How to Raise an Emotionally Intelligent Child

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Emotion-Coaching. That's for professionals, right? Nope, not just for professionals. It's for all parents too! You can learn how to be an Emotion-Coach to your child. Just like coaching sports, the more experience and knowledge you have yourself, the better you will be able to coach. It takes time. Commitment. Engagement. Perseverance. Patience. The skills you use and teach as an Emotional-Coach are important for the lifelong success of your child.

According to John Gottman, research shows that children whose parents practiced Emotion-Coaching have better physical health, score higher academically, get along better with peers, have fewer behaviour problems, and are less prone to acts of violence. Overall, these children experience fewer negative feelings and more positive feelings. In fact, these children are more resilient. They still get sad, angry or scared, but are better able to soothe themselves and bounce back from distress. Overall, these children are more emotionally intelligent. 

How do you begin Emotion-Coaching? John Gottman outlines 5 steps to take in his book, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child

5 steps to Emotion-Coaching:

  1. Become aware of the child's emotion
  2. Recognise the emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching
  3. Listen empathetically, validating the child's feelings
  4. Help the child find words to label the emotion
  5. Set limits while exploring strategies to solve the problem

Awareness is key. Emotion-Coaching parents have a strong awareness of their own emotions and those of their loved ones. They recognise that all emotions--even those we might consider negative, such as sadness, anger, and fear--can serve a useful purpose in our lives.

Emotion-Coaching does not mean an end to discipline. When you and your children are emotionally close, you are even more invested in their lives and can assert a stronger influence. You are tough when necessary. You call them out on their mistakes or when they are slacking. You're not afraid to set limits. You're not afraid to tell them you are disappointed and when you know they can do better. Because you have an emotional bond with your children, your words matter. Emotion-Coaching helps you guide and motivate your children.

Conflict is a fact of family life. Once you start using Emotion-Coaching, you will probably feel yourself growing closer to your children. When your family shares a deeper intimacy and respect, problems between family members will seem lighter to bear. Although it may seem uncomfortable at times, stay in the process, the rewards long term are definitely worth it! 

There are many Emotion-Coaching strategies Gottman discusses in his book. These strategies are summarised below, but for more reading, stories, tests, resources, click here to purchase Gottman's book.  

Emotion-Coaching Strategies:

Avoid excessive criticism, humiliating comments, or mocking your child. Research shows that such derogation is destructive to parent-child communication and to the child's self esteem.

Use "scaffolding" and praise to coach your child. If you want to teach a new skill, scaffolding is an effective way of coaching children. Scaffolding includes these steps: first, talk in a slow, calm manner, giving the child just enough information to get started. Then wait for the child to do something right and offer specific praise for their action. Next, add just a little more instruction. Finally, repeat the steps, so the child learns the skill in increments. With each small success, the parents boost the child's confidence, helping them reach the next level of competence.

Ignore your "parental agenda". A "parental agenda" is a goal based on a particular problem the parent has identified interfering with the child's best interests. The parental agenda often prevents parents from listening empathetically to their children. Postpone talking about a child's misdeed until after the feelings underlying the misbehaviour have been addressed. Avoid asking, "Why did you do that?" Avoid labelling your child. Avoid general, enduring critiques. Focus on correcting specific events in the here and now.

Create a mental map of your child's daily life. A mental map is to know a lot about the people, places, and events in your child's life. By knowing this, you can explore the possible sources of your child's feelings and help your child label them. You will also show them their world is important to you and this will help them feel closer to you. This requires a lot of work, attention to detail, and need to be updated regularly.

Empower your child by giving choices, respecting wishes. Children need practice weighing options, finding solutions. They need to see what happens when they make choices based on the family's value system; what happens when they choose to ignore family standards. These lessons are sometimes painful, but powerful opportunities for guidance.

Avoid siding with the enemy. It can be a challenge especially if you naturally align with the authority figures your kids will cross--teachers, coaches, bosses, or other kids' parents. What if you are the enemy? You can still be empathic without changing your mind. "I understand why you're mad. I'd feel the same way if I was in your position." Honesty and open-mindedness in the face of conflict may encourage your child to express their feelings as well. The goal of your conversation is not to seek agreement, but to communicate understanding.

Think about your child's experiences in terms of similar adult situations. Do not trivialise or ignore their concerns. This response makes your child feel worse. Instead, try to form a more sympathetic frame of mind. Think how you would feel if the situation were similar to an adult situation.

