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30 Transcript: How to Coach Your Child Through Their Big Emotions

Episode 30
How to Coach Your Child Through Their Big Emotions

with Georgia Anderson

Listen to the episode, and see the show notes here. 

Rachel Nielson: Our little kids come with big emotions. Too big, it sometimes seems, for those little bodies. Is that enraged, screaming really coming from that small person? Is it normal for a tiny girl to be able to pummel down her big brother when she’s in a fit of anger? And it’s the happy emotions too. Like when a huge belly laugh bursts out of a baby and you simply can’t believe that all of that was contained in that little person. I think our children feel it too, that their bodies and their minds can’t hold or comprehend all of this and sometimes it just comes bursting out in bizarre and irrational behaviors. As parents, this can bring out the bizarre and irrational in us as well, despite our best intentions to stay calm and level-headed. So today on the podcast we have an incredibly wise, educated, seasoned guest who’s going to teach us how to coach our children through those big emotions so we can keep a hold of our own.

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Georgia Anderson is a wife, a mother, a stepmother, a mother-in-law, and a grandmother and she’s taught parenting classes for three decades. She’s a certified active parenting instructor and a Gottman trained educator and she teaches a variety of in-person parenting classes and workshops based out of Salt Lake City, Utah. When I asked her via email how she got involved with teaching, she said “parenting classes saved my sanity as a young mother and I hold firm to the belief that every parent and marriage should start and continue with good education.” I’m so honored that she’s going to give us a sampling of that education today on the podcast. So Georgia, welcome to 3 in 30.

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Georgia Anderson: Hi Rachel. I am so happy to be here.

Rachel Nielson: Well, we’re so happy to have you. One of the classes that you teach is about emotion coaching and so I asked you to come on and talk about that. I just wanted to start with what is emotion coaching?

Georgia Anderson: Well, you gave a wonderful intro into what happens when we become parents. I think we become parents and we just think it’s going to be the Instagram story of us holding that baby and everything is just beautiful, and we have this vision of parenthood, right? Then all of a sudden these little people start to emerge and these big emotions start to emerge as you described. We’re kind of like, “what is going on?” Emotion coaching is actually something that emerged from some of the research of John Gottman. If you aren’t familiar with his work, you should be, if you are a parent or if you’re married. He’s who we refer to as the Einstein of Love. He has done over four decades of very careful intricate research about what makes relationships work. He started as a child psychologist, really interested in child development and what makes a successful adult based on what happens in their childhood.

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He always says, I didn’t come up with any of these ideas. I just stole them from other people that I watched. He put kids in the lab and they started watching how they related to each other. Then he started watching how they related to their parents and how their parents related to each other and basically gathered data and information about what worked for these kids. This is where emotion coaching came from because what he realized is that children, even when it was regulated for IQ, the kids that had the ability to regulate their own emotions, to self-regulate, had a better ability to connect with other people and could use their IQ more efficiently. So whether they had a high IQ or a low IQ, they were able to use what they had to a much higher capacity if they were able to regulate their own emotions.

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Rachel Nielson: Was this something that kids were just born being able to do in his studies or someone had taught them how to regulate their emotions?

Georgia Anderson: I think some children are blessed with that ability to a greater degree than others. But all people, all of us need help in regulating our emotions. The best example of that is having someone who’s a good listener listen to you. When you have that experience of someone really listening to you, do you notice what happens to your physiology?

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Rachel Nielson: Yeah. When I have that experience, I feel a release almost of that stress or pressure that’s inside of me or sadness. It might still be there, but it’s released somewhat.

Georgia Anderson: Yes, and what happens is that you’re actually able to use your executive function in your brain. When you’re in that high state of emotion, all the oxygen gets cut off from your prefrontal cortex and that’s the area of executive functioning where you are empathetic and where you can reason and you can be creative and you can problem solve. That all gets shut off when you’re having very intense emotions. So being able to be heard and regulate that, and eventually to regulate that in yourself, is what a parent can do to help a child to do that.

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Rachel Nielson: That totally makes sense. So how do we do it? I’m thinking of certain scenarios even from this past week with my children when they got really crazy emotional and what do I do with that? What are the steps I take?

