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Emotions and Kids

June 12, 2020

     Parenting is hard! It was hard before the days of quarantine and online learning, work from home, and social distancing. We are all talking about and longing for the day when things will “get back to normal.” The pressures of working from home while suddenly taking charge of distance learning stretched our coping mechanisms to the limit. As comedian and professional shut-in Jim Gaffigan pined: “distance learning, how do I say this without cursing.”

     Focusing on the future gives us hope and can relieve pent-up stress. As adults, we have experiences with the concepts of “in a little while,” “it will take some time,” and “It’s for the best.” Kids, especially younger kids, do not have the ability to think abstractly about the day sometime in the future when they can see their friends and return to school. A lot of kids are trapped in a stuck place, where the loneliness and fear present during the past months of shelter at home filter their current reality. We all get upset and, at times, express our emotions in unhelpful ways. Do you notice your kids are more upset and having breakdowns or tantrums a little more often? As Meghan Owenz writing for reminds us, emotions are not an inconvenient occurrence. Emotions serve a purpose, and each of our primary emotions serves a purpose to motivate our behavior. Owenz cites the work of Dr. John Gottman who found the four possible ways parents respond to their child’s emotions: dismissing, disapproving, laissez-faire, and emotion coaching. According to Ellie Lisitsa, a contributor to the Gottman Institute Blog, it is the Emotional Coach Parent that uses negative emotions as an opportunity for child/parent bonding, and by teaching the child about their emotions.

Emotional coaching will help both you and your kids better understand each other and the impact emotions have on each one in the family and the family itself. Meghan Owenz offers the following suggestions:

Step 1: Be aware of your child’s emotions.
Parents who emotion-coach are aware of their own feelings and sensitive to the emotions present in their children. They do not require their child to amp up their emotional expression for their feelings to be acknowledged.

Step 2: See emotions as an opportunity for connection and teaching.
Children’s emotions are not an inconvenience or a challenge. They are an opportunity to connect with your child and coach them through challenging feelings.

Step 3: Listen and validate the feelings.
Give your child your full attention while you listen to their emotional expression. Reflect back on what you hear, thus telling your child you understand what they’re seeing and experiencing.

Step 4: Label their emotions.
After you have fully listened, help your child develop an awareness of and vocabulary for their emotional expression.

Step 5: Help your child problem-solve with limits.
All emotions are acceptable but all behaviors are not. Help your child cope with his or her emotions by developing problem-solving skills. Limit the expression to appropriate behaviors. This involves helping your child set goals and generating solutions to reach those goals.

Owenz encourages parents to be patient. It takes time to understand these five steps. Sometimes results will happen quickly and sometimes not so quickly. Make a start to become your child’s emotion-coach and enjoy the journey!

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