Sophie Havighurst is a child clinical psychologist and an Associate Professor at the University of Oslo in Norway and the University of Melbourne, Australia. Along with co-author Ann Harley, she developed the Tuning in to Kids (TIK) parenting programme, which is now in use around the world.
Sophie grew up in Christchurch, and on a recent visit back to NZ was happy to catch up with us. In particular, she had some helpful tips for South Island parents.
Why do children need to learn emotional competence?
When children can understand and regulate their emotional world, they experience increased self-confidence, greater physical health, better performance in school, and healthier social relationships.
I’m a warm and loving parent. Isn’t that enough?
Warm and loving parenting is fantastic for kids. One of the main predictors of good outcomes for kids is the level of warmth in a family and in the parent-child relationship.
However, love and warmth don’t necessarily lead to emotional competence. A child may feel good about themselves and have good self esteem, but they may not learn about emotions unless you explore and talk with them about emotions. That will take your child further.
What happens for a child when his or her emotions are supported?
Several things happen. Firstly, the child feels heard, understood, connected, and not alone with his or her big, overwhelming feelings. This helps the child to calm down.
Secondly, an emotion-coaching parent often helps put words to what the child is feeling and experiencing. For example, the parent might say, while hugging the child close, “it sounds like you don’t want to go to school today” or “you’re worried Suzie won’t play with you again”. This process helps shift the child’s experience from the feeling part of the brain to the thinking part, so the child achieves greater self awareness.
What prevents parents from effectively emotion coaching their children?
Sometimes it’s just the circumstances—they might be in a hurry or overwhelmed themselves. And that’s OK; you can’t always respond the right way. However, often parents don’t have the skills to know how to respond, or they fear what will happen—they don’t trust that going toward emotion, instead of shutting it down, will actually lead to a better outcome for their child. Also, some people’s beliefs about emotion get in the way, for example, “anger is bad” or “boys don’t cry”. There can be lots of reasons.
It’s pretty tough for parents to learn new skills and discover they might not be doing things quite right. What do you say to parents with this concern?
Knowledge about the importance of emotion coaching is new information. While it’s natural for parents to feel guilty about what they haven’t done in the past, no one can apply skills they don’t know about. We’re increasing our knowledge about children’s development all the time—for example, most mothers now know not to drink heavily through pregnancy—and as we learn new ways of doing things, we can just adopt them as they come to light.
You grew up in Christchurch and enjoyed a typical idyllic kiwi childhood. In recent years, our children in the South Island have experienced a far less idyllic start: 10,000 plus earthquakes have shaken them in their formative years. How can emotion coaching help our children and their families?
As loving parents, it can be difficult to see our children in pain, and so we try to protect them from it—we try to distract them or give them rational thinking strategies. These can be helpful, but we miss the emotion involved. Sometimes parents need to do the opposite—they need to allow their child to express his or her strong feelings of, for example, fear and worry about earthquakes.
At TIK we encourage parents to slow down and hear their child’s pain before rushing in with a solution such as, “it’s OK, we’ll do this, this, and this”.
For example, first be connected physically to your child; hold him or her close, rocking or stroking as well if necessary. This helps a child to feel safer, and offers a connection that helps them manage feelings better. At the same time, you might say things like, “it can be really scary can’t it?” or “you sound like you’re really worried about what might happen”. Avoid moving quickly to “buts” and “howevers”.
Often in those times the child’s emotion will actually shift. Only once they have started to calm down should parents start exploring things like, “I wonder what would help you go to school today?” or “I wonder if we can do some really big slow breaths and make our bodies go all soft and floppy”. Help them to relax and breathe while they’re close with you.
South Island children’s lives are still disrupted with home repairs; school and education changes; and family difficulties. How can emotion coaching support our children experiencing ongoing anxiety?
Anxiety is the sort of feeling that can stay for a long time even when a child feels heard and supported. So as well as responding with empathy, parents need to teach children skills to manage their anxious feelings. We can teach children ways to breathe slowly and relax, to tense and release when they’re stressed, and to use props like a necklace or pounamu that they can touch when feeling worried or doing hard things.
Parents also need to tune in to children’s different fears and worries, so they can recognise when a child’s big feelings around a small issue, such as the frustration of a toilet door not closing properly, are actually caused by the small issue triggering underlying anxious feelings.
Traditionally, NZ men haven’t been encouraged to show their feelings. How do dads typically respond to TIK?
The response from dads is usually very positive. They like having an opportunity to learn skills around emotion that they were never taught growing up, and they typically adopt and engage with the skills very, very well. In fact, in the trials for our “Dads Tuning in to Kids” programme, we got some of the biggest changes from fathers doing this program.
Is TIK only for families experiencing problems?
No. TIK is designed for everyone. That’s because the skills taught at TIK are not just parenting skills, they’re relationship skills. People often say it improves their relationship with their partner, their adult siblings, and even their work colleagues. Really, it’s about tuning into others, not just kids.