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.

Categories: Couples, Family Therapy

Couples Therapy Lesson 3: Asking Your Partner the “Magic Question”

October 26, 2010 Leave a comment

It is important that you and your partner know how to recover well from a fight.  Do you feel safe to stop being angry or defensive or withdrawn?  Do you trust each other to make up?  Can you risk being vulnerable again?

Small children tend to recover from fights well.  My young son, for instance, on the heels of a temper tantrum, states plainly “I need love!” when he is no longer angry and wants affection.  It never fails to elicit a positive response.

Children, whose needs are consistently met, are able to move confidently between anger and their desire to reconnect.  Why?  Because our DNA ingrains in parents a nurturing response to children’s vulnerable pleas.  We are quick to forgive even the most hurtful comments (“I hate you!” or “Go live in another house!”) when our children reapproach us with vulnerability.

But the angry partner who holds a grudge, pouts, withdraws, or simmers will not be met with such sympathy.  His behavior will likely elicit a ‘fight or flight’ response when it appears unsafe to make up.  And it is difficult to reconnect with your partner when you feel that you are warily circling each other as combatants rather than intimates.

Finding a vulnerable space is key to making up with your partner after an argument. You need to create a dynamic which sees past and forgives your partner’s adult, aggressive behaviors, and uncovers the wounded child crying out in pain.  This allows you to tap into your ingrained, nurturing instincts and reconnect.

Knowing your partner’s inner wounded child can be very helpful in this process.  If you have engaged in the exercise outlined in my previous blog entry, you should have a sense of your partner’s most sensitive issues.  This information (and compassion) can guide you in asking what I call the “Magic Question.”

The Magic Question is a gesture indicating that you want to put down the boxing gloves.  It shows that you care about your partner’s wounded child needs.  It is a verbal bridge going to the very core of your partner’s childhood experience and coming back to heal what is paining them in the present.

For instance, if your partner had parents who were dismissive of her every need, she will likely get very triggered when she is feeling unsupported.  Of if your partner had parents who were very critical, he will likely resent feeling judged.  If these two were in a relationship and fighting, the woman, whose needs were never attended to, might have a tendency to get enraged or shut down in the face of an unsympathetic response, while he, who constantly feels criticized, might get angry or withdrawn in the face of her vocal (or what he what he interprets as) silent condemnation.   The argument, that starts off on a concrete issue (e.g. someone late, some chore not finished, or some request unheeded), spins out of control because these sensitive buttons are being pushed.   The content of the fight (the actual words being spoken) are not addressing the core issues.

The Magic Question allows the couple to extricate itself from this whirlpool and hone in on the acute problem fueling their negative responses.  The Magic Question is formulated as follows:  “What can I do right now so that you will feel ____?”  The blank should be filled in with what you know is most important to your partner.  For instance, “What can I do right now so that you will feel supported/empathized with/that your needs are being listened to?” would be ways to formulate the Magic Question to the woman above.  “What can I do right now so that I can state what is bothering me without you feeling judged/criticized/like nothing you do is ever good enough?” would be good questions for the man.

When I work with couples, natural responses to the above might follow in the vein of (for the woman): “Just spend ten minutes listening to me without reacting.”  “Repeat what I have said so that I know that you have heard me.”  “Tell me that my concerns are important and legitimate (even if you disagree on their solution).”  Or responses from the man: “Tell me three things that you are pleased I did before criticizing my behavior.”  “Tell me that you still care for me, even though you are unhappy with this particular thing.” “Please comment on my actions and not on my character.”

One problem that I see again and again in my practice is that couples are not attuned to taking care of each other’s sensitive, core issues.  When dating, they often coo over each other like mother hens – anticipating needs, making romantic gestures, and showing infinite patience.  These behaviors reassure the other that, like a loved child, they will be taken care of.  But as the relationship progresses, these behaviors fade into the distance.  And when a fight is brewing, they hyperspace into a distant galaxy.  Suddenly, this person, with whom you are supposed to be so intimate, feels like a stranger or an antagonist.  And the relationship feels very unsafe. Reconciliation seems so difficult.

But if you can ask the Magic Question, you are making an important gesture to your partner.  You are conveying that you want to soothe the inner child, to reassure him that he will continue to be taken care, and to convince her that she will be safe.   And if you can deliver on the request made in response, you have opened the door to changing the argument’s whole dynamic, creating emotional empathy, and forging reconciliation.

Categories: Couples, Family Therapy

Couple’s Therapy Lesson 2: Getting to Know Your Partner’s Inner Child

October 7, 2010 2 comments

How can you get to know your partner’s inner, wounded child?  Often your partner’s behavior will appear unfathomable.  Why does he seem withdrawn when I most need to talk to him? Why does he seem to be
smoldering with anger when I haven’t done anything wrong? Why does she give me these constant judgmental looks when I am doing the best that I can?

