From Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, John Gottman and coauthor Joan DeClaire encourage parents to use "emotion coaching" to teach children how to analyze their feelings and handle conflict, particularly when they're angry, sad, or frustrated. Here are the steps they recommend.
1. Try to be aware of your child's emotions.
Kids don't always tell you what's going on in their lives. If your child seems sad or upset for no obvious reason, it's wise to look at the big picture and think about what might be troubling him. Did you and your spouse have a bitter argument within earshot of the child? Young children often give clues to what they're thinking during fantasy play. Gottman recounts that his daughter said to him while playing with her doll, "Barbie is really scared when you get mad." He says that in the important conversation that followed, "I assured Barbie (and my daughter) that I didn't mean to scare her and that just because I get angry, that doesn't mean I don't love her." A child's fearful reaction may also be a clue that you sound too loud, scary, and unpredictable, giving you the opportunity to apologize for not handling your anger better and assuring her that you'll try to talk more softly and control your anger better in the future.
2. Look at negative emotions as opportunities for intimacy and teaching.
You can use all your child's feelings, negative as well as positive, in teaching him how to deal constructively with his emotions. Some parents, hoping to help their children avoid suffering, will make dismissive comments ("That guinea pig was getting old anyway"). What the child may learn, though, is that his feelings aren't seen as important. Rather than minimizing your child's feelings, try to listen and sympathize, even if it makes you anxious or uncomfortable ("It's hard when a pet dies, isn't it?").
3. Listen with empathy.
Listen carefully to your child, then mirror back to him what he has said, naming the emotions for him. Gottman gives the example of a boy who's dejected because his next-door neighbors have refused to play with him. If his father responds by telling him to be a big kid and just forget about it, his son will most likely think that he is a big baby and deserves not to have any friends. It would be better, Gottman says, for the father to open the discussion by saying simply, "I bet that hurt your feelings." His son will feel relieved that his father understands what he is feeling and doesn't think the emotions are out of place. It also gives him an opportunity to talk about the situation and think about what he might do to change things.
Listening to your child doesn't mean solving the problem for him, dismissing it, or joking him out of a bad mood. Use examples from your own life to show him you understand what he's said ("I used to feel bad when my neighbor wanted to play with the big kids instead of me.") This tells the child that he is not alone in feeling the sting of rejection, and that those feelings can be dealt with.
4. Help your child find words to express his emotions.
Children often have trouble describing what they feel. You can help your child develop an emotional vocabulary by giving him labels for his feelings. If he's mad, you might say, "You feel angry about that, don't you?" or at other times, "That must have been a disappointment," or "Did that make you feel shy?" You can also let him know that it's natural to have conflicting emotions about something -- for instance, he may be both excited and scared during his first week at school.
5. Set limits while you teach problem-solving.
Part of helping your child to solve problems is establishing clear limits on his behavior, then guiding him toward a solution. For example, you can say, "I know you're angry at your little sister, but you can't hit her. What could you do instead?" Give him a set of options to choose from. Anger management specialist Lynne Namka advises telling your child to first check his tummy, jaw, and fists to see if they're tight, breathe deeply "to blow the mad out," and to feel good about getting his control. Then, Namka says, help your child use a strong voice to talk his anger out, beginning with something like, "I feel mad when you _____________." Children should know that it's okay to be angry, as long as they don't hurt other people for that reason. Your child might also want to talk to you about why he's angry, draw pictures about what makes him angry, or act out the story of his "mads" with toys. Use plenty of praise to promote behaviors you'd like to see more often.
6. Try to respect your child's choices, unless they would endanger safety or health. Honor small requests that you may not agree with; this will help your child make decisions on his own.
7. Read books together. Many parents stop reading to their children once they learn to read on their own. But the stories your child is reading give you more to talk about, and you can draw on them to bring home emotional teaching.
8. Encourage your child to play sports or get involved in after-school activities. Both of these help them relate to others.
9. Avoid engaging in behavior you don't want your child to imitate. It's important not be verbally harsh when you're angry. Try saying, "It upsets me when you do X," rather than "You drive me crazy." The problem is his behavior, not who he is. Be careful to avoid mean or sarcastic remarks and excessive criticism, which chip away at a child's self-confidence.At this stage, children often show their independence by being disrespectful and sassy. Don't take the remarks personally, but do set limits and enforce them, and always tell your kids when they hurt your feelings.
10. Avoid siding with "the enemy." When teachers or other authority figures are insensitive, children often seek sympathy from their parents. Be sure to find out what happened before you make judgments.