Emotion Coaching: A New Way to Guide Very Young Children

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Mom with kids on a lawn Parenting is one of the hardest jobs we’ll ever have. More than anything we want to help our kids grow into healthy, happy adults. Yet when they don’t behave the way we want them to, it’s all too easy to resort to tactics we’re not proud of. Yelling. Threatening. Even spanking. We use these discredited discipline techniques even though we can clearly see that they are not effective. And not only do they make our kids feel bad, they make us feel even worse. And yet, because we don’t know any good alternatives, we stay stuck in the cycle of negativity...and nothing ever changes.

The good news is that there is a parenting technique that lays out a loving, nurturing path for raising happy, well-adjusted, well-behaved children. It’s called emotion coaching and it feels good to parents and kids alike. And best of all, it works.

At its heart, emotion coaching is about teaching your child how to recognize and express the way he is feeling in an appropriate way. Once you are able to help your child to understand and communicate his feelings according to his developmental abilities, you’ll see a change in the way you interact with one another. Not only will you begin to see results, you’ll feel great about the relationship you are nurturing with your child.

Emotion coaching is a gentle, open-hearted alternative to old-fashioned, often aggressive discipline that can be used with babies, toddlers, preschoolers, and young school-age children. Ultimately, it gives parents the know-how and the confidence to build strong, productive relationships with their children.

Emotion Coaching Helps Combat Four Common Parenting Roadblocks

So if emotion coaching is the answer we’ve all been waiting for, why aren’t more parents doing it? I believe there are four common roadblocks that trip up even the most well-meaning parents. Read on to see if these obstacles are holding you down and to see how emotion coaching can help you to parent more successfully:

ROADBLOCK #1: You Default to One of Two Extremes: Control-Based or Hands-Off Parenting.

Picture this: It’s late afternoon and you’ve (finally!) found five minutes to make the phone call that’s been on your list all day. Meanwhile, your children, who are admittedly going a little stir crazy, are running up and down the hallway, feet pounding on the wood floor and yelling after one another as they play a raucous and rowdy game of “tag.” As the noise level rises, your patience wanes, and you feel your frustration begin to boil over to near-combustion levels.

So now what do you do? If you’re like many parents, it depends on which of the two “traditional” choices you gravitate toward. Maybe you blow a gasket, screaming at your kids to pipe down and go to their rooms—or else. Or maybe you simply raise your white flag—find a way to excuse yourself off the call, sighing heavily and throwing your hands up in surrender—because kids will be kids no matter what you do.

Emotion Coaching Solution: Find the middle road.

There is a middle road here—and emotion coaching provides a solution that works for both the parents and the kids. In this particular case, there’s no need for punishment, but the kids should not be allowed to disrupt their mother’s phone call either.

Instead of yelling or ignoring, the emotion coach mom takes a deep breath and says, "Guys, you are being really loud. I can see that you have tons of energy—so can you take it outside, please? I’ll come out and play with you as soon as I’m off the phone. Right now, I need your help, so please head out back."

ROADBLOCK #2: You Discount, Minimize, or Deny Your Child’s Feelings.

Discounting, minimizing, or denying a child’s statements or feelings are knee-jerk reactions for most parents. Everyone does it—and usually without realizing they are doing it in the first place. The reason is that we have a tendency to put our own feelings and issues before our children’s.

For example, if your child complains of being hungry thirty minutes after you ate lunch together, you think about the fact that you just ate, and you aren’t hungry, so there is no way that she can be hungry either. Rather than stopping to consider how she truly feels, you discount her feelings and brush off her request with a dismissive, “Oh, you couldn’t possibly be hungry!”

Or, for example, let’s say Tommy falls down on the playground, and you pick him up, brush him off, and tell him he’s all right. You may think that you are doing the right thing by parenting him to not be overly sensitive and to “get back on the horse.” In actuality, you are (unintentionally) neglecting to think about what emotions that incident may stir up for him: pain, fear, or embarrassment, for example.

Emotion Coaching Solution: Put yourself in their (tiny) shoes.

