Teaching self-control: Coaching your child in constructive reactionsWritten by Catherine Wilson
What's inside this article
In the late 1980s, psychologists became intrigued by a group of children who had some impressive strengths – strengths that put them far ahead of their peers. Most notably, the kids had a striking ability to manage their emotions well.
These "emotionally intelligent" children were not only better at keeping a lid on strong emotions, they also enjoyed significant spin-off benefits. They were able to focus on tasks better, navigate stressful social interactions better (e.g. bullying), they enjoyed deeper, more lasting friendships, performed better academically, and even had better health than their peers. In short, they were living testimony to the truth of Proverbs 16:32.
The value of being emotionally intelligent
Such findings eventually prompted psychologist John Gottman to claim that "even more than IQ, your emotional awareness and ability to handle feelings will determine your success and happiness in all walks of life . . ."1
What was the specific skill set that gave these children such a strong advantage? Unlike most children who typically become overwhelmed by sadness or frustration, this unique group of kids were remarkable for their ability to "snap out of a funk" by focusing their energy on finding productive solutions.
And this skill was no accident of the children’s biological makeup. Close investigation revealed that their mature self-control was the direct result of specific parenting strategies. In 1997 John Gottman spelled out the secrets of such exemplary parenting in his book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child.
Six healthy habits for parents
As it turns out, parents who excel at coaching children in self-control consistently demonstrate six healthy habits as they address their child’s emotions head on:
- they are sensitive to their child’s emotional state, always engaging the child if something seems amiss,
- they welcome their child’s display of emotion as an opportunity to teach and draw closer to their child,
- they make a conscious effort to label emotions so the child learns to correctly identify their feelings for themself,
- they listen to their child empathetically, frequently validating their child’s feelings,
- they encourage their child to explore their own solutions to the problem,
- and they set clear standards for behaviour, pointing out behaviours that are appropriate (when expressing emotions) and those that are unacceptable.
In an earlier article, we touched on the first three aspects of nurturing self-awareness and self-control (see First steps in self-control: Helping your child identify their emotions). Here, we’ll focus on numbers four and five: listening empathetically to your child and exploring solutions.
Build your empathetic listening skills
The book of James includes a passage on self-control that encourages believers to be "quick to listen" (James 1:19). Ironically though, well-meaning parents often make the mistake of not really listening to their upset child at all. Instead, they rush their child through intense emotions. A parent’s instinct is often to distract an angry or sad child, to get them back to a "happy state" as quickly as possible. To use a simple example, imagine a child drops their ice cream on the sidewalk. The parent responds with:
"Don't cry; you can have a cookie instead when we get home."
The problem with this approach is that it dismisses the child’s sadness as unimportant. Rather than acknowledging the child’s loss, the child is effectively told to "stop feeling sad." And there’s another problem here as well: to a child, this message could imply that feeling sad is bad or uncomfortable, and something to be avoided at all costs.
When you apply good listening skills, you offer your child something else entirely – something that research shows is far more effective: you are offering empathy. Your empathy makes all the difference, because your child knows their feelings have been heard and understood by the person who matters most in their whole world: their parent.
In the lost ice cream scenario, here’s how a better, more empathetic parenting script might play out:
"Oh dear; I can see that you're sad that you lost your ice cream." [Parent identifies the emotion, giving it a label.]
[Parent continues] "I would be sad too if that happened to me." [Parent validates the emotion; shows it’s okay to be sad.]
"You'd been looking forward to that ice cream for so long. You must be really, really sad. Am I right?" [Parent invites the child to talk about how they are feeling.]
Notice that the parent didn’t rush in to fix the problem. With empathetic listening, the parent engages the child in unhurried dialogue, allowing time for the child to experience and express their emotion, and for the parent to respond with understanding and empathy. All the while, the parent watches the child for clues that the child is comforted and ready to consider how to move on. Once the loss has been fully acknowledged and some tears shed, the parent might simply ask:
"How can I help you feel better?"
The child in our example scenario internalizes a message that’s far more profound than a discussion about ice cream. The message is this: My parents understand me; they want to talk about my emotions and they won't brush off my feelings or make me feel embarrassed about them. I can trust my parents to help me deal with my emotions.
Conversation tips for teens and tweens
With teens and tweens, it’s particularly important that parents don’t force their own agenda on their child. Here’s how a conversation might go between a tween and her mom, who is trying to listen empathetically to her troubled daughter:
Mom [to tween who has been moody since arriving home from school]: "It looks like something's on your mind. Want to talk about it?"
Daughter: "You wouldn't believe what Amanda did to me today. Some friend!"
Mom: "What happened?"
Daughter: "She kept texting me in class during a test. The teacher caught me answering Amanda's text, and took my cell phone. Everyone was teasing me about it."
Imagine, in this scenario, that the mom has her own concerns about Amanda. She’d love to see her daughter steer clear of this girl. At this point, the conversation could deteriorate into a lecture from the parent listing all the reasons why Amanda is bad news. The result, for the mom however, would not be an emotional connection with her daughter; it’s likely the daughter would react negatively to an "attack" on her choice of friends. Here’s a more positive direction for the conversation:
Mom: "That must have been embarrassing, being singled out like that in class."
