Dealing with kids ain’t easy. They need an exhausting amount of attention and help.
Behavioral psychologists have observed that preschoolers typically demand that their caretakers deal with some kind of need or desire at an average rate of three times a minute.
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Most advice on parenting focuses on how to deal with misbehavior. While helpful, this is also akin to only offering advice on how to survive after a nuclear holocaust and not talking about how to prevent one. What’s the secret to making sure your living room doesn’t resemble a scene from “Mad Max: Fury Road”?
What usually underlies bad behavior is how the child handles negative emotions. And this is something we rarely teach deliberately and almost never teach well. Showing kids how to recognize and deal with feelings prevents misbehavior — and it’s a skill that will serve them their entire lives. It prevents tantrums at age 4 but it’s also the difference between saving college money and saving bail money later on. Look at it as potty training for feelings.
But how do we do that?
Professor John Gottman is the guy who revolutionized the study of relationships, getting it to the point where he could listen to a couple for just a few minutes and determine with a frightening amount of accuracy whether or not they’d divorce. Well, luckily, Gottman also analyzed parenting. And this wasn’t the latest parenting theory-of-the-week that somebody came up with over lunch — this was a truly epic study of mind-bending proportions.
He took over 100 married couples with kids ages 4 or 5 and gave them questionnaires. Then conducted thousands of hours of interviews. He observed their behavior in his lab. Taped sessions of the kids playing with their best friends. Monitored heart rates, respiration, blood flow and sweating. Took urine samples — yeah, urine samples — from the kids to measure stress-related hormones. And then followed up with the children and families all the way through adolescence, conducting more interviews, evaluating academic performance and …
Okay, enough. You get it. The plans of Hollywood Bond Villains aren’t this thorough. And when it came to dealing with emotions, Gottman realized there are 4 types of parents. And three ain’t so hot:
- Dismissing parents: They disregard, ignore, or trivialize negative emotions.
- Disapproving parents. They’re critical of negative feelings and punish kids for emotional expression.
- Laissez-Faire parents: They accept their children’s emotions and empathize with them, but don’t offer guidance or set limits on behavior.
Children of these parents didn’t do as well over time. They misbehaved more, had trouble making friends or had self-esteem problems. One of them may be breaking into your car right now.
And then there were the Ultra-Parents. These mothers and fathers unknowingly used what Gottman calls “emotion-coaching.” And this produced emotionally intelligent kids. These parents accepted their children’s feelings (but not all of the children’s behavior), guided the kids through emotional moments, and helped them problem-solve their way to a solution that didn’t involve putting the neighbor’s kid in the emergency room. How did these tykes end up?
The children were better at soothing themselves when they were upset. They could calm down their hearts faster. Because of the superior performance in that part of their physiology that is involved in calming themselves, they had fewer infectious illnesses. They were better at focusing attention. They related better to other people, even in the tough social situations they encountered in middle childhood like getting teased, where being overly emotional is a liability, not an asset. They were better at understanding people. They had better friendships with other children. They were also better at situations in school that required academic performance. In short, they had developed a kind of “IQ” that is about people and the world of feelings, or emotional intelligence.
And it all came down to how the parents handled the child’s negative emotional outbursts. These parents did five things that the other types rarely did.
Alrighty, let’s get to it …
1) Be aware of emotions
Parenting is stressful and can feel non-stop. Often it’s not like running a marathon — it’s like running until you die. So there’s a natural tendency to look around when things are (finally) calm and think, “Nothing is currently on fire. Okay, life is good.”
But this can be like standing in a coal mine ignoring the thousands of dead canaries. Usually emotions precede outbursts. So noticing the child’s emotions early — and not just the resulting bad behavior — is critical.
“Not misbehaving” doesn’t mean “not upset.” When a passive-aggressive spouse crosses their arms, scowls and says, “I’m fine,” at least you know they’re definitely not fine. Kids may not even understand what they’re feeling or how to best express it. So being aware and noticing early can prevent Tonka trucks from taking flight without FAA approval.
But the problem many parents have here is noticing their own emotions. If you’re not aware of your feelings and moods you’ll have trouble noticing and relating to those of others.
Our studies show that for parents to feel what their children are feeling, they must be aware of emotions, first in themselves and then in their kids… Emotional awareness simply means that you recognize when you are feeling an emotion, you can identify your feelings, and you are sensitive to the presence of emotions in other people.
Don’t be afraid to show emotions in front of your kids. Gottman found that even anger (as long as it’s expressed respectfully and constructively) has its place. If parents hold back from showing feelings then kids can learn “Mom and dad don’t have these emotions and neither should I.”
