Do you have trouble managing your child’s misbehaviour? Are there times when it is difficult to understand or relate to your child? Do you focus on your child’s behaviour rather than the emotions that created the behaviour? Many parents would say, yes yes yes, including myself. It’s not easy being calm and understanding when faced with an angry child or young person.
Dr John Gottman, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at the University of Washington, Seattle, and co-founder of The Gottman Institute with wife, Dr.Julie Schwartz Gottman, is well known in the area of couples relationships. He is equally renowned in the area of parenting and research on the emotional lives and communication between a parent and their child. Over 20 years ago, Gottman said “Much of today’s popular advice ignores the world of emotions. Instead, it relies on child-rearing theories that address the children’s behaviour, but disregard the feelings that underlie that behaviour.”
When a child exhibits anger, for instance, we only see the behaviour. Our attention is directed to what we see on the surface. It’s a bit like an iceberg. The tip of an iceberg is seen above the water surface, yet there is a bigger chunk of ice below the surface. Within that chunk are emotions bound up inside your child. Stress, hurt, embarrassment, grief, overwhelmed, anxious, disappointment, loneliness, lots of emotions that a child may not have the words to express.
Parents can become emotion coaches to their child or young person, helping them to understand different emotions they experience and why they occur and how to handle those emotions. Teaching your child about their emotions and naming the emotion, will create closeness in your relationship, a bond where your child feels understood and you discard the mantle of “guilty parent”.
When teaching your children about emotions, they will learn that all emotions are okay and valid but not all behaviours are okay. An example could be of a child who arrives home from school, throws her jacket down on the floor, tosses her bag across a table, yells at mum, then stomps off to her bedroom. Some parents may think that at least their child has gone to their bedroom. The trouble is that the child is still angry, still stewing in their room. Parents must ask themselves “What happened today that caused my child to be angry?”
Here are 7 tips to help you look below the surface and sort out a difficult behaviour when it arises.
1. Recognise early signs in your child, such as a scrunched up face and tense body. These are signs of growing anger.
2. Try to be calm when a negative behaviour arises. If you react to your child’s misbehaviour, you will either have a big fight on your hands or your child will learn that if they get a reaction to a specific behaviour, they will repeat that behaviour next time. To diffuse rising tension, turn towards your child and talk in a quiet and firm voice.
3. Reflect back to your child four to five soothing words and short sentences to help calm your child, see below for examples. Your child will feel validated and heard. An example of this is to imagine that you are upset about something and you are venting to a friend. We all want to be heard. We don’t want advice, not now, perhaps later in a calmer time. We want our friend to feel some of our pain, yet not be drawn into the pain. This is empathy.
4. Empathy is to have some understanding of another’s experience, even though we may not have lived this experience. So, using the example of our friend, she turns towards you and offers you connection. She nods, shows a caring face, says soothing words which helps to calm our angst. It doesn’t mean she agrees with the way you see things, she just acknowledges our experience of the world. Similarly, our children and young people want to feel heard and validated.
5. Help your child label their emotions with words. Children can feel frustrated at not being able to express how they feel. Teaching your child to name emotions will help your child to manage their emotions.
6. By the way, try some of these tips on partners, family and friends when something is not going right for them. It may not change their view of a problem but certainly it will uplift them to feel heard and supported.
7. When a child has exhibited strong anger, this is not a time to emotion coach as the child will not be able to hear you. Talk to your child later when you are both calmer.
Practice these reflective statements so they will be part of your parent tool kit when you notice difficult behaviour arise.
“It sounds like you are annoyed (or mad). Is that right?”
“If that happened to me, I would be angry.” (or hurt, or sad, or embarrassed)
“I reckon I’d feel scared (or afraid, or nervous) if that happened to me.”
“I can see you look sad about that.”
“You wish that you could have ….”
“I’m guessing that you feel frustrated about the whole thing.”
Janice Williams is a professional Counsellor and specialises in mother-daughter relationship counselling.
Janice offers in-person counselling, as well as online and phone counselling across Australia. Online counselling is available worldwide.