Daughter: "It was awful. And Amanda keeps posting about it on Facebook too."
Mom: "I'm sorry you have to deal with that. When I was your age, my friend Jenny printed an embarrassing picture of me in the school yearbook. I really struggled to forgive her."
Daughter: "At least it only happened to you once. Amanda teases me on Facebook all the time."
Mom: "Have you posted a response to Amanda?"
Daughter: "Not yet."
Mom: "Are you looking for ideas on what you could do?"
Daughter: "No, I've already decided. I'm tired of Amanda's teasing. I'm going to ignore her Facebook posts for a while. She'll get the message."
Exploring solutions together
If you analyze both example conversations carefully, you’ll see that the parent is effectively asking the child two key questions that are pivotal for establishing self-awareness and self-control. Those questions are What are you feeling? and What do you need?
Plenty of parents are good at listening well and showing empathy as their child expresses their hurt, anger or frustration. But suddenly, at this critical juncture, many parents stumble. To teach self-control, we need to help our child eventually get beyond the question What am I feeling?, to carefully consider What do I need? This is the crucial game play that moves a child from feeling overwhelmed, to feeling empowered to make positive change.
Here, parents must play coach, not dictator. Our role is to help our child sift through various options. The final choice – how to act on their feelings – must be made by the child.
In the second example conversation – between the mom and the tween daughter – notice how carefully the mom approached the issue of finding solutions. In effect, she "asked permission" to share some ideas. With older children, rushing in to offer a solution short-circuits the process of fully "feeling their feelings" alongside them, and denies the child that all-important opportunity to come up with their own solutions.
With older children then, it’s best for parents to ask open-ended questions like "What do you think you’ll do?" As you talk together, you can gently help your child explore the likely outcomes of his or her suggestions, both good and bad.
If your children are younger, you’ll likely be modelling and coaching self-control for several more years before your children are able to come up with good management strategies of their own. In the meantime, you can give them a strong start in managing their emotions by intentionally teaching some positive responses to intense feelings.
Since children under 10 years of age have difficulty keeping more than one or two options in mind at a time, one powerful strategy is to provide a visual list of positive choices for your child and keep it in a prominent place. When your child’s emotions run high and you’ve already worked through steps one to four (noticing and identifying your child’s emotion, then empathizing and validating), check the "good choices chart" together and invite your child to choose a response.
Below are some potential options for a "good choices" chart. The first set of options deals with your child’s emotional state, while the second set helps equip your child to navigate difficult interactions with others. Of course, you’ll want to build your own unique chart, listing the special activities your child finds most calming and restorative. Adding pictures as visual prompts, where you can, will make the list much more meaningful for youngsters.
Good choices chart
When I am angry, sad or frustrated, I might also be . . .
Take a nap
Read a book on my bed
Snuggle with my stuffies
Listen to music
Have a bubble bath
Ask for a snack
Take ten deep breaths in a row and let them out slowly
Ask for quiet time playing on my own
Draw a picture on my own
Feeling left out
Ask if I can have special "just us" time with Mom or Dad
Bursting with energy
Go ride my bike / go for a run / go swimming
Ask to pray with Mom or Dad
Think of something else to look forward to instead
When I am upset with someone I can ask for . . .
- some time alone to calm down
- an explanation ("Please help me understand why you . . . ")
- forgiveness ("I'm sorry that I ______. Will you forgive me?")
- an apology
- a re-do
- a compromise ("Let's think of a way we can both get what we want.")
- an idea about how I can make it right
- a hug
a truce ("I can't agree with you but I will show respect for your ideas.")
If you'd like to use a chart like this at home, keep in mind that your child can choose more than one option. For example, choosing to have some time alone to calm down, then returning to negotiate a compromise is a great strategy. After your child has made their choice from the chart, be sure to "praise and pray" together. Praise your child for making a wise choice, and pray for them that the Holy Spirit will help them carry out their choice with a positive attitude.
The importance of follow-through
Be careful to follow through though, so issues don’t go unresolved. Retiring to his or her room to read a book may do wonders for your child’s attitude and behaviour, but don’t let them skip making amends with a sibling later (for example, if they chose "forgiveness" or "compromise" as the second part of their plan).
As you can well imagine, it takes considerable time and focused attention to work through all the steps we’ve described so far (noticing and identifying your child’s emotion, empathizing and exploring solutions). In many instances, you simply won’t have the time, energy or calm state of mind required to lead your child through all these steps. In less-than-ideal circumstances, don’t feel pressured; just deal with your child’s intense emotions as best you can. But promise your child that you’ll make time later to discuss the incident. Make good on your promise, discussing the child’s feelings and guiding them through positive strategies for dealing with the situation next time.
If you’d like more reading on empathetic listening, Milan and Kay Yerkovich’s book How We Love Our Kids is a great resource. For some fun ways to work on self-control with kids ages 3 to 10, check out our Kids of Integrity website. The lessons on self-control and righteousness are good places to start.
1. As quoted from Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman and Joan Declaire, 1997.
This is the second article in a series on teaching children self-control. Read part one here: First steps in self-control: Helping your child identify their emotions. And part three here: Teaching self-control: Guiding your child with discipline.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
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