Connecting During Distress – April 2015

Q: My 4th grade daughter has been in a really bad mood lately – moping around, angry, crying sometimes. My wife and I handle it in different ways: I try to distract her and get her mind on something fun, and my wife pushes her to talk about what’s wrong. Nothing we’ve tried works and we’re arguing with each other a lot about how to help her. Any advice?
_____________________________________________________________________________________

A: This is a great question. You’re both probably approaching your daughter with techniques that used to work with her or techniques that work for you. If there’s one thing we know about kids, it’s that they’re always changing and what worked on Tuesday might not work on Wednesday. And it’s true that what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. It sounds like this situation would be a good time to practice an Emotion Coaching parenting style. The research of John Gottman has shown us the benefit to viewing difficult emotions as an opportunity to connect. He describes Emotion Coaching Parents as parents who are comfortable with difficult emotions in themselves and others. They notice the feelings are there and can identify them (can distinguish between different emotions and label them correctly). They view their child’s difficult emotions as a chance to connect and teach. They approach their child gently and with sincere interest and listen empathically while validating the child’s feelings. They help the child label the emotion he or she is having and set limits on emotional expression while helping the child problem-solve.

In contrast, Dismissing Parents and Disapproving Parents tend to disengage from their child in distress because they feel uncomfortable with difficult emotions and are focused on having those emotions go away as soon as possible. They don’t help their child name their emotions or assist them in problem-solving. They are more likely to avoid any discussion about it or tell them what to do. The child doesn’t feel heard and understood and doesn’t learn to become more comfortable with difficult emotions, figure out how to cope with them, or learn problem-solving skills. Disapproving Parents tend to also have a shaming, critical message during their child’s distress. Laissez-Faire parents are on the other end of the spectrum. They believe any emotion and any emotional expression is appropriate, so while they can sit with their child through the difficult emotions, they don’t teach the child about coping or problem-solving.

Children of Dismissing Parents and Disapproving Parents tend to struggle with trusting and accepting their emotions because they believe that negative emotions are wrong and bad and shouldn’t exist. They struggle with calming themselves and figuring out solutions. Children of Disapproving Parents also struggle with self esteem. Children of Laissez-Faire Parents have trouble forming friendships and getting along with others. All of these children struggle with emotion regulation because they weren’t taught what emotions are and how to calm themselves.

Don’t despair if you feel like the Dismissing, Disapproving, or Laissez-Faire Parent describes you at times! All these parents can be loving, smart parents who want to do their best for their children. The difference amongst the four types of Parenting Styles is the comfort level with emotions and skill sets in teaching about what emotions are, how to regulate them, and how to problem-solve. These are all skills that can be learned. And if you feel like your daughter is struggling with something or in some way that is truly beyond your scope, and if she is talking about hurting herself or engaging in self-injurious behaviors, I’d recommend asking her if she’d like to talk with a neutral third party and contact a therapist in your area. This person can talk directly with your daughter and also work with you on connecting with your daughter during hard times.