Seeing arguments and then seeing them resolved amicably is far better than never seeing them at all. Kids need a role model not just for values, but also for feelings.
Such moms and dads may try to compensate for their fear of losing control by being “super-parents,” hiding their emotions from their children… The irony is that by hiding their emotions, these parents may be raising youngsters who are even less capable of handling negative emotions than they would have been if their parents had learned to let their feelings show in a nonabusive way. That’s because the kids grow up emotionally distant from their parents. Also, the children have one less role model to teach them how to handle difficult emotions effectively.
Shielding kids from emotional situations and then sending them out into the world is like sending an athlete to the Olympics with no training. Kids need those moments in order to learn how to regulate their feelings.
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Notice feelings now and avoid a crisis later. But what perspective did the smart parents take when outbursts did occur?
2) Emotion is an opportunity for intimacy and teaching
It’s understandable to see a tantrum as an irrational inconvenience that should be eliminated ASAP. But the parents whose children thrived saw outbursts as teaching moments and a time to bond with their kid. Yeah, that doesn’t always feel natural when a child is angrily throwing things.
Does saying anything resembling, “You should not feel this way” ever work with emotional adults? Exactly. Then it sure as hell isn’t going to work with your kid. Saying “There’s nothing to be afraid of,” or “Oh, it’ll be fine” is dismissive. This is how kids learn to doubt their own judgment and lose confidence. The Emotion-Coaching parents realized that a tantrum was the best time to connect with their child and teach them a valuable skill.
Yes, you need to stop misbehavior immediately. But you want to do it in a way specific to the child’s actions and not make it about their identity. So you want to say, “We don’t paint Grandma’s couch purple,” instead of, “Stop being a nightmare!” The children who consistently heard the latter did not fare as well in Gottman’s follow ups.
When we checked in with these same families three years later, we found that the children who experienced such disrespectful, contemptuous behavior from their parents were the same kids who were having more trouble with schoolwork and getting along with friends. These were the kids who had higher levels of stress-related hormones in their bodies. Their teachers reported they were having more behavior problems, and their moms reported they had more illnesses.
It takes practice but you want to see kids’ emotional pain like you’d see their physical pain. It’s not their fault. It’s a challenge they’re facing. And one you can help them with.
(To learn the two-word morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Okay, so you’ve got the right perspective. You’re an emotional mentor, not a corrections officer. But what do you actually do to help?
3) Listen empathetically and validate feelings
Don’t argue the facts. Feelings aren’t logical. You wouldn’t expect the new employee to know how to find the bathroom and you shouldn’t expect a child to know how to handle emotions that, frankly, you still have problems dealing with after decades of experience.
Don’t immediately try to fix things. You need to establish you’re a safe ally before you can solve anything. Understanding must precede advice, and, just as with adults, they decide when you understand.
The critical distinction Gottman realized is that it’s important to accept all feelings — but not all behavior. If you skip immediately to problem-solving, the kid never learns the skill of how to deal with those uncomfortable emotions.
You want to use “empathetic listening.” Get them to talk. Help them clarify. Validate their feelings (but, again, not necessarily their behavior). They need to feel you really understand and are on their side.
Take a deep breath, relax and focus on them. They’ll notice if you’re impatient or frustrated and just going through the motions.
In this context, listening means far more than collecting data with your ears. Empathetic listeners use their eyes to watch for physical evidence of their children’s emotions. They use their imaginations to see the situation from the child’s perspective. They use their words to reflect back, in a soothing, noncritical way, what they are hearing and to help their children label their emotions.
Relate their child problems to adult problems in your head to help you empathize. “But why is she freaking out about her new baby brother?! It makes no sense!” Really? How would you like it if your spouse brought home a new lover and expected you to welcome them into the home? Get out of your head and into theirs. Relate. Empathize.
Probing questions may be too much for a little kid. It can feel like interrogation. They may not even know why they’re sad. Try sharing simple observations. Say, “I noticed that you frowned when I mentioned going to the party” and then wait for a response.
(To learn the 4 rituals neuroscience says will make you an awesome parent, click here.)
Alright, they’re opening up. How do you calm them down and teach them how to cope?
4) Help them label their emotions
A young child is not going to be able to say, “Dearest mother, I apologize for my unnecessary irritability. My transition to the new kindergarten class has caused me an unexpected amount of stress. My future academic adjustments will be conducted with a level of grace heretofore unseen in our lovely household.”
You’ve got the words; they don’t. Help them get a handle on what’s going on by labeling what they feel.
