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Ron L. Deal

“I don’t get it, Mom. Why does Emma have to be so bossy? She tries to push me around all the time and I’m sick of it.” Thirteen year-old Ashley was tired of her stepsister coming to visit on weekends and, as Ashley would say, “trying to take over the house.” Her mother replied, “Now Ashley, you can be pretty bossy yourself on occasion. I’d stop worrying about Emma and worry about yourself for a while.”

No parent wants their child to hurt. Ashley’s mother mistakenly assumed that by dismissing her concerns and refocusing the discussion to Ashley that it would make her feel better. It will not.

Troubling emotions in our children trouble us as parents. But minimizing, confronting (arguing with), punishing, or side-stepping them only make them go underground and more likely to explore outward in negative behavior (such as depression or anger/opposition). They also result in something much more troubling: a lack of trust in the parent figure. The child essentially comes to believe that their parent can’t be trusted with their emotions and that sharing them with the parent is not safe. Over time this goes a long way to increasing emotional distance in the parent-child relationship and diminishing the parent’s voice with the child.

A wise parent or stepparent knows, instead, how to parent a child through negative emotions so they learn to calm themselves, self-sooth, be self-controlled, and not be victims of their own emotions. Plus, when this skill is utilized by a stepparent it has the added bonus of facilitating bonding and emotional safety with the stepchild which in turn diminishes the child’s opposition to the stepparent’s role in the family.

Skills for Parenting Negative Emotions [1]

Start with Yourself. Parenting a child always begins with us managing ourselves first. When a child is hurt, angry, depressed, or afraid we as parents will also experience an emotion. If annoyed or aggravated with the child our response will likely be dismissive or sharp. If worried or anxious for the child our response may try to fix our discomfort by making the child feel better. Both of those responses are self-serving and not focused on the child. First, be aware of your own emotions and don’t allow your needs in the moment to override those of the child. Second, avoid a quick judgment of the situation or whether your child has a right to their emotions. This gets in the way of hearing what lies beneath.

Turn Toward and Listen Beneath. When we minimize or dismiss a child’s emotion, we turn away from them. Rather, turn toward them and focus your attention to hear the need being expressed. Every negative emotion communicates a longing. For example, sadness says something is missing; anger may be commenting on a hurt or frustrated goal; and loneliness is reflecting a desire for connection. Ashley’s anger at Emma for being bossy could be a request for acceptance from Emma or may be reflecting a longing to restore the closeness she once had with her mother before Emma entered the picture (a common feeling for children in stepfamilies). Until her mother identifies that need and responds to it, no amount of lecture or orchestration of Emma’s behavior will satisfy Ashley. Listen to the child’s words, but chase the need behind it.

View the Connectable Moment. A parent who recognizes the teachable moment is ready to share a life-principle when the opportunity presents. Negative emotions represent an opportunity to connect with a child’s heart. If we aren’t looking for them we will have lost an important bonding and trust-building moment. Doing so requires patience with the child’s negativity and the ability to not get defensive.

Accept All Feelings, but Not All Behavior. Feelings are not the issue, what we do with them is. Draw distinctions between what the child is feeling and how they are acting. For example, “Ashley, I can see that you are very frustrated with your stepsister, but you may not talk badly about her in front of her friends or trash her room. I can see how you would feel angry with her, but when we’re through talking you are going to have to put her room back the way it was and apologize to her for the things you’ve said.”

Receive, Label, and Empathize. The essential skill of coaching children through their feelings involves labeling their emotions and being an empathetic listener. When you hear or receive their words and label the emotion, you move the child toward self-understanding and a conscious processing of the emotion. Over time this helps children gain awareness of themselves and gain skill to manage their emotions. Empathy connects to their heart, affirms their importance and says, “I’m here for you” which is vital to relational stability especially when the negative emotion centers on you and your relationship with the child. Saying, “It makes sense that you would feel that way…” validates them and lets them know they can count on you (i.e., that you can be trusted to care for them). Once empathy is shown, you can correct the child’s behavior if necessary or problem-solve the situation. Skipping empathy inadvertently discounts the child, pushes them away, and undermines the problem-solving process.

A Bonding Benefit

All parents need this skill, but as I stated earlier, stepparents who can become emotional coaches may find the walls of rejection and resistance from a stepchild coming down. It’s hard not to respect and be drawn into someone who listens and really cares for your life dilemmas.

By the way, this emotional coaching skill works to add trust and connection in marriage as well!

Tips for Tuning In: Additional skills for turning toward a child:

  1. Notice the emotional temperature of the child and check it out. “I’m noticing some worry in you—what’s on your mind?”
  2. Comment on the desire, not the fear. When we are angry we usually talk out of our fear or hurt. But since anger represents a frustrated desire, try to comment on what they want, not what they are complaining about. If the child says, “Emma borrowed my blouse without asking,” reflect the need, “Sounds like you want to be respected enough for her to ask. Is that it?”
  3. Tolerate different emotions. Parents who try to dictate how a child should feel (often what the parent feels) will shut down and shut out their child. Give permission for them to feel differently about things than you. This also means you can’t take responsibility for fixing their emotions — you just have to let it be.
  4. Only after listening and affirming the child’s feelings should you problem-solve the situation. Premature fixing frustrates kids.

[1] Adapted from John Gottman & Joan Declaire (1998). Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting. New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 63-68.

Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.