The Digital Age: 3 Reasons I Am A Terrible Emotion Coach

Even trained therapists have trouble being good parents

Even therapists have trouble being good parents.

Even therapists have trouble being good parents.

emotion coaching

As a therapist, I can easily wrap my head around the theory of the Emotion Coaching parenting style. As an actual parent, I have a much tougher time. Everything I know about the practice of Emotion Coaching I’ve learned by messing it up. I am a terrible Emotion Coach. Just ask my kids.

Yesterday, my 2nd grader threw a tantrum because I wouldn’t let her play with my phone at a restaurant. It was maybe the 40th time she’d asked in a two-minute span, so I flipped out and made a scene of my own until she “apologized.” She said, “I’m sorry, Dad, but I really love screens.” She was matter-of-fact and because I’m not a liar, I told her, “I love them too, sweetie.” She answered, “Of course you do, Dad.”

There are a number of reasons that I am a terrible Emotion Coach. The first is that I’m distracted. At this very moment, I have three screens within arms’ reach and the television is on. Later tonight, I’ll fall asleep reading an eBook on yet another screen. The first rule of Emotion Coaching is to be aware of our child’s emotions. With so many invitations to distraction, it’s pretty easy to break that rule.

To be aware, you have to pay attention, but the Digital Age wreaked havoc on our ability to do so. Especially children. In my house, however, my kids learned distractibility from me. I can blame it on screens all I want, but I’m a grown-up so I need to take responsibility for my behavior, which probably means no more tantrums in restaurants.

Another reason I’m a terrible emotion coach is that I’m tired. The second rule of Emotion Coaching is to recognize your child’s expression of emotion as an opportunity to connect. Even when I pick my head up long enough to become aware of my daughters’ emotions, I often miss the opportunity to connect with them. This is usually because I’m edgy from a long day, or my back hurts, or it’s Thursday.

Kids require a lot of energy. Not leftover energy. The best energy. It’s so much easier to plop them down in front of a TV show. Sometimes, I pretend that watching shows together is connecting (and indeed, sometimes it is)  but more often, Nickelodeon or Monday Night Football serves as a temporary (and shallow) respite from the demands of parenting. Authentic connection is about turning towards our children. But turning means moving, and that’s hard to do when you’re tired. Amiright?

The third reason is that I’m a terrible Emotion Coach is that I’m ill-equipped. Don’t get me wrong: I have a lot of regard and gratitude for the job my parents did bringing me up, but Emotion Coaching wasn’t their style. Our first and primary lessons about how to parent come from our parents, so adopting a new style can be difficult, if not impossible. It doesn’t help that the third rule of Emotion Coaching is one of the toughest: Validate your child’s emotions with empathy. If empathy is the magic potion for emotional intelligence, technology may be the poison apple.

So…what would Therapist-Me tell the Terrible-Emotion-Coach-Me?

Give yourself a break. With parenting, slow and steady wins the race.

That said, moments count, so put down your phone, turn off the TV, and check your email after bedtime. Pay attention to your kids, but take care of yourself. Get plenty of sleep. Drink lots of water. Exercise… maybe even with your kids. If that’s too daunting, invest in a good board game or some Legos.

Most importantly, remember: You are not your parents. You are their parents. Take a minute, or several, to see the world through their eyes. You might be surprised by what you see. Especially when you look at yourself. You might discover you’re not as terrible as you think you are.

Read more on the Digital Age blog series.

Zach Brittle is a Certified Gottman Therapist, best selling author of The Relationship Alphabet, and host of the highly-rated podcast Marriage Therapy Radio. He has a private practice in Seattle, WA and offers online coaching to couples across the country. He he has been happily married to his wife for 20 of 21 years. Together they have two daughters, a minivan, and most of the silverware they received at their wedding.