You are helping your six-year-old child get ready for their first day at a new school. While sitting down for breakfast, your child hangs their head and with tears in their eyes, and says, “I don’t want to go to school.”
You might say something like, “It’s OK. You’ll make new friends. I think you’ll like it there.”
You have good intentions. You’re only trying to cheer them up, but what you don’t know is that these two words – “It’s OK” – are actually hurting them. With these small little words, you are casually dismissing your child’s emotions.
Research has shown that understanding the emotional source of your child’s behavior can help parents as problems arise. Children who cannot turn to their parents to be understood feel vulnerable, a lifestyle Dr. John Gottman calls a “make believe home.” To avoid raising vulnerable and emotionally closed children, Gottman produced a five-step plan to help parents know how to approach their child’s emotions.
Here’s what he urges parents to do:
Step 1: Be aware of your child’s emotion
Watch what your child says and does. What does it say about how they are feeling? Your child might not be able to fully express how they feel with words, so it is important for you as the parent to look out for and identify their emotions through their actions.
Step 2: Recognize their expression as a teaching moment
Don’t view their emotions as something that must be dealt with. Use this as an opportunity to teach them how they are feeling. Teach your children how to recognize what it means to be upset or nervous, and recognize what has made them feel this way. The next three steps will describe how to do just that.
Step 3: Validate your child’s feelings
Listen to and validate their feelings. In the situation described above, you could respond by saying, “You must miss your friends. You must be feeling nervous about starting at a new school and meeting new people.”
Once you’ve validated their feelings, let them add to that if they’d like to. Now that they know you understand them, they might feel more open to sharing their thoughts.
Step 4: Help them label their emotions
Gottman’s research showed that children who are new to certain experiences are unable to comprehend what they are going through, and why they feel the way they do. Putting words to this new situation can help them understand that their feelings are normal.
Try to be specific when labeling their emotions. There is quite a difference between feeling mad and irate. Choosing specific words can help your child better express their feelings in the future.
Step 5: Set limits while helping your child problem-solve
Consider solutions to the problem. For example, for the situation above, you could suggest inviting neighborhood kids over on Saturday afternoon. You could also offer to drive your child to school instead having them ride the bus to subside first-day jitters.
Let your child come up with possible solutions, too, but remember to set limits. Make it clear that you’ll drop them off for the first two days of school, but that they will need to take the bus after that. Work together to make sure you both are understood emotionally, and come up with solutions you both agree with.
By implementing these five steps, your child will feel understood, and you as a parent will be better able to support them as you work through their emotions together.