Providing words in this way can help children transform an amorphous, scary, uncomfortable feeling into something definable, something that has boundaries and is a normal part of everyday life. Anger, sadness, and fear become experiences everybody has and everybody can handle. Labeling emotions goes hand in hand with empathy. A parent sees his child in tears and says, “You feel very sad, don’t you?” Now, not only is the child understood, he has a word to describe this intense feeling. Studies indicate that the act of labeling emotions can have a soothing effect on the nervous system, helping children to recover more quickly from upsetting incidents.
Don’t gloss over this. Labeling is absurdly powerful. Neuroscience has repeatedly demonstrated its ability to soothe emotions. It’s one of the main techniques hostage negotiators use to keep the most dangerous situations calm.
So when a child is crying because their sister got a better gift than they did, you don’t want to be dismissive and say, “I’m sure you’ll get a better present next time.” You want to validate and label the feeling with something like, “You wish you’d gotten something more fun. I bet that makes you feel kind of jealous.”
Now the kid is thinking, “They understand me.” And they’ve learned something about how to cope by talking it out and labeling the emotions to get a handle on them. And Gottman found this leads to really good things.
As we have discussed earlier, the implications of teaching a child to self-soothe are enormous. Kids who can calm themselves from an early age show several signs of emotional intelligence: They are more likely to concentrate better, have better peer relationships, higher academic achievement, and good health. My advice to parents, then, is to help your kids find words to describe what they are feeling. This doesn’t mean telling kids how they ought to feel. It simply means helping them develop a vocabulary with which to express their emotions.
(To learn how to make sure your kids are resilient, click here.)
They’re more calm. The storm has passed. They’re learning about emotions. But how do you teach them better behavior and how to fix the actual problem?
5) Set limits and help them problem-solve
Again, all feelings are acceptable — but all behavior isn’t. You need to set limits. The parent-child relationship is not a democracy. Once the emotions are dealt with, you can be firm.
After the parent acknowledges the emotion behind the misbehavior and helps him to label it, the parent can make sure the child understands that certain behaviors are inappropriate and can’t be tolerated. Then the parent can guide the child into thinking of more appropriate ways to handle negative feelings. “You’re mad that Danny took that game away from you,” the parent might say. “I would be, too. But it’s not okay for you to hit him. What can you do instead?”
After you’ve listened empathetically, labeled feelings, and set limits on any bad behavior, it’s time to fix things. Someone needs to lead the problem solving. And that person is not you.
This is another skill you want to help them develop. You won’t always be there to tell them what to do. So encourage them to come up with ideas, guide them to a solution in line with your values that is effective and takes other people’s feelings into consideration. This is how emotionally intelligent kids become resourceful, responsible children.
(To learn how to be a better parent, from Wharton professor Adam Grant, click here.)
Okay, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it up and address the question every realistic parent has been thinking from the start: How the heck am I supposed to do all of this stuff when I’m stressed to the gills, we’re in the middle of the mall, and already 15 minutes late for a doctor’s appointment?
Yes, there is an answer …
This is how to raise emotionally intelligent kids:
- Be aware of emotions: Canaries. Coal mines. Sometimes you can ignore the words but if you ignore the underlying feelings you’re going to be cleaning spaghetti off the walls.
- Emotion is an opportunity for intimacy and teaching: The best lessons about dealing with emotions are learned when things get emotional. Yes, this is inconvenient.
- Listen empathetically and validate feelings: Accept all feelings but not all behavior. Don’t interrogate, validate.
- Help them label their emotions: You’ve got the words; they don’t. It works for hostage negotiators so use it to make sure your kids don’t end up talking to hostage negotiators.
- Set limits and help them problem-solve: “We don’t stab Timmy. Now how might we be able to exact revenge in a way that doesn’t leave evidence?”
You don’t always have time to do all of the above when a meltdown happens … Or, more accurately, it’s extraordinarily rare when you ever have time to. Understood.
Don’t worry. Gottman says you don’t have to do it when the problem occurs. That would be preferable, but as long as you set aside time to sit down and have the conversation, you can help your kid become more emotionally intelligent.
In an ideal world, we’d always have time to sit and talk with our kids as feelings come up. But for most parents, that’s not always an option. It’s important, therefore, to designate a time—preferably at the same period each day—when you can talk to your child without time pressures or interruptions.
Emotion-coaching is not a panacea. It doesn’t have Harry Potter magic powers to turn your little devil into a little angel. There will still be outbursts. You’ll still need discipline and limits. But with time it’ll build a tighter bond with your child and help them develop a skill that will benefit them the rest of their life.
What most parents want more than anything is for their kids to be happy. What’s happiness? An emotion.
So you’ll teach them to go potty. And school will teach them how to think.
But more than anything, don’t forget to teach them how to feel.
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