Emotion coaching teaches us to explore a situation instead of immediately discounting or denying a child’s statement and feelings. As an emotion coach parent, you will always come from a place of empathy. So before you jump in to discount something that your child says, your first thoughts should always be, What is really going on here? What is my child feeling?

So when Tommy falls, you might ask, "Did you hurt yourself? Or are you just scared?"And if he says that he is scared, you should affirm his emotions—tell him that it’s scary to fall down and ask if he wants to come sit with you for a few minutes before returning to play. The key is to be supportive.

ROADBLOCK #3: You Bribe With External Motivation and Rewards.

What parent doesn’t love to reward her children for good behavior? Sticker charts, rewards for good behavior, and, let’s face it, straight-up bribery are all tactics that are nearly as old as parenting itself.  If you want to get your kid to pick up his room, then you reward him with TV time or a new toy. If you are working to potty train your toddler, then you may reward her for a “job” well done with a sticker or M&M.

However, that asking your child to behave a certain way for a treat is generally not a good idea. In the case of the potty-training toddler, if she has accidents and can’t get the reward, she will decide not to value it anymore. And as for the room-cleaning bribe, well, we must all learn to cooperate in life without expecting something in return—so giving external rewards teaches the opposite.

Emotion Coaching Solution: Re-think your reward system.

Parents are often perplexed about what to do instead of offering up a reward, and the solution is simple: Offer your attention instead. If your two-and-a-half-year-old doesn’t want to leave the park and you are already running late for an appointment, resist the urge to bribe her by saying, “If you come with Mommy now, I’ll give you a cookie.” Instead, try, “I know you like to play at the park, and you’re mad that we have to leave. I’m sorry, but we have somewhere we need to be. Can you help Mommy pack up our things?”

While she may still be upset about leaving, your understanding and empathy will help her feel validated, and her anger will subside more quickly. And next time you need to get out the door, she won’t expect a treat in return for her cooperation.

ROADBLOCK #4: You Use Negative Consequences as Punishment.

When children misbehave, parents feel as though we must lay down a consequence for their action in hopes of deterring it from happening again in the future. The problem with that approach is that all we’re seeing is the behavior itself—not the reason behind the behavior. Perhaps they’re bursting with pent up energy, they’re bored, they’re overtired, or they need your attention.

Spanking, yelling, and time-outs don’t offer a replacement behavior—they don’t teach our children what to do instead of misbehaving. They really only serve to teach our children to hit and yell. They breed resentment, not accomplishment.  And neither you nor your child comes out of that situation feeling very good.

Emotion Coaching Solution: Use natural consequences.

I encourage parents to assess the situation at hand before throwing out an unconnected negative consequence. (“You won’t come in for dinner? Fine, no TV tomorrow!”) I'm not against consequences; I simply believe they should be natural: For instance, a child who doesn’t come in for dinner when his mother calls him may miss out on dessert because his tardiness pushed his dinnertime later.

Then, according to the emotion coaching method, the mother might empathize and discuss solutions with her son. “This really stinks. How can we be sure to get you inside for dinner on time?”

With emotion coaching, you empathize, talk about what went wrong, and neutralize all the negative feelings, then come up with a plan. The key to having cooperative children is to encourage them to be motivated internally. Children do things because they benefit personally from doing so, not because they’re threatened or coerced.

Successful emotion coaching takes time and diligence, but so does parenting in general. The most important thing to remember is that it’s not going to work for you every single time—so don’t be discouraged the first time you don’t have a success. If you put in at least 50 percent effort, the results will be favorable—and your relationship with your child will be stronger and healthier.

What parenting roadblocks do you encounter? What specific parental actions and tactics help you to combat these roadblocks?

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

About Kimberley:

Kimberley Clayton Blaine, MA, MFT, is the executive producer of the online parenting shows www.TheGoToMom.TV and www.MommyToMommy.TV and author of The Go-To Mom’s Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children and The Internet Mommy. For more great tips from the Go-To Mom, click here.


About the Book:

The Go-To Mom’s Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-470-58497-2, $16.95, is available at bookstores nationwide and from major online booksellers. For more information on The Go-To Mom’s Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children, click here to view Kimberley’s book trailer.

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