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The Digital Age: Labeling Emotions

Emotion Coaching can encourage your kids to come to you for support.

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The Digital Age can be a scary and confusing place for kids. Adults can help kids struggling with moments of emotional intensity. Children are new to the experience of emotion, and their lack of comprehension of their feelings may lead to the misconception that their emotions are unnatural. This is where Dr. Gottman’s Emotion Coaching comes in: Help your kids learn to label their emotions with words.

According to Dr. John Gottman, “providing words [to describe the problem] can help children transform an amorphous, scary, uncomfortable feeling into something definable, something that has boundaries and is a normal part of life… [something that] everybody has and everybody can handle.” Expressing empathy while giving kids the tools to label their emotions with words helps to heighten their confidence in dealing with everyday problems. Also, it is effective in soothing their nervous system and allowing them to recover faster from stressful events. Here’s how it works:

Nine-year-old, Sam, comes home one day in a funk. Dropping his skateboard in the middle of the hallway, he throws himself into his room and turns up the music. After tiptoeing around his son throughout dinnertime, Charlie loses patience with the boy’s moodiness.

“What are you doing, kid?” he asks. Sam is on his phone and doesn’t answer.

“Is anything wrong?”

After a few minutes of meandering aimlessly in circles, Sam finally relents. “I failed my math test today.”

What should Charlie do with this admission? The initial disappointment and frustration are replaced with confidence as he remembers the steps of Emotion Coaching. He has a way to turn the situation around.

Though it is obvious that adults continue to struggle with relation to their emotions, it would be nonsensical to think that children and adults are on the same page. Charlie can say with relative self-awareness that his son’s confession of failing a math test in school makes him feel frustrated. If he looks deeper, he may notice that he also feels kind of guilty. He may notice a twinge of anxiety about his parenting skills. Did he tutor Sam enough over the summer? Why didn’t Sam come to him sooner? Is Sam afraid to come to him with problems in general?

Sam’s silence, on the other hand, communicates a very different message: the child has no idea how to deal with the situation and he may not understand why.

To help, Charlie’s job as an Emotion Coach is to find out how his child feels. The process is NOT about what Charlie thinks Sam OUGHT to feel about the problem he is faced with, but about working together to determine the true emotions in the situation. Here is how the conversation might go:

Charlie: “It sounds like you feel upset about the math test.”
Sam: “Yeah, I feel like I could have done better.  Jimmy got an A. He told everyone.”
Charlie: “I know how that goes. I used to HATE it when I had messed up on something and other kids shouted out their good grades. It made me so jealous.”
Sam: “It’s sooo annoying! It felt really bad… I guess I was jealous.”
Charlie: “That’s totally normal. We all go through it sooner or later. Is this all about Jimmy, though?”
Sam: “No… I feel like I should have studied more.”
Charlie: “So you feel kinda guilty?”
Sam: “Yeah…”
Charlie: “Would it help if we went through some of the problems together this weekend?”
Sam: “Could we? Thanks… that would be great.”

Knowing that his dad has been through the same experience and that it made him feel the same way allows Sam to realize that his experience is normal. The words Charlie offers to his son in describing the emotions Sam feels makes these feelings easier to handle and makes the child see that this episode is just a part of the normal human experience. That it isn’t the end of the world. It also helps him to trust his Dad more and see him as an ally. Together they can practice some math problems and work through the situation as a team.

This part of Emotion Coaching is one in which you, as a parent, have the opportunity to help your child through difficult moments in a manner that is both incredibly easy for you and useful for them. If you practice it often, it can increase not only your child’s ability to cope with problems, but bring the two of you closer together. In the Digital Age, Emotion Coaching can encourage your kids to come to you for support and connection instead of vanishing into screens when things feel overwhelming.

Read more on the Digital Age blog series.

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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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