What do you do when your child has an outburst? Whether it’s anger and aggression, frustration, or even disgust? Sometimes, rather than having an outburst it may be sadness and despondency. Other times it could be anxiety and nerves.
John Gottman, author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child states that parents typically go for one of four reactions to their children’s (and even other adults’) negative emotions.
Our most common response to negative emotion is disapproval. This occurs when we become annoyed with our child and make aggressive statements like,
“Cut it out. Stop behaving like that. Grow up and act your age.”
Disapproval is associated with parents judging their children negatively for feeling a certain way. There is a feeling in such parents that negative emotions need to be controlled and put away – they don’t serve a productive purpose. In fact, negative emotions are a nuisance – an inconvenience, disrupting our otherwise well-ordered life.
Outcomes: Kids whose parents disapprove of their negative emotions learn that their feelings are wrong. They feel that something must be wrong with them if they feel they way they do. Over time, such children struggle to regulate their emotions, ironically, because they’re consistently being told to do so and they’re not doing a good enough job.
The next most common response to negative emotion is dismissal. While not quite as negative as disapproval, dismissal is exemplified by statements such as
“You’ll be right. Would you just get over it? It’s not that big a deal.”
Perhaps more insidious, parents often tell their children to ‘look on the bright side of life, see the silver lining, and focus on the positive.’ While well-intentioned, this response is just as dismissing as the shrug of the shoulders and the ‘get over it’ attitude mentioned first. While it is couched in having a positive attitude, the child’s emotions are still being dismissed.
Outcomes: Children whose parents dismiss their emotions feel invalidated. They may wonder why their emotions are always wrong, and have similar difficulties as those whose parents are disapproving.
Some parents tend to swing to the other side of the spectrum, and rather than responding to their child’s emotions, they essentially roll with it in a laissez-faire kind of way. That is, they accept that their child is having an emotion. They sit with them and say,
“Oh, it feels awful doesn’t it.”
And they simply wait til the emotion has moved on.
Outcomes: Research indicates that such a response has a negative impact on kids’ ability to regulate their emotions. They can also have difficulties socially because of this emotion-regulation challenge.
4. Emotion Coaching
Emotion Coaching parents respond to their children’s negative emotions in a patient, teaching way. Importantly, they are ok with their child feeling negative, and see their child’s frustrations, sadness, or anger as an opportunity for becoming closer. When a child is upset, parents like this respond by
- being aware of what our child is feeling – even when it’s subtle,
- recognising an opportunity to connect and teach
- offering empathy and compassion – while not necessarily condoning behaviour or attitudes that are out of line,
- labeling emotions,
- working with their children on setting limits around emotions (and around the issues that may have caused the emotions.
Which parent are you?
Most of us are a bit of all of these parents, depending on the day and time, our availability, and just how needy the kids are at that particular moment. However, we typically fall into one category in a pervasive way. And it is the pervasiveness that matters.
Our children’s negativity does not have to threaten us. And it doesn’t need ‘fixing.’ By taking a coaching mindset to our children’s challenges, we move from being the know-it-all sage who undermines their thinking and learning, to being a kind guide who models empathy, understanding, and emotional attunement. And this approach does all of the fixing by helping our children discover answers within themselves.
For more on how we can work with our children’s negative emotions, you can buy my book, “What Your Child Needs From You: Creating a Connected Family”, by clicking here.