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Don't try to impose your solution on your child's problems. To propose solutions before you empathise with children is like trying to build the frame of a house before you lay a firm foundation. Empathise first.

Share in your child’s dreams and fantasies. This helps in understanding your child and ultimately makes being empathetic easier. The important thing is that your child knows you have heard them by confirming them and their desires. This doesn’t mean you need to fulfill their dreams, but you can help them brainstorm how to get something they dream of, like that new bike.

Be honest with your child. Most children seem to know when you are telling the truth or when you are faking it. As an emotional coach, your heart must be in it, otherwise you will lose credibility. If you don’t understand, reflect back what you see and hear, ask questions, and keep communicating.

Read children’s literature together. From infancy to adolescence, reading high-quality age appropriate books can help parents and kids learn about emotions. Stories help build vocabulary and illustrate different ways people handle their emotions. Watching TV and movies provides a similar opportunity, but books allow you to stop and reflect in the moment.

Be patient with the process. To be effective in your coaching, allow your child time to express their feelings without becoming impatient. It might be uncomfortable but remember the goal is to explore and understand emotions, not to suppress them. It might seem easier to dismiss and ignore but that will eventually create a distance between you and your child. Try to feel what your child is feeling at the moment and experience your shared emotions as a physical sensation. Gottman compares this to the way you might allow a piece of music to stir up your emotions, feeling excited, sad, passionate, inspired. By doing this, you can more easily say you understand. And sometimes you don’t need words, just to sit with them, quietly, with a hug or a back rub. By doing this, you create moments and opportunities that others might miss.

Understand your base of power as a parent. This means limits on misbehavior—what all kids want and need. For some parents, the base of power is threats, humiliation, and spanking. Others who are permissive, may feel they have no base of power. For those parents who are Emotion-coaching, the base of power is the emotional bond between parent and child. Limit setting comes out of your genuine reactions to your child’s misbehavior. Your child responds to your anger, disappointment, worries, so you don’t have to resort to negative consequences. The respect and affection become your primary vehicle for limit setting.

Believe in the positive nature of human development. Children’s brains are naturally wired to seek security and love, knowledge and understanding. Your child wants to be affectionate and altruistic. They want to explore the environment and discover how things work. They want to know about good and bad, dangers and how to avoid them. They want to become strong and capable. Your child wants to be the kind of person you will admire and love. Trust in your child’s feelings and know that you are not alone.

There are some situations which are NOT effective to use Emotion-Coaching. Parents need to be focused and calm and children need to be somewhat receptive for emotion coaching to be effective. Situations where it might be best to postpone Emotion-Coaching include:

  • When pressed for time
  • When you have an audience
  • When you are too upset or too tired for coaching to be effective
  • When you need to address serious misbehavior
  • When your child is ’faking’ an emotion to manipulate you

When you decide to postpone Emotion-Coaching, make a commitment to yourself and your child to get back to the issue soon, and follow through. 

In conclusion, it is important to mention that making time to talk about emotions does not "indulge" or "spoil" a child, rather it validates their feelings and creates a trusting relationship.  It is NOT a magic formula that eliminates conflict and the need for limits. It creates a collaborative relationship for solving problems together. When your children have a problem, they will come to you because they know you really listen. Your investment in Emotion-Coaching now, will create a foundation for success in your child that will follow them the rest of their lives.  

Personal Note

Emotion-Coaching as a parent is a new concept to me. It is not something I experienced growing up, nor did my husband, Patrik. We both have a commitment to learn and practice Emotion-Coaching as parents to our son. As I reflect on my own emotional journey, I can see how friends, mentors, and counsellors have played a role as Emotion-Coaches for me. Perhaps the biggest Emotion-Coach in my life right now is Patrik. He sees me in my best and my worst emotions. He also helps me to become aware of emotions and express them in our relationship, or when he sees me losing patience with our son. With each opportunity to invest in the emotional health of our son, I am laying one more brick on the foundation of his success later on in life. That is an encouraging thought! We are all on a journey, learning along the way, ultimately passing on a legacy to our children. 

Reflection

Do you see yourself as an Emotion-Coach to your children? Which of the Emotion-Coaching strategies have you already been practicing? Which of them would you like to put into practice this week? What do you find to be the most challenging aspect of being an Emotion-Coach to your children?