Emotions lie at the heart of parenting and all human interactions. Emotions and their expression communicate important information that provides us with opportunities to attend to our own needs and the needs of others. While our own emotions influence how we parent, children are wired to quickly pick up on our emotions, which impacts how they feel in stressful situations too. When we are stressed, they are stressed. When we are calm, they are calm.
Currently, it is hard to escape the emotional climate of anxiety created by the COVID-19 outbreak and the impact of this on us and our families. While the presence of this anxiety can function to help the survival of our species by ensuring that we comply with all the recommended measures, the anxiety can also negatively impact on our children’s healthy emotional development.
There are a number of important things that parents can do to promote their children’s healthy emotional functioning during these uncertain times. These include maintaining supportive, predictable and clear daily structures (such as having routines and rituals and clear family rules), maintaining healthy screen limits, maintaining healthy emotional communication, and strengthening family connection and resilience.
While there are huge opportunities for closer family connection at times of ‘lock-down’, there is also potential for more conflict and stress that needs to be managed alongside managing the financial pressures this time will bring for many. Our ability to manage emotions in the family is difficult at the best of times, let alone in times of prolonged crisis. Yet, our children’s development of emotional skills (such as being able to recognize, understand and mange emotions and their expression) is shaped during childhood, with everyday interactions contributing to the way the child will manage emotions when they are an adult. This process begins when a child is born and some argue even earlier. Research has shown that the way we role model emotions and their expressions, the way we react to children’s emotions and how we directly coach children about emotions has an impact on the emotional climate of the family, on children’s emotional development, and on later mental health.
In these times of uncertainty it is so important that we try to remain the rock and beacon of light for our children. In our suite of parenting programs, we teach parents the skills required to enable them to express and respond to emotions in supportive ways. Research involving 14 trials has found that improvements in these aspects of parenting via teaching parents skills in Emotion Coaching can lower family conflict, improve parent and child emotional competence and reduce child and adolescent internalizing (e.g., anxiety) and externalizing problems (e.g., challenging behaviours).
What is Emotion Coaching?
Emotion coaching is a parental response style that helps children understand the different emotions they experience, why they occur and how to handle them. It was first proposed by John Gottman and colleagues, who conducted research into how families communicate emotionally and identified four ways that parents respond to children’s emotions. Of these, the emotion coaching response style has been identified as optimal for children’s healthy emotional development.
Parents with this response style firstly noticed emotions behind children’s behaviors or verbal statements (or situations). Secondly, they saw these emotions as opportunities for connection and teaching (i.e., rather than thinking that their child was naughty or annoying they wondered if their child needed connection or help). Thirdly, they were accepting of all emotions and empathized with the child’s experience (i.e., they imagined what it might feel like to be in their child’s shoes and they communicated their understanding to validate the child’s experience). Fourthly, they helped children to understand and name their emotions. Finally, once children were calmer and connected they worked on solving problems or setting limits around unacceptable behaviours.
Why does emotion coaching help?
Babies, children and teens thrive in emotionally secure relationships where they are (according to Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson) consistently feeling ‘safe, seen and soothed’. Emotions are contagious and children’s brains are particularly wired to pick up on emotions in the environment swiftly. This is why often when you are sick or stressed your children are less settled – just at a time when you need them to be ‘doing all the right things’.
When we are able to role model healthy emotional expression our children benefit immensely and will be more likely to express emotions in healthy ways – they actually can’t help this as they are wired up to copy us! Our calm can also be contagious! At this time of heightened anxiety this is something that is so important to keep in mind. We continuously put out messages to our children that their world is safe or unsafe and this will impact their sense of safety. If in times of emotional distress the child can count on their parents to provide a safe and calm environment the child can be buffered from the negative impact of stress.
Emotion coaching can also help children feel seen and soothed, because you focus on their emotions and needs. When you are fully present with your child and can see and empathise with their struggles it is calming for the child. We can do this verbally (as in using emotion coaching language) or non-verbally (using soothing sounds, rocking, hugs, and caring gestures). When we can use emotional moments as opportunities for connection and teaching we can build our children’s skills in identifying, understanding and appropriately responding to emotions in themselves and others. It is the many micro-moments in each day that will build these skills.
What is emotion dismissing?
Gottman also highlighted three response styles that dismiss children’s emotions despite parents being full of good intent. For example, as identified in his research, parents who used an emotion dismissing style were quite warm and responsive, but they ignored emotions (especially uncomfortable ones) and often responded by immediately wanting to make things better by rescuing children, trying to fix the problem or correct their children’s behaviour.
In my own work, I have found many parents who upon noticing their child’s fears, for example, go straight to reassurance and explanations: Don’t worry, you’ll be okay, don’t dwell on it – these are often ways that we reassure children without providing them with the opportunity to fully understand and process their emotions. Often this can give them the message that their feelings are not valid. We can even dismiss our newborns’ distress in this way. For example, when our little one is not enjoying having their nappy changed we can say quite warmly (or think to ourselves internally) ‘Oh, stop the crying, it’s only a nappy change, we’ll be done in just a minute, calm down, shhhh’. So we can be warm, but we have a certain attitude to emotions where we ignore them and just get on with it.
Gottman also identified a more lax, or Laissez-faire emotional response style. This is something we are all familiar with, especially at times when we are trying not to rock the boat. For example, currently we may respond by giving in to children’s demands much faster just to keep the peace (i.e., let them stay on devices all day, give them treats they want, etc.) – maybe because we are trying to keep the quiet because mum or dad are working from home or because we are too exhausted to deal with strong emotional reactions. This more lax style of responding accepts all emotions but fails to educate the child about emotions and does not place guidance around behaviour.
Gottman also found a more emotion disapproving style, where parents disapproved or were critical of their children’s emotions (particularly uncomfortable emotions) and where they were mostly focussed on their need to regain control or power, or to teach the child right from wrong, or to toughen the child up. In fact, all of us can identify with responding in this way, especially when we perceive our children misbehaving deliberately or when we are tired and overwhelmed ourselves. For example, with our older children who may be fighting or speaking disrespectfully we may go straight to punishing their misbehaviors by sending them to their room. Similarly, if using the nappy changing example, an emotion disapproving response might include becoming cross myself or saying things like ‘Oh for heaven’s sake, stop the fussing! Every time! I can’t stand this!’. When we are tired, stressed or emotionally overwhelmed we are more likely to slip into using emotion dismissing response styles. Therefore, focusing on our own emotional wellbeing is one of the greatest gifts for our children.
What can we do to help refuel ourselves?
Margot Sunderland, author of the book ‘The Science of Parenting: What every Parent needs to know’ (and many others!) highlights that self-care is paramount to healthy emotional communication in the family. Find something to do that you find calming. This doesn’t need to be expensive or take a huge amount of time – in fact small things done often are very effective!
Self-care can be done alone, with others and can involve things we find calming (such as lying in the park, listening to music, reading a book, meditating, having a cup of tea, or having a bath) and things that help us destress (such as going for a run or a bike ride, dancing, singing, weeding the garden, or doing yoga).
Sometimes, when things are too stressful to consider self-care, we may need ‘community care’ where we accept the help from others (such as receiving help with shopping or cleaning, having someone look after the children, or receiving a meal). Try with small gradual actions – even just turning off your device can become a moment of self-care.