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I had the brain-stretching privilege of being mentored by a great therapist; I wish that everyone had someone to learn their craft from.  A mentor to make mistakes with someone to support you to be in that uncomfortable place… ask them to repeat a concept five times without judgement… holding a space to believe in your ability while you are perhaps doubting your choice to become a therapist in the first place.  While discussing the challenge of parenting with her the day, she taught me the important distinction between two different approaches to parenting: Instrumental Parenting vs. Emotional Coaching. I thought my Blog readers could benefit from my teachers’ enlightening wisdom.

Too often, parents focus their energy and intention on growing great kids through providing all the things, lessons and opportunities that could be imagined, but miss an essential target in the busy schedule: being emotion-focused is at the root of the role as Mom or Dad.

Instrumental parents love their kids deeply without a question and whole-heartedly want the best for their kids, so please don’t take offence if this article seems to be describing yourself.  These are the parents that make sure their kids have healthy snacks after a hockey game, a safe home, every athletic activity, music lesson and extra-curricular activity one could imagine; it seems like every need is met.  These parents will dutifully drive their kids back and forth to the arena without complaint, saying “It’s just part of being a good parent”. There is nothing these parents wouldn’t do, advocate for or find a way to buy, to make their kids’ lives more full and happy.

But the mistake is made if as a parents you do not balance your instrumental parenting -The “Doing Stuff”- with teaching your children about their emotions and attending to the emotions as they come up -The “Being With Stuff”.  We want to teach our kids that it is safe to come to us with their big emotions, in particular their fear, anger and sadness.  We need to show our kids, through example, that we have big shoulders and can handle their often loud and messy inner world.  This is our job as parents!  We don’t want our kids to accidentally learn that they need to check in with our emotional barometer before they feel OK to really share what’s going on for them or to simply push down their not-so-pleasant emotions because they know we will dismiss their feelings and minimize what they say they feel. “Don’t cry, we can fix this problem.” “Don’t feel angry.”

If you didn’t have the experience of your own emotions being “seen” and “heard” when you were a child, you may need to do some learning in this department as an adult.  If your big emotions were not tolerated as a child or you learned that certain emotions were to be feared or stifled, you might unconsciously send this same message to your kids.  For example, if anger was an unpredictable, scary emotion in your family of origin, you may fear this emotion when it bubbles up in yourself.  At an early age, you learned it was not safe, so as a Mom or Dad, anger expression by your daughter takes you to a scary place.  As a way to cope, you simply do not tolerate this emotion in your home; you shut it down and in doing so, you unconsciously send a message to your daughter that “not-so-good” emotions are scary and she needs to find a way to push those feelings down”…This is a big mistake! (We need to engage with the emotion, MAKE IT BIGGER, so our kids don’t learn to push it down).

In my therapy practice, I meet loving parents all the time who have Instrumental Parenting down pat, but need support to learn to be an Emotional Coach to their own kids.  The great news is, everyone can learn the 5 Steps to being an Emotion Coach and once the skill is fine-tuned, your relationship with your son or daughter will be closer and more bonded than ever.  Check out my blog to describe these 5 Steps in detail.

Our world seems to put a lot of focus on the instrumental parenting approach, but as a Registered Psychologist, I am advocating for a tip of the scale in the other direction, one that includes teaching kids about their emotions, the accompanying body sensations and the associated need.  All the research shows that parents who use this approach, raise children with stronger academic records, better social emotional skills and stronger mental health.  So the take home message is simple…tolerate your child’s/teen’s emotions, attend to them in the moment and accept what they feel.  This is all part of growing a beautiful, healthy brain.

Homework: To learn more, watch Lois Sapsford, Clinical Director at Juno House, speaking on growing a Healthy Teen Brain.