Helping Children Cope with Loss: Practice Emotional Coaching
Ron L. Deal
No one in stepfamilies has suffered more loss than children. One key element to effective parenting involves helping children to cope with these losses in healthy ways. Whether you like it or not—parents and stepparents alike—you are grief counselor. Here is one significant way you can help.
Allowing sadness and giving permission to (appropriate) expressions of grief has always been at the heart of grief counseling. To do this means being able to endure the child’s pain because you cannot fix their pain, you can only hug it. A small child who falls and skins their knee will most assuredly cry out in pain. What is a parent to do? Of course you can put a little medicine and a band aid on the abrasion, but mostly what is needed is a hug. Picking up the child, holding and consoling them with a little extra TLC for a few minutes somehow helps the hurt. It doesn’t “fix” the skinned knee; they still walk away with a skinned knee. Yet, somehow they are better. This is the way you help your stepchild with the scrapes on their heart. Time and again you pull them into your lap letting them cry over what hurts. Wrap listening with compassion knowing that you can’t “fix” the situation. Somehow it helps.
One compassionate way to respond in those moments is with emotional coaching. Most children (and adults) are driven by their emotions and don’t know how to manage them. Scripture makes it clear that we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (Romans 12:2); putting our Spirit-led mind in charge of our emotions is a skill for every disciple. It also helps children manage their grief.
Grief is an emotion and cannot be denied or set aside. In his excellent book Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, Dr. John Gottman says that parents should teach children to recognize how their emotions are impacting them and how to self-regulate their behavior in spite of their emotions. He outlines a number of steps to emotion coaching. Begin by being aware of your own emotions and what you are feeling in the moment. Managing yourself appropriately models what you are teaching the child to do.
Next, seek out the key emotions in what the child is saying and label them. Small children in particular often don’t have any vocabulary for their emotions. They know how to act mad, but they don’t recognize that sadness lies beneath. You will have to point that out to them so they can connect their experience with the emotion (“I can tell you are really angry and perhaps a little sad right now. Do you know what you are sad about?”). This is important because it centers the conversation on the heart issue. A child may be upset about an unforeseen change in schedule, for example, but focusing solely on that won’t help them deal with their hurt.
After labeling the emotion, fight off the temptation to fix it. Remember, grief is a journey, not a destination. At funerals we often hear misguided attempts to fix people’s pain. “Don’t feel bad. God needed another angel.” “I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sure you’ll feel better when you realize that they’re in a better place now.” These are sorry attempts to fix sorrow and they don’t work. In fact, they minimize people’s pain and make them irritated. Why do we say them? Because we are uncomfortable with people’s pain. It’s ugly and we want it to go away. You must find a way to endure a child’s sadness or you will never really hear it—and you won’t be able to help them walk through it.
Finally, while labeling the emotion is a good first step, trying to open the wound to hear more will bring added relief. Consider this example of a child who returns home after a weekend at mom’s house. Ten year-old Brennan walks in the door snippy and curt. Not his usual self, Brennan speaks to his stepmom Carmen with a disrespectful tone. In the past Carmen has interpreted such behavior as a rejection of her which activates her fear that she will never be considered an “insider” in the home. She would snap back at Brennan and the two would fuss at each other until she sent him to his room—“until his father got home.” This time, she calmed her fears and focused in on Brennan’s experience.
Brennan: [in a harsh, disrespectful tone] “Do I still have to do my chores tonight? I already did some at my mom’s house. It’s not fair!” [Stepparents make easy targets for the frustrations children feel; try to remember that much of what is directed at you is not about you.]
Carmen: [in a calming tone she momentarily side-steps the disrespect and begins to label the emotions she hears] “Hold on a second. I can tell you are really irritated about having to do chores twice. Am I getting that right?”
Brennan: [this response baits Carmen to take the issue personally] “Yes. Your son only has to do chores in one house and I have to do them at my mom’s house and here. It’s not fair.”
Carmen: [she dodges the bait and stays centered on Brennan’s emotion wondering what’s behind it] “You’re feeling put upon because you have to do chores twice. I can see how you might feel that way. [That last part disarms Brennan a little.] I’m also wondering if you are angry you had to leave your mom’s house and come home. It’s hard to do that, isn’t it?”
Brennan: [now refocused on what is beneath the chores issue] “I guess so.”
Carmen: [digs a little deeper] “It hurts when you enjoy being with your mom and then have to leave. I can see why you might come home a little grumpy and sad.”
Brennan: [calming down] “It’s not fair that I have to leave; I only get three days there and mom cries when I come home. I hate that.”
Carmen: [now realizes how deep his sadness is; replies with soft compassion] “I’m sorry. That really stinks for you. I know your mom loves you very much and we love you very much. You must feel divided trying to love us back. That must be very hard on you. [There’s no attempt to fix his emotions, just acknowledgement. She pauses...] Could I give you a hug—or do you need a little more time first?” [TLC at it’s best. She gives him a verbal hug just by saying she wants to hug him and permission to not physically hug her if he can’t do so comfortably right now.]
Brennan: [showing how torn he is] “I’m not quite ready yet.”
Carmen: “Okay. I’ll hug you later when it feels okay for you.”
[At this point Carmen has earned the right to address the initial disrespect that started the exchange. Her emotional coaching has refocused Brennan and ironically, drawn him closer to her. As relationship increases, so does her level of authority. She continues...]
“You know, a little while ago you spoke harshly to me. I know you came home feeling cruddy, but I don’t deserve to be spoken to that way. I don’t appreciate it and don’t want you to do it again. Next time, if you come home feeling yucky, I’d rather you walk in and tell me that so I know to give you some space until you feel better. That way we won’t get fussy with each other. Could you do that?”
“I would appreciate an apology.”
“I’m still going to give you that hug later. You can go now.”
At some point, if Brennan isn’t able to stop being disrespectful when sad, Carmen and her husband will need to impose a consequence for his behavior. Either way, the emotional coaching should continue.
It might be that this exchange will help Brennan to better manage his emotions and disrespect. The two of them just might have started down a different path together.
Ron L. Deal is President of Smart Stepfamilies. He is an author, conference speaker, and licensed marriage and family therapist.