Georgia Anderson: Well that’s what we teach in class and I really worked hard to narrow it down to three steps for you.

Rachel Nielson: Normally your classes on this are multiple sessions over several days, right?

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Georgia Anderson: Yes, or it’s a weekend retreat or something like that. So it’s usually about five or six sessions or a 12 hour class. So we’re going to give you the nuggets today. The first nugget, as a parent or a friend or a spouse, but we’re talking about kids today, is to start noticing emotions when they are small. So let’s talk about your own child who had the explosion this week. All kids do it, we all do it. Would there have been an opportunity (and sometimes there’s not) but would there have been an opportunity if you had been able to be observant earlier before the explosion happened? Could you have noticed the emotion when it was small?

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Rachel Nielson: In this case I felt like it really came out of nowhere, but I’m sure that just because I’m not as attuned to looking for different types of emotions. What happened in one specific scenario that I can think of from this week is that my son and I were laying on the bed listening to Harry Potter, which is something that we love to do together. His little sister was doing her quiet time. They each do an hour of quiet time. When we were done with Harry Potter, I said, now it’s time for you to go do your quiet time. He said, “do I get to come out when Sally comes out at the same time as Sally?” And I said, “well, no, because we listened to Harry Potter and she’s been in there and you haven’t.” Then he just lost it, just exploded. In my mind, I’m saying, “we just had this bonding time together” and so then my emotions go and I’m like, “he’s being ungrateful for this time we just had and he’s being irrational.” So I took him into his room and he was just in there raging and screaming and my husband was like, “you need to go in there and help him, like you need to hear him out.” Whereas I said, “no, I think he just needs to let all this emotion out. He needs to get it out and then he’ll be calm.” So I didn’t go in there and he did eventually calm down, but my husband and I were kind of at odds with how to deal with that. In going back to your question, I wasn’t sure if I saw any small emotions happening earlier, but maybe I’m just not attuned to what those emotions would be.

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Georgia Anderson: Okay. So that’s awesome. First of all, what you did is perfectly okay and what your husband suggested may have been perfectly okay depending on how far out of his head he was. Right? If he was super out of his head and he was totally tantrumming, you can’t reason with him then.

I guess what my real question would be—when he asked that question the first time. When he said, “mom, am I going to be able to come out at the same time?” That could have been your opportunity because in that question, there was a concern. There was an emotion driving that question.

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Rachel Nielson: Looking back on it, I can see that. I said no, and he started to get kind of agitated and negotiate, which he does, and that’s when things were building. That’s where he wasn’t feeling heard because I was just insistent on “no, no, no, you aren’t being grateful for the time we just spent together. Get in your room and start your quiet time.” I wasn’t hearing him out when he was just feeling whatever he was feeling that was small. I don’t even have a word for what he was feeling, which we’ll probably get to, and then it exploded into this big thing.

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Georgia Anderson: We don’t need to be perfect at this. In fact, it’s really important that we’re not. But if this were perfect, if we had wanted this scenario to be perfect, that noticing that emotion in that question would have been an opportunity to connect with him. So it would’ve been you slowing down, which is very hard when you’re a busy mom and you’re trying to keep on the schedule and you’re trying to keep things in order. But it would’ve been using the opportunity. Let’s realize that this is an opportunity to connect with him. I’m going to take this opportunity. What I see in his face and I hear in his tone is, I’m just taking a guess here, but maybe some hope that he will be able to come out sooner.

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Rachel Nielson: Yes. I also think he definitely has a personality where I kind call them a “justice”. He wants everything to be fair so if he ever has any sense that things aren’t fair, it really triggers him and sets him off. So there’s probably hope in that question. There was probably also nervousness that things weren’t going to be fair somehow, but I wouldn’t hear him out. I just was insistent that I knew best.

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Georgia Anderson: And maybe you didn’t want to have a 10-minute conversation at that time. So those are all judgments we have to make at the time. So if you wanted to take this opportunity to connect with him and let it be a moment of connection, which sometimes can happen super fast if we become really good at it and if the child’s willing to participate (which usually they are because they love to be heard). So we could take a guess at what he’s feeling. When he asked the question, if you had decided to take the opportunity, you could have said, “huh, you seem a little bit ______.” What would you put in there?

