One of my most vivid memories of my childhood occurred when I was five. My father, an agonomist and farmer in Saskatchewan, had taken me on a trip to look at ponies, two of which he was considering buying. Having never ridden before, I begged to ride one. Although I don’t remember how I got on that pony, I do remember how I got off. The pony, most likely responding to my complete lack of skill, immediately galloped off in the direction of the nearest hay pile and abruptly stopped. I was thrown head over heels.
Although I was crying more from fear than actual ailment, my father came over, offered a condolence and then picked me up, gently placing me on the back of that same pony, whose reins he now firmly held. Then he continued talking with the owner, unruffled. Gradually I was soothed, both by the sound of his calm voice continuing negotiations, and by the pony’s own stillness. Two things happened to me that day. I realized I could rely on my father’s calm approach to distress and I began a lifelong love of horses.
Moments of emotional intensity can be significant developmental points for a child if he or she is coached into handling the situation well. In a recent article* by John Gottman, he emphasizes the difference between two types of parenting styles: emotional coaching and emotional dismissing.
One of the major differences between these two parenting styles is in the approach to negative emotions. Parents who are ‘emotional dismissers’ don’t notice lower intensity emotions in their kids or themselves, they see negative moods as ‘bad’ and they want their children to avoid feeling sad, hurt or fearful. These parents may often appear warm and attentive to their children. However, they are either impatient with negative moods or distressed by them, and will try to change them quickly. They might do this by ‘cheering up’, with admonitions to “Be happy”, or by distracting their children with entertainment, food or clothing. Feelings of sadness, fear or rejection are seen as a waste of time, and children are told to “Get over it” and to “Grow up”. But this is the problem: the children are growing up, and they need some help. Dismissing the emotions serves only to intensify them, or to drive them in deeper without a way to deal with them.
On the other hand, a parent who is willing to be an ‘emotional coach’ for a child might sit with a sad child and be sad with him or her. There is no impatience with the sadness. The parent communicates acceptance of that feeling, an understanding that “You aren’t alone; I’m with you. Your feelings are O.K. When you are sad, someone will listen”. Through this, the child learns that he is acceptable no matter what state he is in, that he is cared for, supported, and that his experience is valid.
‘Emotional coaches’ function calmly and empathically, with clear behavioural limits. In the teachable moments of life, they provide just enough information as necessary to get started into discussion and problem solving. They listen more than they speak. They are not involved with the child’s mistakes; in fact, they wait for the child to do something right, then praise the child’s performance specifically. The child is included in generating solutions to problems.
The ‘emotional dismissers’, however, operate quite differently. They react intensely themselves when their child experiences a negative feeling such as anger, hurt or fear. They might lecture, or rant about the incident. They get very involved with the child’s mistakes, often waiting for the child to make a mistake which can be criticized. The emotional dismissers then escalate the criticism to insults, mockery and belittling, which only increases the hurt and difficulty the child is experiencing.
In times of difficulty, parents who function as ‘emotional coaches’ help their children mature well. These parents notice low moods in their child and can use times of negativity as an opportunity for understanding their child or to teach life lessons or problem solving. They understand that a child’s feelings of sadness, rejection or anger are a necessary part of life, and as such, are not to be avoided. They also understand that if children can comprehend and negotiate smaller life difficulties, their confidence and optimism increase, enabling them to handle larger difficulties later in life.
For further reading in this area, Joan recommends:
Goleman, D.(1995). Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ. New York; Bantam Books.
Gottman, J. (2001). Meta-emotion, children’s emotional intelligence and buffering children from marital conflict. In C.D. Ryff & B.H. Singer, Emotion, Social Relationships and Health. New York; Oxford University Press.