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How to Be Your Child’s Emotional Coach

November 30, 2010 2 comments

There is a lot written about how to discipline one’s child. How to get them to listen. How to get them to do their homework. How to get them to help around the house.  How to get them to stop teasing or whacking their little siblings.

But there is not a lot written about how to coach your children to evolve into emotional beings.  How to help your child become aware of her emotions. How to provide the space for your child to feel deeply.  And how to help him be comfortable articulating those feelings to others.

Infants and young children can usually exhibit their feelings in an uncensored manner. But soon, social forces teach children to keep their emotions in check.  Public displays of intense feeling subject them to ridicule, disregard, or admonishments to keep quiet.

One of parents’ most important jobs is to create a safe container into which your child can pour out all of her unexpressed anger, sadness, and frustration. To be that one place where your child can take off society’s repressive lid and let his feelings boil over into the patient, understanding, and sympathetic embrace of someone who loves him.

Think how much better your life would have been if you and your parents had been able to talk about emotions in an intimate, transparent and positive way?  You have the ability to create that dynamic for your child. This is so important.

Forging an emotional bond with your child is infinitely more helpful than finding her a therapist.  Therapists provide a safe space where their clients can figure out what they are feeling (as opposed to just thinking), acknowledge the emotions out loud, and feel them deeply. You, the parent, by becoming your child’s emotional coach, have the capacity to be the best therapist in the world because you can facilitate such an interaction every day between your child and the person he wants to talk to the most – you!

So how exactly do you become your child’s emotional coach? This may seem like a daunting project because sometimes it can be difficult to pull thoughts and feelings out of our children:

Parent’s Question: “How was school?”  Child’s Answer: “OK.”

Question: “How did it feel when Bobby teased you?”  Answer: “I dunno.”

Question: “Would you like to tell me about your boyfriend.”  Answer: “Gross! Leave me alone!”

The good news is that emotional coaching is fairly simple and can be boiled down to two simple steps.  First, whenever your child talks about something with any energy (e.g., anger, sadness, frustration), be curious. Second, validate their emotions by reflecting back to them what you have heard them say.

The heart of being a good listener is to embrace the notion of being curious. Like a therapist, try not to have a specific agenda.  Ask lots of open-ended question – namely, “how, what, and why” questions that elicit answers longer than a “yes” or “no”.  Keep your child talking and give him/her your full attention.

Simple, right? The rub is that it is often difficult for parents to remain in an empathic, neutral space when the child is exhibiting negative emotions. You are likely to be triggered.  You may want to figure out how to make your child’s distress to go away (“No one wants to play with me!”). Or you may get defensive because your child is complaining about something you do (“You’re not fair!”).  Or you may worry that her attitude is detrimental to her future well-being (“School is stupid!”).

It can be difficult to hear your child’s pain, anger, or criticism. Stay relaxed. Keep breathing. Listen for vulnerable emotions behind anger and frustration. Resist the impulse to go into problem solving mode or to defend your actions or convince your child out of his feelings. Look for grains of truth in what is being said and try to understand the issue from your child’s point of view.

Why is listening so important?

First, your child will feel really seen and understood when you ask them questions about events that are important to them.  This is a profound reminder to them that they exist and that you care.

Second, think of this dynamic as exercising your child’s emotional muscles.  By asking a lot of curious, open-ended questions, you are exploring with your child his inner world.   You are training him to discover and work through his emotions (“What happened?”  “Easy, I remember that!” “Why did that bother me?”  “Hmm…let me explore that feeling…”  “What would have made me feel better?”  “OK, I’m thinking about what I need…”). This is why we call this emotional coaching. Your child needs to acquire this skill for her healthy development.  And your role is essential because emotional intelligence it is not taught at school.  We can end up with advanced degrees without ever acquiring an iota of emotional wisdom.

Lastly, when you “get it,” reflect back to your child what they just told you (from their point of view).  Show them that you understand them.  This will give your child the sense that she is fundamentally seen and understood by the most important person in her life – you!

And what about reacting to what you have heard?  Sometimes your child needs your advice.  Sometimes your child needs discipline.  And sometimes your child has the wrong idea about something important.

My best advice is to separate your need to respond to the content of your child’s words from the opportunity to elicit the emotional import.  Don’t mix the two.  Save your response for later.  Let your child have the experience of being heard (if only for 15 minutes). A parent’s verbal assurances (“You know you can tell me anything.”) will not be as convincing as a child’s experience of good listening.  Let your child know that you are always there to listen and to understand.  Let your child experience a safe place for them to pour out their emotions.

Emotional coaching necessitates time and patience.  So, when your child talks about anything with any emotional energy behind it, find the time and the right attitude to listen, and remember the mantra – be curious, be curious, be curious.

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Categories: Couples, Family Therapy
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