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Rachel Nielson: You seem a little bit…oh, see, I don’t even know. Upset? Just upset, or I’m not sure. What would you say?

Georgia Anderson: It might be concerned or “maybe you seem kind of hopeful that you can come out at the same time as your sister” or “you seem a little concerned that this might not be fair.” We’re just going to put this as step number two or takeaway number two. We’re going to put words to the emotion. We’re going to connect the feeling to the content of the situation.

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The first takeaway, we noticed the content, we noticed what the feeling is, and then we put a tentative statement toward that content. “Huh? You seem a little bit nervous that you might not be able to come out at the same time?” Now you see, I’m choosing all kinds of different words here because I’m not sure and I’m not going to assume that I know what he feels.

Rachel Nielson: Mm, okay. “You seem _____, you seem _____.”

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Georgia Anderson: Or “it sounds like _____”, or you can try straight on reflecting. “You’re feeling really worried that you don’t get to come out at the same time.” That’s where you’re just basically mirroring the child’s straight on and if you do that with a curious tone, that’s fine too. The whole idea here is that you put words to the emotion in a tentative statement and give it back to them.

Rachel Nielson: Then do you allow them to say yes or no?

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Georgia Anderson: Yes, absolutely. They usually will correct you and they will narrow in on what they’re feeling. What you’re doing here is helping the brain—the amygdala back in the rear brain where all the emotion is felt—you’re allowing it to connect neurons in the prefrontal cortex, which does all the reasoning, logic, making sense of things, being creative and problem solving. You’re literally creating neural pathways in the brain as you do this with a child and helping them connect the feeling to the content so that they can lower their physiology. When you verbalize the emotion, it lowers their physiology. Oxygen can go forward into the brain and they can start to problem solve.

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Now, children aren’t good at this. Your prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until you’re 25 years old, but every time you do this for a child, you are connecting those synapses. They say ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’ and you want those to wire together. You want that. Verbalizing the emotion, noticing it, letting it diffuse by saying the word out loud, and then allowing space for the front part of the brain to take over and help. That’s really the essence of emotion coaching, that you are coaching that brain to fire those neurons together. What you’re saying is, “all feelings and wishes are acceptable.” That is so important for us as human beings to help us self-actualize. All feelings of wishes are acceptable. Not all behavior is acceptable, but all feelings and wishes are acceptable.

Rachel Nielson: I love what you said in there too about recognizing that emotional moments are the best opportunities that you have to connect.

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Georgia Anderson: Yes, and that is a research driven fact. In all Gottman’s research watching these children and child development, it’s when parents are able to connect with their children when emotion runs high, and I hate to tell you but especially negative emotions, have the strongest impact on connection.

Rachel Nielson: So if I can reframe that for myself, when I can feel a heated moment coming and instead of thinking, ‘oh here we go’, if I can think, ‘oh, it’s an opportunity to connect, this is the best time to connect’ then it totally turns the table. It makes me think this can be a great mothering moment instead of this is going to be a horrible mothering moment.

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Georgia Anderson: It doesn’t mean it won’t be hard. It might be hard. You may hear things you don’t want to hear. Things may not go according to your agenda.

Rachel Nielson: That’s interesting though that you said that once they’re in blown tantrum mode, that that is not the time to try to do these steps at them. Can you do it retroactively? After they’re calm, can you say, let’s talk about what happened?

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Georgia Anderson: Absolutely. It’s great to start with the question of what not why. When I ask you, “why did you want me to be on your podcast?”, you have to quickly come up with reasons and think of something where if I ask what did you want to talk to me about, it’s just easier to state facts first instead of a feeling or a reason, so ask what questions. Ask “what happened in the room out there before quiet time?”

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Rachel Nielson: Okay. And then, “what were you feeling?”

Georgia Anderson: Yes, “what were you feeling? What was the situation?” Then you can just start this conversation when everyone’s calmed down and have the same conversation, which is much easier sometimes.

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Rachel Nielson: I did notice that as he raged and screamed (I mean he really raged and screamed!) and at that point I felt like if I went in there, I would either lose my temper and yell back, which I didn’t want to do. Or I would be rewarding this negative behavior with attention. I just wanted to let his fuse go out, which it did. He totally calmed down and played quietly in his room and then when he came out I gave him a little hug and said, “I’m sorry that you were feeling so sad” and then he went on his merry way.

