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.
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.’
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.’)
About the Author: Miki Dedijer
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