Episode 7: Effective Problem-Solving

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Dad 1
She shows her feelings she wears her feelings on her sleeve, she she’s very emotional, verbal, physical, and she, she, she’s, she lets me know how she feels. No, no matter what you know, she she told me. They like like, and this is crazy, because I tried, you know, so hard to get her to, like, get her to learn how to express her emotions. And she’s doing such a wonderful job would edit that now I’m gonna reflect on how I’m gonna get back, give her feedback on like, cuz she’s gonna be seven in two weeks. So I’m like, so Dad, you’re making me? Like, this makes me sad because of this. And I’m like, like, she gives me the why’s and you know, so it definitely gives me like a, it makes me you know, have to be more involved, you know, with, you know, understanding her.

Roxy Etta
Welcome to Anywhere Dads a podcast from University of Wisconsin Madison Extension with information and tips on how dads in jail can connect with their kids. This podcast combines the voices of dads in jail with experts in child development, parenting and incarceration. I’m your host, Roxy Etta. Today I’m joined by Robert Nix. Robert, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

Robert Nix
Yeah, I’m a professor here in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at UW Madison. And I’m also an integrated specialist with the Human Development and Relationships Institute within the Division of Extension.

Roxy Etta
Great, we’re so happy to have you. Thanks for being here today.

Robert Nix
Thank you for having me.

Roxy Etta
Of course. So today, we’re talking about effective problem solving and talking about emotions and emotion coaching. So just to get things started, I was hoping we could talk about why it’s important to recognize and talk about emotions. And if you have any tips or advice on how to navigate discussing emotions with a partner or with your child.

Robert Nix
Yeah. So a lot of times when you watch parents interact with their children and the children become upset, the parents with the very best of intentions tend to have a response that may not be as optimal as we would like, so a child might fall down and parent says, you’re okay, you’re okay, don’t cry. And that’s really confusing for the child because the child has, you know, just fallen, and may be disoriented, maybe is in physical pain, but probably is just more startled by the whole situation. And then to have the parent come in and say, you know, don’t cry, don’t you know, your fine, is really confusing and a little overwhelming for the child. And that doesn’t really teach the child what they need to learn about their feelings. Other times that we might see this, as, you know, parents will say, like, you know, don’t be scared, there’s nothing in the closet, right? Because the parents know that, you know, there’s no such thing as a monster, but the child doesn’t know that. And so it’s really confusing when they’re feeling scared, but they’re getting this message from mom or dad to not be scared. And a lot of times what you’ll see is that children, instead of being calmed by those kinds of responses by mom or dad will actually amplify their responses, or they’ll ratchet up the, the amount of upset that they’re showing, in order to convince their parents that you need to pay attention to what’s going on here. You know, if you didn’t respond to my, you know, my tears, let me start wailing or let me start, you know, have, you know, screaming and kicking to, you know, to show you just how serious the situation is. And so when parents end up dismissing their children’s feelings, you know, saying, Don’t be scared, don’t be, don’t be sad, there’s nothing to be mad about. The children end up showing those feelings in even greater amounts in order to convince their parents of what’s really going on. And so one of the things that we try to help parents do is learn how to emotion coach as a way of helping their children learn about their feelings so that they’re in a better situation to handle their feelings. There tend to be three steps to emotion coaching, the first step is just to identify the feeling, right? Like you look really upset right now or you look really sad right now. Give the children a name for the experience that they’re having. And a lot of times that’s really comforting to children. So there are three steps to emotion coaching. First, you want to help the child just identify the feeling, right? And you can say things like, you know, how are you feeling? Sometimes children when they’re really distressed or upset, may not have the words for that. Then you could say, I wonder if you’re feeling sad, or I wonder if you’re feeling a little scared. Sometimes children may not even know what they’re feeling, then you could offer your own your own suggestion, right? Like, the way your mouth looks, makes me think that you’re feeling really sad right now, that looks like a frown on your face. Or, you know, that big smile on your face makes me think that you’re feeling really happy. Right? Then the second step is just to kind of validate and empathize with the feeling like, I would feel really sad too, if I lost my favorite toy. Or I remember when I was a kid, and I lost my favorite toy, I felt really sad for a while. And that helps the child understand that you get what they’re going through.

