“I’m sad my friend played with someone else the whole time after lunch.”
Once up a time, best practices for raising a happy child meant distracting them from negative feelings like sadness, disappointment, and frustration, and even convincing them that they aren’t seeing a situation correctly. “You don’t need to feel sad, just find someone else to play with.” Our historical understanding is that giving credence to feelings makes them worse.
Now decades of research have shown us the opposite is true. Children whose feelings have been noticed and validated are better able to manage their inner life and their outward behavior. The process of helping children to name, understand, and express their feelings is called emotional coaching.
Landmark research by award-winning psychologist and author Dr. John Gottman (The Heart of Parenting) has shown us that a child who has received emotional coaching is better able to handle stress and less apt to bully or be bullied by others. They are less likely to fall into depression and engage in self-harm.
Children’s emotions are more all-consuming than adults’ and feel like they will last forever. To us the reasons they get upset seem silly. Yet the simple act of helping a child to label her feelings reduces their power in the amygdala and helps the energy to pass out of the body. When children’s feelings are noticed, talked about, and, most importantly, validated, they grow in their abilities to self-regulate and communicate successfully with others.
This process often seems counterintuitive, especially in a discipline situation. Who wants to validate a child’s feelings about not wanting to leave the park when it’s time to go? Yet in that moment, showing that we understand – “I know you love playing here and have big feelings about going” – only takes a moment before we set a time limit and offer positive recognition for complying when they walk toward the car. “You don’t want to leave, but you’re really cooperating. That shows maturity.”
Noticing and empathizing with children’s feelings when they are low intensity builds connection and helps them not to get stuck in negative patterns like throwing tantrums. If we empathize, they will learn more compassion toward themselves and those around them.
Watch this touching,inspiring short video by Dr. Gottman and his wife, Dr. Julie Gottman, talking about emotional coaching and intelligence.