Before we tried emotion coaching, my son used his feelings as a weapon. Every moment was an emotional breakdown. If he was a little bit hungry, he would erupt into tears. If he was tired, he would throw himself onto the ground. It was like living with a Shakespearean actor who never quite caught the concept of overselling it.
Everyone in the family had a theory on what we needed to do. “Just ignore him,” was the grandparents’ suggestion. “He’s just trying to get out of things. If you ignore him, he’ll stop.”
“It’s biological,” was my wife’s view. “My brother did the same thing when he was child. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
“He needs to learn that big boys don’t cry,” was mine. “Let’s just let him bottle things up. He’s not going to have aneurysm just because he didn’t let having a brown spot on his banana reduce him to tears.”
We tried everything, and everything just made it worse. The more we ignored him and the more we encouraged him to be tough, the more he cried and the worse the problem became. By trying to shut down his emotions, we weren’t letting him learn how to deal with them – and so they just become more and more explosive.
Then we tried something different. Desperate for a solution, we scoured the web for answers. We learned about emotion coaching and tried it for ourselves – and it really worked.
Emotion coaching is a way to encourage children to acknowledge their emotions and deal with them. Instead of teaching kids to hide them or to explode them everywhere, the kids learn to understand the root of their emotions and deal with them in a constructive way – and it really works. In fact, one study had 244 families try it out, and almost every one ended up with less emotional outbursts.
Here’s how it works:
Your child has just thrown a toy across the room. Or maybe they’ve done something worse – maybe they’ve thrown it right at you. If you’re like most parents, common sense is going to tell you to discipline your child immediately – but research shows that might not actually be the best thing to do.
Instead, your first step should be to acknowledge your child’s emotions. Children don’t understand what’s going on instead of their bodies. They don’t know why they’re reacting like this either. There’s a good chance your child is watching his bad behavior with the same mystified confusion you are and, just like you, has no idea what provoked him to do this.
Your child is going to have to learn how to deal with this, and you’re going to have to the teacher. You’ll discipline him – but you have to acknowledge that emotions are the root of the problem, first.
Giving the emotion a name can help a child handle it. Since they have no idea what’s making them act out, they don’t know how to stop themselves from doing it. Labelling the emotion is the first step in learning how to do that.
If your child seems to be angry, let them know. If your child is sad or frustrated or disappointed or jealous, tell them. Saying, “I can see that you’re angry” or asking, “Are you feeling jealous?” lets them know that there’s a real emotional reaction happening that they can learn to handle.
This will have a major effect on their lives. Children who learn to handle their emotions endure negative feelings for shorter times, relate to people better and have stronger friendships – so as difficult as this is now, it’s going to pay off in the future.
Your child isn’t getting out of this unscathed. You’re going to validate their emotions – but you’re not going to let them get away with being bad.
Tell your child it’s okay to have emotions – but that bad behavior is not. You might say, “It’s okay to feel angry, but it’s not okay to throw things.”
Then, discipline your child.
Berkeley University recommends sending your child to a time-out, which makes a lot of sense. This way your child’s not only getting punished, but they’re getting time to calm down and reflect on what they did. They’re going to look at what they felt, and there’s a good chance they’ll work through most of the problem on their own.
When time’s up, let them come out and make them apologize for what they did. Then it's time to tackle the emotion.
Try to help your child understand why they’re feeling this emotion. A great way to start this is just by asking. Let your child tell you why they’re feeling this way, and try to help them understand what might be making them feel angry.
Sometimes this is easy. Sometimes a child is angry because someone stole his toy, and that can be easy to point out and validate. Of course, as every parent knows, sometimes your child is angry because of something completely insane. No matter how ridiculous it is, though, it’s a big deal to your child – and you have to let them feel like that’s okay.
Just like children have to learn to read, they have to learn how to be good. It’s not something that comes natural. You’re going to need to teach them.
Once your child understands why they had the emotional reaction they did, you’re going to have to talk to them about how to deal with it. Share ideas about what to do next time – and let your child share a few of their own.
You might suggest talking about your feelings. You might suggest taking a walk, or stepping from the problem and coming back to it, or asking mom or dad for a hug. The key is to find a solution that makes sense to your child – because if it makes sense to your child, they’ll actually use it.
Emotion coaching takes a little bit more time than regular discipline – but not much. When you sit down and talk to your child about what they’re feeling, you’re giving them the skills to handle these problems when you’re not around. When you just discipline your child, they’ll only be good when you’re around.
More importantly, emotion coaching actually works. Our son is getting better at handling his emotions every day, and now when we see anger or sadness creep onto his face they’re aren’t followed by tears. Instead, our child is starting to suggest the solution that makes the most sense to him:
“Can I have a hug?”