And the third step is then to go into problem solving. Right? And a lot of times, the very best things to do is just to ask the child, what do you think we should do about this situation? Right? So we lost your, you lost your favorite toy. And you’re feeling really upset. And I would too, what do you think we could do to find your toy? And just see if the child has any good solutions on on his or her own. A friend of mine had a maybe a five year old at the time, and she didn’t, she would become really engrossed or, you know, when she was working on on something or playing with some toys, she was so focused on those toys that she wouldn’t hear her mother, you know, call her to dinner. And her mother would call her to dinner a couple of different times. And then she would start to yell just to get the her daughter’s attention. And you know, my daughter, my friend’s daughter, you know, told her mommy, I don’t like it. When you yell at me, please don’t do that. And the, my friend said, Well, I don’t like it when you don’t listen to me. What do you think we should do about this? And the daughter thought for a second. And she said, How about when you need me to do something, you tap my shoulder three times, then I’ll know that I need to listen to you. And it was a solution that my friend never would have thought of on her own. But because her daughter came up with it. Her daughter was much more likely to respond when my friend did tap her shoulder. And she said they didn’t work all the time. But it probably worked 19 out of 20 times, which was a really good success rate for for my friend and her daughter.

Roxy Etta
Great. Do you have any suggestions perhaps for if a child can’t think of a solution on their own? Or if they have a solution that maybe won’t work in that moment? Like we can’t go buy a new toy right now?

Robert Nix
Exactly, exactly. And that’s a really good question. I think a lot of people get confused about emotion coaching and limit setting, right. Just because you’re validating the feelings doesn’t mean the child gets what he or she wants. So if a child says, you know, I hate my brother, he’s mean. And you say, Well, what do you think we can do about that? And the solution is get rid of brother, obviously, that’s not going to be a viable solution. And so you can say, I understand that you’re really upset with your brother right now that he’s a part of the family and we don’t get rid of members of the family. And you could ask them for another solution, right? Can you think of something else we could do to handle your your mad feelings right now? And sometimes the child will say like, maybe I could hit my pillow or something like that. That’s a much better solution than hitting your brother. Sometimes the children may not have may not be able to come up with a solution on their own. And if that’s the case, then you could offer them two solutions, right? Could say, you know, sometimes when I’m feeling really upset, I find that it’s helpful to go run around the yard. How about if you and I go do a race? And just get some of those, you know, feelings out that way? Will that help? Or you could say, you know, sometimes when I’m feeling mad, it’s helpful just to read a good book. So we could either go for a race, or we could read a book, which do you think would help you feel better right now? Give the child child two very concrete specific solutions, and let the child choose. But, like I said before, if the child can come up with his or her own solutions, that’s going to be the very best solution. There’s one one story that I’ve seen where a child is scared about monsters under his bed. And his mom doesn’t know exactly what to do. She’s told him there are no monsters, but that wasn’t getting anywhere. And so instead, she asks, What do you think we should do about these monsters, right? And the child comes up with this ingenious solution, which is, maybe we could just draw pictures that will scare the monsters away, right? And the mom never would have come up with that solution. But because the child came up with it, it’s much more likely to work for him. And so that’s in that’s a scenario that they use in some of the emotion coaching programs. It’s been very effective.

Roxy Etta
Great. At what age would you suggest starting to talk to your child about emotions? It can probably be very heavy, like a newborn baby, for example. But when is like an appropriate time to start?

Robert Nix
Yeah, I would do it from the very beginning to you know, and it works even with adult friends or spouses or partners. I mean, even works with parents, right? That, you know, when you’re when you have a newborn baby, and he might be crying, right, just, you know, say, you look really sad right now. Oh, I’m so sorry that this is so hard. You get that gets your you into the habit of talking to children about their feelings. But it’s also just comforting and soothing for the baby. And it helps you kind of stay in that right mindset that this is really hard that babies don’t want to cry. You know, and then I think the kind of prime age for emotion coaching is often kind of that two to five year old period. Because that’s when children are really learning a lot about feelings, and are going to be really, really intrigued by it.

Roxy Etta
Why, why do you think it’s important that we have this model to use with children? Or how is emotion. . . how does emotion develop over time, from like infancy to preschooler to middle to later adolescence to adulthood? So like, how is that transformation important?

Robert Nix
Yeah, so that’s a great question. I’m not sure I’m going to be able to cover all of that today. What I can say is that we all have feelings, because they serve really important purposes, right? And we, and we want to help children understand how to use those feelings appropriately, right? So if your child is feeling scared, you want him to come to you, so that you can make sure everything is okay. Right. If your child is feeling sad, you also want him to come to you, so that you can help comfort him. And you want him to pay attention to that sad feeling. Because he’s going to remember that and then use that feeling, so that he doesn’t make other people feel sad in the future, right, that he might feel guilty if he does make somebody sad. And then he would apologize, right. So feelings have really important functions in our lives, right? You want, you know, if your child sees somebody getting picked on, you want her to get mad at that, and to stand up for her friend so that others don’t, don’t take advantage of her and you want your child to be able to stand up for herself. And that kind of, you know, anger, appropriately channeled is going to serve as the proper motivation for us to kind of take care of our needs. So you want children to understand their feelings. So that they’re able to use that information that their feelings are providing you about a situation. But you also want them to be able to think about the appropriate solution. Right? So we all function best when we use both our thinking skills and our feelings to navigate whatever problem that we’re facing.

