Many parents have a bad habit of misreading their children’s emotions and need to be more empathetic, says parenting author Justin Coulson. Are you one of them?
In an interview this week with Hope 103.2’s Emma Mullings, Dr Coulson said that in a recent study, parents proved to be “clueless” when it came to knowing how their children were feeling.
In fact, the parents tended to rate their children’s emotional state based more on how they are feeling themselves.
When Parents Project Their Own Emotions Onto Their Kids
Researchers asked children how happy they were feeling, and then compared this with their parents’ expectations of their child’s emotions.
Dr Coulson said the results showed the parents “had no idea” of the real situation.
“The parents’ ratings of the children’s happiness seemed to be terribly inconsistent with the children’s, but terribly consistent with their own feelings,” he said.
“What that really means is if I am feeling good, and I see my child not feeling so good, I’ll say “it’s not that bad” or “they’re ok”. We’re just not tapping into how our children are feeling.”
In technical terms, Dr Coulson said this is an “ego-centric bias”.
“We are not seeing the world through our children’s eyes, we’re seeing it through our own.”
How To Get In Touch With Your Child’s True Feelings
Dr Coulson said the key to reading your child’s emotions better, is to take time to stop, focus on the child, and think about how they are going.
“If they’re feeling any kind of emotion, then we need to just pause and slow down, particularly if they are a little distressed or sad,” he said. “If we stop and sit with them and put our arm around them and just listen, it’s incredible what it will do.”
“Firstly our children will feel they are of worth, and loved, and that we value them. And secondly, it will do wonders for our relationship. Our children will see that we care, and that we’re trustworthy, and that they can relax a little and be themselves around us and not get in trouble for feeling a certain emotion.”
All Emotions Should Be Allowed
Dr Coulson said that while most parents acknowledge that their children should feel free to express any kind of emotion, this doesn’t always happen in real life.
“I run workshops, and I ask parents, “when your children are angry, frustrated, upset or sad, how many of you think those emotions are ok then?”,” he said.
“Not too many parents put their hand up because they know that we kind of get annoyed at our children’s emotions.”
He said it was important to let children be free to have the full range of emotions.
“What this research really does is remind us [that] we need to pause, slow down, invite our children into our world, and ask them to invite us into theirs, and really see the world through their eyes,” he said. “They do better and our families are happier when we do.”
The Magic Of Listening
In an article on his blog, Dr Coulson said that listening was one of the most important ways parents could build resilience into children.
“Rather than operating on ‘auto-parent’ we will help our children know they are important by giving them our undivided attention,” he said. “Children feel validated and worthy when we listen to them.
“While children are upset, sensitive listening provides emotional first aid. Listening with your heart allows you to be empathic, take your child’s perspective, or see the world through his or her eyes.”
Put Yourself In Their Shoes
Dr Coulson invites adults to imagine they have had a frustrating day, and then think how they might feel if their spouse said, “Oh well, I guess you’ll just have to try harder again tomorrow.”
When children are upset, advice and lectures are not helpful, nor is telling them “there’s no reason to feel that way”.
Instead, he says the best response is to reflect their emotions with statements like “I can see it’s been a tough day for you today”, or “Wow, that must have made you feel really disappointed.”
Asking how they think you can help is also valuable.
“Let them strategise the most effective way to overcome their challenges and support them in their decisions or guide them toward appropriate actions,” Dr Coulson says.
About Dr Coulson
Dr Justin Coulson is a parenting author, speaker and researcher, and founder of the website happyfamilies.com.au.