I recently spoke at the Stories of Childhood Conference in Melbourne on the topic of supporting children's emotional development through music.
I'm going to do a few posts covering some of the material I spoke about at the Conference. We'll start with a brief look at some aspects of children's emotional development, relying on the work of some of my favourite psychologists and their take on the subject. In other posts I'll lead into how and why we can use music to support kids emotional development.
Self-esteem is a concept that is discussed a lot when we talk about what we are hoping to foster and support in children. Often what we mean when we talk about self-esteem is a self belief and a confidence based on an internal sense of self and a sense of value that is not based on external factors.
The ways to support an internal security and sense of self can be as simple as being connected to a child, being present for them and allowing an attachment to form. Children are all different and having a toolbox of ideas for how to connect to children in different ways and how to recognise that different approaches may be needed with each child can be invaluable resources for working those working with children. However, it can often be easy to mistake the tool, the strategy or approach, for the actual magic, which is the connection and relationship between the child and the caregiver.
It can be hard sometimes to remember what it felt like to be a kid but caregivers who are able to make that shift in perspective and understand the qualitatively different thinking of a child, as well as the frustrations of feeling small and powerless in a big peoples world, can have empathy and understanding of their children's actions and motivations. That can be such a startling shift in understanding the needs of the child and empathy for their experience that a tense situation where caregiver and child are at loggerheads can quickly turn into a mutually respectful and validating interaction that brings child and caregiver closer.
Dr John Gottman, author of ‘The Heart of Parenting: Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child’ suggests that the development of Emotional Intelligence is supported by caregivers through words of understanding, empathy, and validation, which must precede words of advice. He proposes that emotions can only be controlled and regulated when they are understood by the child and that for advice to be understood and heeded, children need to be supported in understanding the emotions they are feeling preceding caregiver advice.
Through his research, Dr Gottman has discovered and described two ways adults approach and deal with children’s feelings. He describes these two responses to emotion as ‘Emotion Dismissing’ and ‘Emotion Coaching’.
Dr Gottman describes Emotion Dismissing people:
I. Emotion dismissing people:
- Don’t notice lower intensity emotions in self and kids (and others too).
- See negative affect as toxins and want to protect child from having these negative emotions. Prefer a cheerful child.
- Think that the longer the child stays in the negative emotional state, the more toxic it is.
- Are impatient with kids’ negativity. May punish a child just for being angry even if there is no misbehaviour.
- Will distract, tickle, cheer up, etc. to avoid negative emotions instead of dealing with them
- See introspecting as a waste of time, or even dangerous.
- No detailed lexicon (vocabulary) for emotions.
- Want reason to control emotion. They are uncomfortable with strong emotions.
‘Emotion dismissing people can be warm and concerned, they need not be cruel, or mean spirited people. They are just not very comfortable with the so-called “negative” emotions. They are uncomfortable with anger, or rage, or sadness, or despair, or fear or anxiety. They are also not very comfortable with strong positive emotions. Emotions like affection, pride, joy. They are much more comfortable with things being cognitive, pretty neutral, and slightly cheerful. That’s their zone of comfort.’
Dr Gottman says that Emotion Coaching is the opposite of Emotion Dismissing and says that the Emotion Coach does 5 things:
- Notices emotions
- Sees them as an opportunity for teaching or intimacy
- Validates them (validating is empathy and understanding -- it’s not enough to feel what someone else feels, which is empathy, you have to know why they are feeling that way, and communicate that, which is validation)
- Helps the child get verbal labels for all emotions the child is feeling
- Sets limits, or helps kid problem solve (if you don’t do this step kids get aggressive)
In describing the benefits and reasons for caregivers to cultivate the Emotion Coaching response over the Emotion Dismissing response, Dr Gottman argues that there are many books written for parents and caregivers that advise adults on how to use discipline techniques with children which deal with children’s difficult behaviour or emotional outbursts and result in obedient, cooperative children. Dr Gottman says that, while there is nothing wrong with wanting and to some degree expecting cooperative children, most of us want much more for our children than obedience.
Dr Gottman describes other goals we might hope for our children:
We want our kids to:
- Think for themselves. Even disagree with us.
- Be compassionate human beings
- Be moral people. To have value system similar to those we have.
- To treat people well.
- To have good relationships with others.
- To select a mate who won’t mistreat them, have a good family of their own someday.
- To have good social judgment.
- To enjoy their talents, explore their abilities.
- To be gentle, but strong.
- To be proud of themselves, but not boastful.
- To have purpose and meaning in their lives.
- To have interests, self esteem.
- To live for something beyond themselves, not be materialistic, care about the welfare of the world.
And much, much more
Dr Gordon Neufeld, Developmental Psychologist and co-author of, ‘Hold On To Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers’ (co-authored with Canadian physician Gabor Maté)’ bases his developmental Theory of Attachment on the importance of connection and attachment between children and caregivers.
To be able to support a child’s emotional development children need to feel a secure attachment to caregivers. Children need to feel connected and safe, so that that the caregiver is a compass point, a person the child admires, desires to emulate and wants to please. Neufeld says that only through attachment can we hope to guide, advise and emotionally support children for without it we don’t have access to the heart of that child.
Dr Neufeld proposes ideas and strategies to help caregivers guide and support children but advises that no method, technique or strategy for managing children’s behaviour will work in the best interests of the child's development or have positive long term outcomes for the child if that caregiver does not first have that child’s heart, have that child’s attachment.
Dr Neufeld’s work offers an enormous resource for caregivers in how to cultivate the attachment of a child, through love, patience and respect.
You can learn more about Dr Neufeld and his work at http://neufeldinstitute.com/