Tired of the tantrums, the constant fighting, the sick feeling in the pit of your stomach after you’ve yelled at your child? You’re not alone. Parenting is a tough and frustrating job.
The key to having cooperative children is to encourage them to be motivated internally. Children do things because they benefit personally from doing so, not because they’re threatened or coerced.
There is a parenting technique that lays out a loving, nurturing path for raising happy, well-adjusted, well-behaved children. It’s called emotion coaching and it feels good to parents and kids alike. Emotion coaching teaches children and parents how to recognize and express the way they are feeling in an appropriate way.
Following are four common roadblocks that trip up even the most well-meaning parents and solutions to help children learn to manage emotions.
Roadblock No. 1: Defaulting to Control-Based or Hands-Off Parenting
It’s late afternoon and you’ve (finally!) found five minutes to make that phone call. But, your kids are running around, feet pounding on the wood floor and yelling as they play a raucous and rowdy game. As the noise level rises, your patience wanes, and you feel your frustration begin to boil over. If you’re like many parents, either you blow a gasket, screaming at your kids to pipe down and go to their rooms, or you simply raise the white flag, find a way to excuse yourself off the call and throw your hands up in surrender.
Emotion coaching solution: Find the middle road.
In this particular case, there’s no need for punishment, but the kids should not be allowed to disrupt their mother’s phone call either. Instead of yelling or ignoring, the emotion-coach mom takes a deep breath and says, “Guys, you are being really loud. I can see that you have tons of energy, so can you take it outside, please? I’ll come out and play with you as soon as I’m off the phone. Right now, I need your help, so please head out back.”
Roadblock No. 2: Discounting, Minimizing or Denying Feelings
These are knee-jerk reactions for most parents, because we have a tendency to put our own feelings and issues before our children’s. For example, if your child complains of being hungry 30 minutes after you ate lunch together, you think about the fact that you just ate, and you aren’t hungry, so there is no way she can be hungry either. So, you brush her off with a dismissive, “Oh, you couldn’t possibly be hungry!” Or, your son falls down on the playground, and you pick him up and tell him he’s all right. But what you are (unintentionally) neglecting to think about are the emotions the incident may have stirred up for him: pain, fear or embarrassment.
Emotion coaching solution: Put yourself in their (tiny) shoes.
Always come from a place of empathy. Before you jump in to discount something your child says, your first thoughts should be, “What is really going on here? What is my child feeling?” So, when your son falls, you might ask, “Did you hurt yourself? Or are you just scared?” If he says he is scared, you should affirm his emotions, telling him that it’s scary to fall down and ask if he wants to come sit with you before returning to play. The key is to be supportive.
Roadblock No. 3: Bribing With External Motivation and Rewards
If you want to get your kid to pick up his room, then you reward him with TV time or a new toy. If you are working to potty train your toddler, then you may reward her with a sticker or an M&M. But asking your child to behave a certain way for a treat generally is not a good idea. In the case of the potty-training toddler, if she has accidents and can’t get the reward, she will decide not to value it anymore. As for the room-cleaning bribe, well, we must all learn to cooperate in life without expecting something in return.
Emotion coaching solution: Re-think your reward system.
Offer your attention instead. If your 6-year-old doesn’t want to leave the park, and you are running late, resist the urge to bribe. Instead, try, “I know you like to play at the park, and you’re mad we have to leave. I’m sorry, but we have somewhere we need to be. Can you help Mommy pack up our things?” Your understanding and empathy will help her to feel validated, and her anger will subside more quickly.
Roadblock No. 4: Using Negative Consequences as Punishment
When children misbehave, we act as though we must lay down a consequence in hopes of deterring it from happening again. The problem is that all we’re seeing is the behavior itself — not the reason behind the behavior. Perhaps kids are bursting with pent-up energy, they’re bored, they’re overtired or they need your attention. Spanking, yelling and time-outs don’t offer a replacement behavior; they don’t teach our children what to do instead of misbehaving. These punishment methods only serve to teach our children to hit and yell, breeding resentment, not accomplishment.
Emotion coaching solution: Use natural consequences.
Assess the situation before throwing out an unconnected negative consequence. A child who doesn’t come in for dinner may miss out on dessert, because his tardiness pushed his dinnertime later. Then, Mom might empathize and discuss solutions with her son. “This really stinks. How can you be sure to get inside for dinner on time?”
With emotion coaching, you talk about what went wrong and neutralize all the negative feelings, then come up with a plan. Successful emotion coaching takes time and diligence, but so does parenting in general. The most important thing to remember is that it’s not going to work for you every single time, so don’t be discouraged the first time you don’t have a success.
Kimberly Clayton Blaine, a licensed family and child therapist in Los Angeles, and the mother of two boys, is the author of “The Go-To Mom’s Parents’ Guide to Emotion Coaching Young Children” (Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, 2010; $16.95).