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Georgia Anderson: Sometimes that flame just needs to blow out and we need that division of time. If you want a little hint about that, when emotions are too high, if you want to have a moment of connection in that, take that as an opportunity too. You can say, “I am too flooded” or “I’m just too upset to talk about this right now. I want to talk to you about it, but I need a break and I promise we will talk about it at some point in the future.” So you make a promise of return and you announce your departure. Those two rules are a different form than slamming the door and or shoving them in their room and saying, “you’re just staying in here until you’re quiet or to feel better.” So just make that promise of return and announce the departure. “We’re too upset to talk about this right now. We’ll talk about it later.”

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Rachel Nielson: That’s so different than just storming out and leaving them with that really hard emotion and then also feeling rejected because of that emotion.

So we’ve covered the first two takeaways. Start noticing emotions when they’re small in yourself and your children and to put words to the emotions. My son also gets creative when he describes how he’s feeling and I love it because it makes me smile. It makes me feel more tenderness towards him. Once he said to me, “my brain is just feeling all zig-zaggy!” I couldn’t be mad at him anymore. He can’t describe what he’s feeling, but that is perfect, I know what that feels like. Your brain gets zig-zaggy and you can’t reason. It reminds me that he’s just a little guy and it diffused the anger for me. So putting words or even a description to how they’re feeling.

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Georgia Anderson: That is a huge deal because as I said before, it’s actually firing synapses in their brain that is taking it from the emotional brain, which is just a reactive brain to a much more intellectual level, a superhuman level up in your prefrontal cortex. We are the only species that has this ability to reason and be empathic and do all these things. We want them to develop that ability. When he comes up with a new and creative word to describe his emotion, that’s building his emotional intelligence because you don’t want to just use the same five angry, sad, mad, those basic rudimentary words. We want to expand their emotional vocabulary.

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Rachel Nielson: What do you suggest for that? I’ve heard that tip made before, but I do find that I do default to the basics. Even in this interview with you, I’m like, “he was upset. He was angry.” Is there a sheet you have that you refer parents to?

Georgia Anderson: There’s a thing you can Google. It’s called The Feeling Wheel and it starts with the basic emotions in the center and it goes out to the outside. But you’re an English teacher, right? You talk about expression and using your words to express yourself. I love your son’s idea of my brain is all zig-zaggy, that’s beautiful. You’re telling me how much that information that gave you.

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Rachel Nielson: I thought asking them to describe what their body is feeling physically could be helpful too if they can’t find the word for what they’re feeling emotionally.

Georgia Anderson: Oh yeah. You’re talking to a massage therapist here! I so believe in that. You do embody your emotions. I love the title of an interesting book I’ve read, it’s called Feelings Buried Alive Never Die because they’re just in you, so being able to talk about them and express them is huge.

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Rachel Nielson: Then what’s the third takeaway?

Georgia Anderson: Okay, so the third takeaway we get to the second part of that sentence. All feelings and wishes are acceptable. Not all behavior is acceptable. The third takeaway is to set limits and problem solve. Then we get back to your scenario—How do we emotion coach when a child seems completely unreasonable or there is misbehavior? Those are two things that are kind of different. Sometimes if a child’s being unreasonable, they’re just being super emotional about something that doesn’t seem important to you or, if they’re misbehaving. So we can still be an emotion coach in these situations. It doesn’t mean that we put up with misbehavior. The tactic in this situation would be to say, “I can see that you are really upset” and sometimes we are too. We have to be the example here and show our children how to verbalize our emotions and say, “I can see that you’re really upset. I’m really upset as well. It’s okay for you to feel sad or unfair about the situation with your sister. It is not okay for you to come out of your room.”

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Rachel Nielson: I mean to me it seems okay for him to yell and scream in his room, but sometimes he’s thrown things. Both of my kids have thrown things and damage their doors and stuff. That to me is where I’m like, “it’s not okay for you to throw things and break property. You can feel that and get it out, but you can’t break things.”