Roxy Etta
Would you say? I’m just curious, would you say that emotion coaching is related to promoting children’s development of emotion regulation, their own emotion regulation?

Robert Nix
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So, you know, when parents use emotion coaching, their children tend to be calmer. They tend to have a better vocabulary around feelings, right? We always tell children, you should use your words, right? Don’t hit your brother. Use your words to you know, get the toy back, right. But children need to have those words first, right? And they need to be in a calm space so that they can use that language. And so emotion coaching helps children feel calmer. It gives them words to use to navigate their the situations to solve their problems more effectively. It helps them concentrate better, they’re not so distracted by the interpersonal drama around them. And it improves their behavior and their compliance as a result of that.

Roxy Etta
How did you talk to your daughter about her feelings?

Dad 2
I really do more more listening, cuz I used to do a lot more talking to her about like, you shouldn’t feel that way or this and that, but she has every right to feel the way she feels. And I’m just doing more listening. Now. I’m trying to do more listening, you know, now that she’s at an age where she’s actually been more being more verbal. I’m just understanding, you know, she she’s like, No, you’re not listening. Because this way. Okay, like, I gotta, I just gotta understand, it’s got to take, you know, however she feels, you know, that taking sometimes just me listening and understanding. It’s just it that like, it’s crazy. Like, that’s enough for her. Just listening. She like, just like, like, she doesn’t want me to give her no feedback, like, no, like, I’m sad. Let me be sad. And I’m like, okay, all right. Well,

Roxy Etta
This makes me think your example, earlier about the mother and daughter was that the mother was yelling to get her child’s attention and child was saying that makes her upset. This makes me think about the emotion coaching might get a little bit more complex in situations between the parent child, for example, when a dad is incarcerated, and it might be that the child is experiencing emotions about the dad’s situation. And perhaps then there’s like, another layer on understanding your own emotions and being able to react and emotion coach properly.

Robert Nix
Right. Right, right, right. Yeah. So oftentimes, it’s really hard to emotion coach when you’re upset, right. And so if you’re too upset, it’s probably better just to tell the child, let’s not talk about this now. And we’ll talk about it a little bit later. And that works really well. And then, but make sure to revisit the situation. In the you know, in the scenario that you talked about, it’s perfectly fine to say, I’m really upset that, you know, Daddy’s not with us too, or, you know, if it’s your own daughter, you know, to say like, I’m really upset, I can’t come home with you tonight, too. I wish, you know, like anything that I could be there with you. Just help the child see that, you know, what they’re experiencing is a common reaction to a difficult situation. And they’re going to be comforted by the fact that you’re feeling the same thing that’s going to help them feel closer to you. Even if you’re separated physically, that that’s going to help them understand that, yeah, Daddy’s upset, or Mommy’s really upset, too. She wishes that she could be with, you know, with the child.

Roxy Etta
Great. I think then all we have left is just if you have any takeaway messages for dads who are listening to the podcast today, yeah.

Unknown Speaker
So three simple steps. Help your child identify the feeling, empathize with the feeling or validate the feeling, show that you understand why the child is feeling the way she or he is, and then ask the child, well, what do you think we could do about that, and then help the child if they if they can’t come up with their own solution. I think that if you can remember those three things, everything else falls into place that once children start to know that you get it, they when they’re upset, you understand, then they start to feel really close to you. And that’s all of our goals. You know, once again, doing that kind of emotion coaching doesn’t mean that you can’t set problem you know that you can’t set limits, like, Yeah, I wish that, you know, I could buy all of the toys for you in the store. But I just can’t do that. Nobody has that kind of, you know, that kind of money, you know, but we can get one, you know, one toy, or we can go to the toy lending library and get a toy from there. You know, so, emotion coaching doesn’t mean that you have to give your child everything that he or she wants, and that would be bad for the child, that you want the child to learn that, you know, they can feel sad, they can feel angry, but they can get through those feelings with your support.

Roxy Etta
Great. Well, thank you so much for being here today, Robert, it was great to have you.

Robert Nix
My pleasure.

Roxy Etta
Anywhere Dads is a product of the University of Wisconsin Madison Division of Extension’s Human Development and Relationships Institute and was created by Anne Clarkson, Roxy Etta, Mary Huser, Maggie Kerr, Elizabeth Lexau, Kevin Murphy, and Ciara Walker-Morgan. Music composed, arranged and performed by Doug White, Madison, Wisconsin.

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