Fear is one of our most basic and strongest emotions. Being afraid of certain things protects us from potential danger in order to make sure that we survive.
The urge to `helicopter’ over our children, i.e. to hover over them in a way that undermines our responsibility as parents, to raise a child to independence beyond babyhood, is understandable. It can be difficult for us to turn off our threat spotting tendencies and let our children explore the world. The negative impact of this is not lost on our children; they pick up on whatever makes us their parents anxious and so it follows that if we are feeling in anyway nervous about them starting school for example, our children are going to pick up on this.
Where is the balance?
Finding the balance between keeping our children safe and at the same time offering them opportunities to move out of their comfort zone and reap the rewards of being brave and confident is one of the key challenges of parenthood. Children can’t learn about the world, or their place in it if they are not encouraged to step out of their comfort zone and take risks safely.
Research by the National Children’s Bureau showed that nearly 50% of parents let fear of strangers stop them letting their children to play outside, despite the developmental and mental health benefits that outdoor–play brings. Our views of the dangers that our children face are not however always supported by reality. We all want our children to be able to reap the rewards of being capable and confident without worrying about our feelings, however studies suggest that helicopter parenting itself can trigger anxiety in some children. Identifying that elusive point that keeps children away from harm while at the same time offering them an opportunity to get out of their comfort zone and be brave and bold is, for most of us the aim and the challenge of parenting.
I discovered that the key to managing my over –protective tendencies as a parent was the recognition that I wouldn’t be able to protect my son from the pain that was inevitably in store for him in the adult world. That realisation made me want to strengthen his resilience while he was still young. I didn’t want him to live an anxious and fearful life but enjoy a life full of opportunity and adventure.
Because the threats of modern living are quite different from the one’s that our brains were built to deal with; there are no longer wild animals roaming our countryside it is often difficult for us to switch off our threat-spotting tendencies and allow our children more freedom. There is no doubt that our children’s pain whether physical or emotional is very hard to bear and although our love, dependability and sensitivity create secure attachments, they are not enough to foster emotional intelligence in our children or teach them how to deal with their negative feelings or their challenging behaviour.
One possible solution
Emotion Coaching is an intervention devised by psychologist John Gottman (1997) that we can use to do just that. It uses times of heightened emotions and the resulting behaviour to talk to our children about more effective responses. Through an empathetic conversation the child’s emotions are acknowledged and validated. This promotes a feeling of security and being understood in our child thus enabling him/her to calm down and discover healthy solutions.
Emotion Coaching involves:
- talking to our children about their feelings and those of others
- showing acceptance of those feelings
- helping them find acceptable ways of expressing their feelings.
Emotion Coaching is a way of curbing our over-protective tendencies and cultivating our children’s resilience now. Ironically it follows that when we accept that our children are going to experience fear or pain and we resolve to coach them through it, their fear dissipates more quickly. Even if we can’t always accept the bad behaviour that may sometimes accompanies our children’s negative emotions we still need to let our child know that all feelings are ok, even the negative ones. John Gottman (1997) believed that it is the only approach that can safeguard children from the impact of their negative emotions.
Emotion Coaching enables us to recognise undesirable emotions in our children and use them as an opportunity to learn more about their inner world and to teach them how to deal with them. It is the key to helping our children deal with painful feelings such as fear, sadness and frustration. However much we would like to protect our children from the pain that may be in store for them in the adult world, we actually can’t do that. Life inevitably involves, pain disappointment and loss; we can however use Emotion Coaching to teach our children how to cope with the painful feelings that inevitably arise out of life’s challenging moments such as starting a new school or loss of a special friendship.
Emotion Coaching strengthens your relationship with your child and prepares your child for the challenges that he or she is likely to face. Although Emotion Coaching takes effort it is time well spent as it enables children to understand their feelings and how to react to them in healthy ways.
The 5 Essential Steps of Emotion Coaching
1. Step 1 – Be aware of emotions: tune into your child’s emotions and pay attention to your own emotions from happiness to sadness, to anger.
2. Step 2 – Connect with your child.
3. Step 3 – Listen to your child.
4. Step 4 – Name emotions.
5. Step 5 – Find good solutions.
Further information on how to be an Emotion Coach can be found on the following websites:
References & Further information
- Gottman, J., 1997, Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, New York, Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1997
- Dr Hazel Harrison – How to teach your Kids about the Brain
- Dr Ruth MacConville and Elizabeth Wright OBE-
- Top Tips for Building Grit and Resilience
Dr Ruth M MacConville