In How to Raise an Emotionally Intelligent Child, Dr. John Gottman explains the five steps of Emotion Coaching, which you can read about here. He also provides a list of strategies that may prove helpful when – no matter what you say or do – you can’t seem to get your message across to your child. They are based on what Dr. Gottman and his colleagues have learned through parent groups, clinical work, and observational studies.
1. Ignore Your “Parental Agenda”
Although emotional moments can be a great opportunity for empathy, bonding, and coaching, they can also present a real challenge for parents who have what Dr. Gottman calls a “parental agenda.” That is, a goal based on a particular problem the parent has identified as interfering with the child’s best interests.
We applaud mothers and fathers who share their values with their children. Dr. Gottman believes such teaching is an extremely important part of parenting. Parents need to be aware, however, that unless parental agendas are communicated sensitively, they can get in the way of a close parent-child relationship. For one, the parental agenda prevents parents from listening empathetically to their children. Avoid negative labeling by steering clear of global, enduring critiques of your child’s personality traits. When correcting kids, focus instead on a specific event that happened.
2. Empower Your Child by Giving Choices, Respecting Wishes
Children need practice weighing their options and finding solutions. They need to see what happens when they make choices based on their family’s value system, and what happens when they choose to ignore family standards. Such lessons are sometimes painful, but with Emotion Coaching, they can also be powerful opportunities for parents to offer guidance.
The earlier a child learns to express preferences and make wise choices, the better. In addition to a sense of responsibility, giving children choices helps them to build self-esteem. The next time your child makes a small request – no matter how silly or trivial it may seem to you at the time – try not to perceive it as a battle of wills. The results may benefit your child, who uses such interactions to develop a sense of self.
3. Share in Your Child’s Dreams and Fantasies
This technique is a great way to get on your child’s emotional level, making empathy and understanding easier. It’s particularly helpful when children express desires that are beyond the realm of possibility.
Remember: All wishes and emotions are acceptable. All behaviors are not. Whatever your child’s dreams are, the important thing is that they know you have heard them and that you think their desires are okay.
4. Read Children’s Literature Together
From infancy through adolescence, children’s books can be a great way for parents and kids to learn about emotions. Stories can help children build a vocabulary for talking about feelings, and illustrate the different ways people handle their anger, fear, and sadness.
Age-appropriate books can provide a way for parents to talk about subjects they may find difficult to address. TV programs and movies can also be a fuel for family discussions, but Dr. Gottman recommends books because the reader and listener can stop at any point to discuss what’s happening in the story. Reading aloud also gives children a better sense that the family is participating in the storytelling, and so they may feel a greater investment in the narrative.
5. Don’t Try to Impose Your Solution on Your Child’s Problems
One of the quickest ways to sabotage Emotion Coaching is to tell a child who’s sad or angry how you would solve the problem at hand. To understand why, just think about the way this dynamic commonly occurs in marriage. Zach Brittle wrote about Understanding Must Precede Advice here.
Parents may feel frustrated with their child’s unwillingness to take unsolicited advice, especially considering the relative amount of wisdom and life experience parents have to share with their kids. But that’s not the way children learn. To propose solutions before you empathize with children is like trying to build the frame of a house before you lay a firm foundation.