Surely, an inner child would be more accessible and not so intimidating.  The problem is that the wounded child, disappointed by early, parental attachment figures, has basically decided “I am mad and I am not going to take it any more!” As a result, she learns a variety of self-defense mechanisms that, when utilized by the adult, often antagonize subsequent relationships rather than cultivate intimacy.

These coping mechanisms usually take the form of “acting out” or “acting in.” For instance, the adult, whose emotions and needs were ignored as a child, when faced with a similar situation from her partner, will either become very demanding and critical (“acting out”) or very withdrawn and uncommunicative (“acting in”).  Or the adult, who experienced verbal or physical violence from his parents, will when feeling powerless in a romantic relationship, explode with anger as a way to reassert control (“acting out”) or smolder with internal anger and resentment (“acting in”). As you can imagine, this behavior does not naturally cultivate a response of “Gee, I would like to get to know THAT person better…”

So how do we push through our partner’s negative defense mechanisms to find the vulnerable child within?  First, you must pursue the relationship with your parner’s inner child.  Second, don’t be dissuaded by the acting out or acting in behavior.  And third, realize that this takes time and dedication (best devoted when both you and your partner are not triggered or upset).

In his book “Getting the Love You Want,” Harville Hendrix suggests a useful exercise. Summarized briefly it works like this:  You and your partner write a short narrative in which you describe what it was like to live in your parents’ house.  How did you spend your time?  What things did you like about living at home?  What things did you not like? Describe your interactions with family members.  Imagine walking around the house and approaching each family member and telling that person what it was like living with him/her.  Did they affect you positively and negatively?  What do you wish they would have done more of?  What less? What caused you pain? Sadness? Worry? And what brought you happiness? Comfort? A sense of security?

When you finish with this exercise, trade narratives with your partner.  Read and study the description of your partner’s childhood. Then, reconvene when you have time to talk together intimately and at length.  At that meeting, each person retells from memory the other’s story.  When you are finished, ask your partner: “Have I understood your childhood?  Is there anything I have missed?”  When they answer that first part in the affirmative, you have gotten to know your partner’s inner child.

In my next blog, I will elaborate on how this information can be beneficial to a relationship.  How couples can deescalate arguments and work through anger by addressing the inner child.  And how making room for the wounded child’s past can heal and even prevent problems from occurring in the present.

“Getting the Love You Want, A Guide for Couples” by Harville Hendrix, Ph.D can be found on Amazon:

Categories: Couples

Couple’s Therapy Lesson 1: Taking Care of Your Partner’s Wounded Child

September 24, 2010 Leave a comment

Here is one of my best pieces of advice for couples:  Take care of your partner’s inner, wounded child. Who is this inner child, you might ask?  Let me explain.

We all have “emotional baggage.”  In other words, on our journey through life, we carry with us wounds from previous relationships.  And these wounds still ache, fester, and sting.  So, for example, the child who suffered his father’s wrath is, as an adult, very sensitive to other people’s displays of anger.  The child whose mother was very distant gets very distressed when intimates remove themselves emotionally.  The child whose parent was very critical is hypersensitive to others’ judgment.

In other words, we have a tendency to experience the present through the prism of our emotional past.  Imagine that your partner has a sore spot on her body which is sensitive due to previous injury.  Your relationship behavior, which, perhaps, might only be slightly annoying to someone who doesn’t carry the same “wound” or sensitivity, really hurts your partner because it pokes that wound and triggers unpleasant memories she experienced as a child.  And the rub is that your partner may not even be aware of this wounded child within.

Why is it so important to take care of your partner’s inner child?  The first answer is simple caring.  Who has the ability to address that which hurts your partner the most?  You do.  As your partner’s most intimate relationship, you are in a unique position to take care of, and heal him, like no other.  Your relationship can be a corrective emotional experience to everything that happened before.

The second reason is more selfish.  What happens when your partner’s inner child gets upset?  Things can get ugly.  The unhappy, inner child lives in an adult’s body – and this person can make your life miserable.  Getting  angry, withdrawing emotionally, becoming defensive, and going on the critical attack are just a few of the tactics the angry inner child will avail himself of when upset.  Who would you rather deal with – the vulnerable part of your partner who yearns and waits to be protected and nurtured, or your partner’s angry self who perceives she has been treated negatively?

So, how exactly do you take care of your partner’s inner child?

First, get acquainted.  Know your partner’s emotional and family history intimately.  What was it like for your partner growing up at home?  What was her relationship like with mom?  How did dad treat him?  What upset or saddened her the most?  How did he react or behave when disappointed by those close to him?

Second, use that information to make a healing gesture everyday.  If she suffered from feelings of critical judgment, take a moment to praise her.  If her mother was loud and angry, talk to her in a soothing voice.  If his father was unavailable emotionally, spend time asking about, and listening to, his feelings.  Every day.

Getting to know and nurture your partner’s inner child will yield positive benefits for your relationship.  So reassure, talk to, and comfort that child.  Every day.

Categories: Couples
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