Effective communication between parents and children is the cornerstone of a healthy relationship. Such communication requires that parents become aware of and understand their children’s feelings and emotions. Parents who empathize and connect emotionally with their children are more likely to enjoy deep and meaningful relationships. According to research by the Gottman Research Institute (2019), this parenting approach involves five essential ingredients:
1) awareness of emotions,
4) naming emotions, and
5) finding solutions.
Parents who connect with children in this way build emotional intelligence in their children. Of course, connecting and having meaningful communication with children in addition to understanding their feelings and emotions, is not always as easy as it sounds. Getting children to share their feelings can feel like squeezing water from a rock! Doing so requires a healthy balance between ignoring child reluctance, versus pushing too hard for information, which may result in a child shutting down altogether. Non-communicative children often want the help and support of their parents, but sometimes have trouble verbalizing their feelings. Working with children so they can recognize the vast array of emotions that they may experience (e.g., happiness, sadness, anger, frustration etc), is important to this method’s success.
Parents should 1) detect when a child gets frustrated (“awareness of emotions”), and 2) understand how to gently nudge for more information to better understand the situation and connect with the child (in cartoon: “You seem very upset. Did something bad happen at school?”). This helps parents understand their child’s emotions and feelings and respond accordingly.
When parents approach such situations with warmth and empathy, children learn that their parents are always there for them. This positive parenting style is not always easy, especially when frustrated kids express feelings in an indirect way, for example with urgent wants and needs that may be out of the question (in cartoon: “I want to go to the park now!!”). In the heat of the moment, a parent’s first impulse might be to deny the child’s requests without realizing the underlying reasons for the behavior. This is a surefire way to build resentment with your child and (unknowingly) aggravate a tantrum.
Instead, by being aware of children’s emotions and using a supportive parenting style, parents acknowledge their children’s needs and feelings (e.g., “Yes, that sounds fun, I understand why you are so interested in it”). When speaking to children with love and understanding, parents model a calm demeanor that teaches children emotion regulation. Ultimately, when children do open-up to parents by verbalizing their feelings, parents should recognize and encourage this behavior (in cartoon: “it’s good that you are letting me know”), so that it is repeated many times in the future.
Key take-aways to understand your child’s feelings:
1) Being aware of feelings: the sooner you understand something is wrong, the easier it will be for you to help.
2) Connecting & listening: gently nudge for more information (in cartoon: “Tell me how you feel” and “I understand you want to go to the park. But tell me why you are upset”).
3) Naming feelings: naming feelings and emotions in a sincere and caring way will show your child that you understand them and are on their side.
4) Encouraging sharing feelings. This will encourage proactive sharing in the future and help build emotional intelligence and social skills (in cartoon: “It’s good that you are letting me know”).