Let me ask you a question: “How do you feel about feelings?” Some people “feel” that feelings are dangerous. Others “feel” that feelings make them soft and vulnerable. As a result, they are fearful that feelings leave them unsafe, or, dismissive of feelings that make them weak. All these responses lead people to ignore feelings and to teach their children to do the same. In fact, they may even punish children for having feelings—for instance, sending them into isolation (their room) until they “calm down, quit crying, or learn to talk politely.” Although this may alleviate a parent’s discomfort with their child’s emotions, it also serves to rob their child of the opportunity to learn ways of communicating their emotions to others and of effectively regulating their emotions in themselves. Robbed of these skills, children have a greater risk for depression, angry outbursts, and anxiety. They may act impulsively and exhibit a lack of empathy as well.
Fortunately, there is a way of “feeling about feelings” that proves more beneficial to families and their children. This involves “emotional coaching.” Families who practice emotional coaching “feel” that feelings are expressions of priorities and values. They believe that emotions represent things of importance to the person with the feeling. On the flip side, they know that expression of emotion also gives everyone else in the family important information about that person’s character and priorities.
Emotions are like an “open book” revealing a person’s deeper values and interests. By recognizing and accepting each person’s emotions, the family learns about each other’s nuanced interests and values. Each person learns to open up and communicate their feelings. This, in turn, allows for greater intimacy and support. In addition, people learn to become aware of emotions before they escalate in themselves and others. They have greater self-awareness, and so better self-regulation. They have a better ability to recognize emotions in others and so a better sense of empathy.
As you can imagine, dismissing emotions and coaching emotions will have an immense impact on your family and your children. And which one you choose will create a ripple that will impact your family through the generations for better or worse.
To let your family benefit from the “better side” of this ripple effect, practice emotional coaching. Learn to be accepting of emotions. Remember, emotions are not good or bad in and of themselves. They simply provide information about priorities and things of value. Accept the emotion. Listen to the emotion. Validate the feeling and the priority under the emotion. As you listen and show empathy for your child’s emotions, your child will learn the value of emotions.
Don’t stop by simply listening and validating. Take the next step and label your children’s emotions. By labeling their emotions, you help them develop an emotional vocabulary. Having an emotional vocabulary will help your child manage their emotions in an effective manner. It gives them a vocabulary with which to express themselves and their emotions, which can lead to greater intimacy and better problem-solving.
When your child knows you accept and understand their feelings, they will likely begin to “calm down” and regain emotional control. At that point, you can discuss how they might want to respond to whatever is arousing that emotion within them. This problem-solving will include how they might address the priority behind the emotion in a way that will best promote that priority.
These three steps will begin to help you become an emotional coach for your child. As you continue practicing emotional coaching with your children and yourself, the benefits will ripple through your family for generations.