Thoughtful Parenting: Emotional development beyond good behavior

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— There are many good parenting programs and approaches available these days. Most focus on your child’s behavior and ways to manage particular problems, including biting, tantrums, talking back and power struggles. Despite the fact there is more research than ever before on effective parenting techniques, it can be confusing to know what to do, what to say or when to reward or discipline.

Thoughtful Parenting

This weekly column about parenting issues is written by local early childhood experts. It publishes on Mondays in the Steamboat Today. Read more columns here.

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Although information is increasingly accessible through books, the Internet, day care, school and health care providers, parents remain hungry for answers. I'm often told by parents that there’s something missing in the strategies and that children and teens feel like they’re not heard.

Years ago, parenting techniques were passed on from one generation to the next, with each successive group of parents believing they’re doing it better. In many ways, things are better. Yet there is a lot of figure out. Effective parenting goes beyond having well-behaved children.

Teaching and supporting our children in developing healthy emotional lives is a step in a positive direction. When a child experiences an uncomfortable emotion ‚ such as fear, sadness, panic, disappointment or anger — we often focus on the behaviors we see that occur with the emotion. Crying, whining, snapping, flailing, running and refusal are common behaviors that communicate emotions. These behaviors frequently occur at inopportune times, and parents understandably get hyper-focused on stopping them. Ever been in the grocery store when a full-blown tantrum strikes? We may set limits but might miss a teachable moment.

Helping children identify, understand and manage their emotions can improve behavior. Children learn that emotions tell them something about their environment and experience. Listening for and validating emotions takes a little more time, but children recover more quickly and feel less fearful of their emotional world. Brainstorming with your children about ways they can tolerate discomfort and self-soothe helps make anxiety and sadness more manageable and strengthens your relationship. Children can pass along these skills when they become parents.

• Talk with a trusted friend or colleague or with a medical, school, day care or mental health professional about ways you can talk to your child about emotions.

• Ask your local librarian or bookstore employee for reputable books on the topic, including children’s books. Active listening techniques and emotion coaching are good places to start.

• When watching TV with your child, identify the emotions the characters are experiencing, how you can tell and what they do with the emotions.

• Talk about what you do to manage uncomfortable emotions. Talk about healthy and unhealthy options.

• Mindfulness strategies can help you manage your own discomfort when you move toward your child’s emotional experiences.

Barbara Gueldner, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice in Steamboat Springs. She is a member of First Impressions, Routt County’s Early Childhood Council. Read her blog at www.successfulkidstoday.com.

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