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Georgia Anderson: Right, and there would hopefully be a consequence for that behavior, such as losing the object they threw or the door comes off the bedroom or whatever you decide. Hopefully the child will decide with you when you have your ‘what happened conversation’ after the fact. The child will decide what the consequences should be for damaging property, for instance. That’s a whole other topic, but the idea is tuning into the emotion while also letting them know that all behavior is not acceptable.

Hopefully as we raise our children, we’re having problem prevention talks ahead of time. We’re having scenarios where we are talking about when we are really mad, what is okay to do and what is not okay to do. That would be a great topic for a family meeting to prevent it.

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But in the heat of the moment, we can still emotion coach if we’re in our heads. If we’re not in our heads, all we can do is say, “I’m too upset to talk about this. We’ll talk about it later. We’re going to have a timeout.” Whatever you to do that, which you did with your son, right?

Rachel Nielson: So it sounds like I did at least a few things, right, in that scenario?

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Georgia Anderson: I think you did a lot of things right. Remember, you don’t want to be perfect. Right?

Rachel Nielson: And why? Why do you not want to be perfect?

Georgia Anderson: Because the whole reason we are here is to learn from experience and to repair. That is a secret weapon of happy parents and happy couples. That comes from forty years of research. Repair is so valuable. Reconciliation is what relationships are about. It’s moving forward and making a mistake and repairing that interaction. It’s just another form of using negative emotion to connect people.

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Rachel Nielson: That’s what I was thinking. Often, the reconciliation after a fight is can be really sweet and connecting and bonding. You think or talk about how we are going to do things differently next time with a child or with a spouse and you almost feel closer after the disagreement than you did before.

Georgia Anderson: Being willing to go to the child and apologize and say, “I did not like the way that happened and I don’t like the way I behaved. I want to have a big magic eraser and I want to erase that. Can I have a big magic eraser? Can we try again?”

Rachel Nielson: They’re so willing. Kids are so willing to forgive you and let you try again. Thank you so much. This has been so helpful. Can you tell us the three steps one more time?

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Georgia Anderson: One is to notice emotions when they are small. Number two is to put words to emotions to connect. You’re actually connecting synapses in the brain when you do this and make those statements tentative when you reflect them back to the child. And then number three is to set limits and problem solve. All feelings and wishes are acceptable. Not all behavior is acceptable.

Rachel Nielson: Great. I would love it if you could tell people how they can find more of your work, what you’re involved in and what could be helpful for moms.

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Georgia Anderson: Sure. So I have my Instagram account, which is Know How Mom Tips on Instagram and I have lots of the fun challenges and things you can get involved with if you’d like to. And then my website is knowhowmom.com that talks about all my classes and upcoming events

Rachel Nielson: And you are also speaking at the Thriving Motherhood conference, which I’ve mentioned on this podcast before, so if people are going to that, they can hear you speak there and I’ll be there and I can’t wait to meet you.

Georgia Anderson: At that conference, I’m going to be focusing a little bit more on teens and kids leaving the nest and preparing yourself for that time in your life when they’re separating from you.

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Rachel Nielson: I will put links to all of this in the show notes too. People can find more of your work and we’re just so grateful that you’ve given us your time today.

Before you turn off this podcast, I want to give you a follow up about what’s happened in our home since I recorded this interview with Georgia several weeks ago.

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A handful of times I could sense that my son’s frustration was rising. I knew that a meltdown was coming. I literally took a deep breath and stopped myself from pushing down his emotions and insisting that you do things my way. I remembered what Georgia taught me. So instead I said to him, “it sounds like you feel upset. It sounds like you feel like this is unfair. It sounds like you’re disappointed that you can’t find your Lego. Is that right?” I’m not exaggerating, but almost without exception, he would stop and look at me curiously. I think he was just surprised that he was being asked. His breathing and his agitation quieted down, and he went on to explain how he was feeling and what he thought about it and I just listened for like a minute. Then I would say, “wow, that sounds really frustrating or that sounds hard.” I’d give him a hug and it was over. Honestly felt like it was kind of a miracle tactic.

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Yesterday was Mother’s Day and it occurred to me that the best Mother’s Day present I got this year was this conversation with Georgia as she coached me through how to respond to and connect with my spirited son in the midst of those big emotions because I felt closer to him and more confident in my ability to parent him than I ever have. What a gift that is for all of you listening.

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