Showing up for your Child: How to be Responsive, Accessible, & Emotionally Engaged During your Child’s Time of Need

Parenting is hard work, and over time, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, under-equipped, and emotionally spent. As a therapist, it is not uncommon for moms to come into my office and say “I feel as if I am missing the mark on being a good parent,” “my child won’t listen,” or “my kid is being deviant and I don’t know how to stop this behavior.” If you have ever had these thoughts or have felt as if you are not getting it right as a parent, you are NORMAL. The truth is, when day-to-day stressors take their toll, it is often difficult to remember that your child is HAVING a hard time- they are not meaning to give YOU a hard time.

Most moms know how important it is to equip a child with the intellectual and social skills they need to succeed in life. They are also aware that rules, household structure, and education are important factors in helping children develop and thrive. However, kids also need to master their emotions. John Gottman, an internationally-known, Washington state-based psychology researcher, suggests that children who know how to make sense of and regulate their emotional world will enjoy greater physical health, increased self-confidence, better performance in school, and healthier relationships. Translation: helping your child make sense of their emotional world will only bring them closer to you.

Gottman’s book, “Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting,” provides parents with a map- a map to help children become emotionally intelligent. By following the parenting techniques outlined in the book and in this article, you will experience a deeper connection with your child. You will also be able to redirect the “deviant” behavior and help your child to explore strategies to solving issues. Gottman breaks the emotional coaching process down into five simple steps:

Become aware of your child’s emotions — Many moms are able to see the positive emotions a child expresses, but coming close to a child who is scared, hurt, angry, or sad can sometimes be a challenge. Parents tend to tune-in to the “deviant” demonstrations (e.g. yelling, sibling rivalry, kicking, screaming, etc.), but fail to recognize which emotion is actually driving these behaviors (e.g. sadness, hurt, fear). Instead of trying to control or modify a behavior, sit down with your child and help them to express what is going on inside. Preschoolers often need help labeling their emotions. Teaching them how to express what they are feeling, and redirecting misbehaviors may seem tedious, but it is time well spent.
Tips: 1) Pay attention to your own emotions- be aware of when you are sad, happy and angry; 2) Understand that feelings are valid and a natural part of life; 3) Watch, listen, and learn how your child expresses different emotions. Pay attention to body language, facial expressions, and posture.

Recognize emotional expression as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching — When children are “misbehaving” they are most likely having a difficult time and battling some tough emotions. Realize that negative emotions are not threats to authority, or something for you to fix or ignore.
Tips: 1) Pay close attention to your child’s emotions and try not to dismiss, invalidate, or avoid them; 2) Try to see these tough dialogues and emotional moments as opportunities for teaching, connection, and intimacy. It is OK to set boundaries and limits, but remember, in the words of Gottman, “empathy and understanding must always precede advice.” ; 3) Attempt to recognize emotions and let your child know that it is OK and safe to talk about his or her feelings; 4) Provide your child with guidance before emotions escalate into misbehavior.

Listen empathetically and validate your child’s feelings —Try to reflect back what you are hearing in an empathetic tone. This will let your child know that you understand their experience. They may be crying over spilt milk, and for you, that might seem ridiculous. However, for your child, it was huge. Remember, your child is hurting and you have the opportunity to comfort them and to help them feel safe. When a child feels emotionally safe and bonded with his/her primary caregiver(s), the world becomes a much safer place. The child then feels more comfortable exploring their world and they have an easier time regulating their emotions.
Tips: 1) Observations and reflections are more useful than probing or accusatory questions; 2) Avoid making judgmental or critical statements; 3) Maintain eye contact; 4) Avoid telling your child to stop crying; 4) Attempt to demonstrate that you understand what they are feeling.

Help your child find words to label the emotions they experience – Research suggests that this will help them soothe and pave the way for them to become emotionally intelligent.
Tips: 1) Set an example by labeling your own feelings and talking about them; 2) Spend time with your child and help them build a vocabulary for the various emotions; 3) Try not to tell your child what they “should” feel.

Set limits while exploring strategies to solve the issue- Emotional coaching isn’t about throwing out the rules and “giving in” to your child’s every need. It’s about listening, understanding, and working collaboratively with your child to solve the problem(s) at hand. It’s OK to have negative emotions, without having to accept the poor behavior that sometimes accompanies these bad feelings- children need to know this.
Tips: 1) When your child misbehaves, help them to express their feelings and understand why their behavior was inappropriate. It is vital that they know that their feelings are OK, just not the behavior. 2) Let your child know when they do something “good” or “right”- praise is a useful tool; 3) Spend more time with your child- and make household chores fun; 4) Encourage your child to express emotion, but set clear limits on behavior.

If you are doing the best you can to help your child feel loved, safe, and supported, you are “getting it right” with them. No one is perfect, but chances are, you are perfect in your child’s eyes. Remember to give yourself some grace and reach out for the support that you need- parenting is not an easy feat.