your anecdote is spot on–building trust lies at the heart of this. So many of us just want to be heard, to have a compassionate ear willing to fully receive our experience of the world without interruptions or advice. A safe place where all of us are fully welcome.
Few of us adults have this, and in my experience even fewer children. Emotion coaching is one way to guide us towards providing that for our children, and to practice carving out the time and the space in our lives to make this happen.
As you observed, it’s amazing how the family dynamics flow more readily, when we acknowledge our child’s experience as truth, and her feelings as valid.