Emotion Coaching Step 1: Empathy

Use Emotion Coaching and empathy in your conversations with your child, and see the differences it makes in difficult moments.

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Imagine Mark and his seven-year-old son, Creighton. After hours of standing in line for a ride at Disneyland, sweating profusely in his khakis on what feels like the hottest of all possible hot days, they have finally reached the front of the line. Creighton looks up at Mark, tugging with panic at his sleeve, and with eyes big as saucers says the last words Mark wants to hear: “Daddy, I’m scared.”

Imagine another example: Ruth and her five-year-old daughter, Gabby. Coming home from work late one night, Ruth is tackled by Gabby, who demands a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos. Exhausted, but unable to resist her adorable youngster, Ruth relents. Five minutes later, forgetting to lose the game to her daughter, she is startled by a sudden sob. Gabby is crushed.

Lastly, consider the case of Linda and her ten-year-old son, Tommy. Coming home from a fifth-grade class outing to the zoo, he is unusually quiet. Assuaged by his mother’s questions, “How did it go? Did you have fun with your friends? Tell me all about it!” Tommy squirms and awkwardly complains that he was avoiding the Reptile Room when one of the bullies in his class called him a baby.

What do all of these examples have in common? They are universal, extremely familiar, everyday expressions of a child’s desire for their parent’s support. They are cries for sympathy and understanding. When children show their parents vulnerabilities, they want their parents to be their allies. As the above examples show, it can be difficult for parents to respond in these emotionally charged moments. Common societal misconceptions are at play here, as well as basic human psychology: parents often fear losing control of themselves or allowing their children to lose control of their negative emotions, and it is easy to fall into the trap of using distraction techniques to pacify a child who is upset. “Here, honey, stop crying, we’ll get ice cream on our way home!” Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, these techniques are only temporary “solutions” to the “problem.” Research shows that emotional awareness does not have to be accompanied by the feeling of wearing your heart on your sleeve. It does not have to involve ripping your soul out and exposing all of your vulnerabilities to someone else. Evidence shows that children who cannot look to their parents for true understanding and support feel more vulnerable and out of control in these moments. Children who have non-emotion coaching parents grow up in a “make believe home.”

Let’s return to our scenarios. In Mark and Creighton’s case, Daddy is stressed out and hot and irritable and all kinds of frustrated with his son for revealing his second thoughts about the Disneyland ride. If you haven’t spent a lot of time around children, think back to that old adage – a kid’s mother gets him dressed up in layer upon layer of warm clothing, and the moment before he’s all ready to go play in the snow outside, he miraculously discovers the sudden and overwhelming desire to use the bathroom. Though the child in the well-known anecdote has a physical need, Creighton’s emotional need is just as significant. If his father calls him a baby or ridicules his fear out of annoyance, the lessons that Creighton will learn are that his emotions are unreasonable, shouldn’t be shown to anyone, and are fundamentally undesirable and problematic.  Now imagine his father leaning down and saying, “Yeah, kid, I used to be afraid of some rides too! This one is really big and scary, huh? Do you still want to go on it with me or do you want to try a smaller one?” Creighton’s trust in his dad will be affirmed. He will feel safe in expressing his fear, and he will gain a greater understanding of his feelings and the awareness that he can deal with them.

Now take the case of Ruth and Gabby: Ruth is exhausted from work and caves into her daughter’s desire for a game, which ends in tears when Gabby loses. As an Emotion Coach, what would Ruth do? She wouldn’t attempt to pacify Gabby with a cookie or a promise of a trip to the park the next day. She would sit down next to her daughter and ask her about how she is feeling. She would try to understand why Gabby is so upset, patiently listening to her daughter’s responses and helping her work through her emotional state. She might ask, “What’s wrong, babe? Are you upset because you lost the game? Losing sucks, I know. I hate losing. Maybe we could practice tomorrow and you could beat me! That always helps!” Like Creighton, Gabby would feel that her mother is aware of her emotions, that they are real and important and deserving of compassion and empathy, that all humans have them. She will be a little further in gaining an invaluable skill-set, which is understanding herself and others.

Now that we have gone through these two examples, the method that Linda should use in approaching her son Tommy’s experience with a bully at the zoo should seem relatively clear. Already shamed and embarrassed by his classmate, Tommy worries that his mother will also misunderstand him and cause him further discomfort. If she uses Emotion Coaching, she can turn the whole experience around. She needs only to think of the first step, empathy. When she puts herself in Tommy’s shoes, she may remember what it was like for her to be bullied as a child, thinking back to a time when she felt attacked or put down by someone. What she most likely wanted at that moment was understanding and support – in short, the comfort of being told that she was not an alien life form, that she was “OK.” By imagining how Tommy must feel, she will see the dangers of calling him out for not defending himself, and instead, realize that the best she can offer him is her compassion and sympathy.

Parenting is hard work. Use Emotion Coaching and empathy in your conversations with your child, and see the differences it makes in difficult moments.

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Ellie Lisitsa is a former staff writer at The Gottman Institute. She holds a PhD in Clinical Psychology.

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