The Words of the Saver Family
In 2003 I first came across a book authored by John Gottman titled: "Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart O f Parenting". I immediately put some of the ideas into practice in parenting our four children and was amazed at the results I observed. That one book changed my parenting style forever.
Before I share some personal experiences let me tell you what the benefits are of emotion coaching your kid as conveyed by Gottman.
"Children who are emotion coached by their parents are on an entirely different developmental trajectory than the children of other parents… they have more general abilities… [such as]":
1. being able to regulate their own emotional state
2. better at being able to soothe themselves when they are upset
3. able to calm down their hearts faster, [resulting in] fewer infectious illnesses
4. better at focusing attention
5. better at relating to other people including when being bullied
6. better at understanding other people and consequently had better friendships with other children
7. performed better academically
Let me share with you an experience I had back in 2003 involving our 8, 10 and 12 year old sons. At that time our family owned a single desktop computer. Our boys were always competing to get access to it. Occasionally there was a conflict with one son at least who would come running to me with tears in his eyes, filled with feelings of injustice in having been forcibly removed from the computer chair. My standard response was to dismiss the 'negative' feelings of the child and suggest to that child and his brothers to make a roster so as to allow each boy to have equal time on the computer. Sometimes I would make statements such as "big boys don't cry" or "c'mon just get over it and wait your turn". Whenever this happened, as much as they may have tried to follow my advice the reality was that they always continued to cry and remain in a distressed state for an indefinite period of time. Oftentimes it led to retaliatory action or even a temper tantrum which would increase my blood pressure even further.
After reading John Gottman's book on emotion coaching, here is what I did. The boy would come running. I would lift my arms in the air and catch them and hold the sobbing boy close to my chest. I would say to them something like: "you look really angry and upset. I bet I know what happened. You got pushed off the computer by one of your brothers and you now feel really sad thinking how unfair you were treated" They would nod their head with a sad look on their face as if to say "that's right" and within seconds they would start calming down. Then I would proceed to say something like: "if I were you I would probably feel exactly the same as you" and "its okay to feel whatever you feel". In that moment I could feel I made a connection as I empathized with the child and validated their emotions.
Literally within a minute or two, the tears stopped, that 'end of the world' look on their face disappeared and they would be pushing me away to get back to the computer.
Fast forward to two weeks ago on Tuesday March 8th when I was doing relief school teaching with a grade 6 class whom I was meeting for the very first time.
As soon as I walked into the class I spotted trouble. One boy refused to heed my request to be seated. His name was Ryan. Ryan persistently spoke when I tried to speak to the class. He refused to stay on task. One girl complained to me of being struck by him. Another girl reported she had been kicked by him. Despite all my efforts to modify Ryan's behavior I finally called Ryan to sit on a chair beside me next to the teacher's desk so that I could get some meaningful dialogue going.
I began speaking to Ryan by summarizing his unacceptable behaviors. I particularly pressed the point about hitting and kicking other students which he strenuously denied. He presented a very stern and determined look on his face. When it became clear that the odds were stacked against him he repeatedly told me that he didn't care.
I really didn't think that Ryan would change from his position but decided anyway to adopt an emotion coaching approach. Here is the dialogue and what happened.
I looked into Ryan's eyes giving him my full attention and said Ryan I reckon that you are a good kid and you must have reasons for acting the way you did today... underneath those reasons are your feelings. I want to tell you that whatever feelings you have they are all okay but it doesn't mean that you can go hitting people and make it hard for me to do my job.... But you know what, I bet that there is stuff going on at home that really bothers you and makes you really sad and even angry... and you know what, if I were in your young shoes I would probably be feeling and doing the same as you. At this point, in front of the whole class, Ryan burst into tears. I felt an instant connection. His whole attitude and demeanor completely changed along with his behavior for the rest of the day. Later he came up to me and apologized for lying and what he had done.
What was it that caused my sons to quickly calm down and 'move forward' when they were pushed off the computer chair? Also how could Ryan go from being so determined and defiant to being willing to listen and learn? The answer is no doubt debatable. However here is my take on it.
Human beings act more based on what they feel than what they think. When feelings are dismissed or disapproved of, (such as when a parental figure tells a child what to think and feel) it results in the feelings remaining and the person coming to think that there must be something wrong with them resulting in lowered self esteem and becoming 'lost' in knowing who they are. Teachers and parents who try to 'fix' such an individual with statements telling the person how they should feel, think and act, end up exacerbating the problem and potentially causing the child to 'free fall' into the pits of sadness, anger or fear.
On the other hand, when we as parents or teachers, employ empathic listening, choosing to validate a child's emotions and positively label the emotion, the child is soothed. At the same time that child's heart begins to open to you the parental figure making it possible to help that child find solutions to their problems. This is the path to raising emotional intelligence.
Being a parent, teacher and leader for decades now, I have sought for greater clarity in being more effective and relevant. I have discovered that most parenting advice focuses on behavior and for very good reasons. However underneath behavior is a world of emotions which require mastery in order to be successful in life. By ignoring or dismissing your child's emotions, you can never get close and never really know them, nor can you help them to gain self mastery. The big pay off in employing an emotion coaching style of parenting is a child who develops into an adult who is happy, able to make friendships with ease, able to manage their own emotional state and deal effectively with the 'curved balls' that life inevitably pitches up and being better equipped to focus and achieve whatever goals in life they choose.