Jackie: I had the worst day EVER!!
Mom thinks but does NOT say: Oh no. This sounds bad. Did she get in trouble with the teacher? Did she do terribly on her spelling test? Hold on now. I used to jump to conclusions which would only upset Jackie even more. I need to empathize and listen.
Mom says: (gently) Tell me what happened.
Jackie: Jessica was sooo mean to me. She told me to shut up during art class. And, then at lunch, when I sat down next to her, she got up and moved to another table. I asked her if she was mad at me, and she told me ‘no’ but THEN she ignored me the rest of the afternoon. She is not my friend any more. I hate her. I hate school! Nobody likes me. I have no friends. I’m never going back to school again!!
In the past Mom would have said: Why are you still friends with Jessica? She is clearly not a good friend. I’m sick of how she treats you. I don’t want you playing with her anymore.
Now, Mom thinks before she speaks: O.K. Take a deep breath. If you speak now, you are going to say something you regret. Jackie is upset, but I know she can handle this. She needs me to listen so that she can vent. I am confident that Jackie can figure this out. Stay calm.
Mom says gently: You sound really upset with Jessica.
Jackie: I am! I hate her! She is so mean.
Silence. As Mom listens intently to her daughter, she notices Jackie is beginning to settle down and communicate her feelings a bit more calmly.
Mom: I know that it makes you so sad when Jessica acts like this. And when you get really upset, you just want to give up on everything including school and all of your friends, but let’s focus on what happened to you today that is bothering you the most.
Jackie: OK. Well mostly, I hate when Jessica has a bad day and takes it out on me.
Mom says in a calm voice: I bet. Nobody likes to be treated badly by a friend. It hurts. What do you think is the best way for you to handle the situation with Jessica tomorrow?
Jackie: I don’t know. I didn’t do anything and she was STILL mean to me. There’s nothing I can do.
Mom: This isn’t the first time that this has happened with Jessica. What have you done in the past that worked when Jessica has been cranky with you?
Jackie: I usually just keep my distance from her for a day, and she gets over it. Then, when she wants to play with me again, I‘ll tell her that I don’t like it when she takes her bad moods out on me.
Mom: That seems like a really good plan to me. How are you feeling now?
Jackie: Better, Mom. Much better. C’mon let’s go walk the dog.
Some children are born optimists. They are unfazed by disappointments and mistakes and welcome the opportunity to take on new challenges. Others, well, are not. For these kids, small problems feel insurmountable and negative outcomes are dreaded realities. Life offers all children a fair share of knocks. When they inevitably fall down, the hope is that they have the skills to pick themselves up, brush off their knees, and continue to move forward, confident in their ability to succeed. As parents, all we really want is for our kids to be happy and resilient. We want to help them develop coping skills and constantly strive to find the proper balance between supporting and fixing. On the one hand, we want to save our children from any and all pain by jumping in to amend issues as soon as they arise. On the other, we know that our children must learn to solve their own problems if they are to thrive as adults.
Jill initiated counseling at In Step because she felt terribly depleted by the constant drama and negativity with her 10 year old daughter, Jackie. Each day Jackie came home from school miserable and upset, wanting her mother to fix her problems while simultaneously rejecting any idea that her mother suggested. Frustrated and tired of getting pulled into a negative cycle with her daughter, Jill wondered if there was another, more effective approach to take with Jackie. E.G.N.O.G. to the rescue.
Jill wanted a concrete method of responding to her daughter. Try as she might to resist the vortex of Jackie’s emotions, Jill couldn’t help it. Whenever her daughter had a problem, she felt it was her job to fix it. And, if Jackie did not heed her sage advice, Jill became frustrated and her shrill tone fueled further upset. In the example above, it was E.G.N.O.G. that helped her break the pattern by giving her a framework to guide the problem solving process with her daughter.
Step One: Empathize
Let your child know that you understand and can tolerate her feelings by saying things like:
“You are really upset about this”
“I’m so sorry that this happened today”
Jill struggled with this initially because her words said “I understand” but her tone said “Not again”! She figured out that it was better for her to say nothing than to say something with an edge to her voice.
Step Two: Get Neutral
Listen without judgment. Calmly let your child know you are there to help by saying things like:
“Tell me what happened”.
Part of Jill’s challenge in staying neutral was inhibiting her natural responses. When she tried to join with Jackie by getting angry at Jessica, she unwittingly stirred the emotional pot, fueling her daughter’s overwhelming feelings. Talking slowly and calmly slowed down the escalation of Jackie’s feelings.
Step Three: Narrow
Be as specific as possible with the nature of the particular problem by saying things like:
“When did you first start feeling this way?”
“What upset you the most about the situation?”
Jill took Jackie’s temperature throughout their interaction. She knows that there is no reasoning with a child in the heat of the moment. It was not until after Jackie had cooled down a bit that she was able to help her hone in on what was the most upsetting aspect of her day.
Step Four: Optimize
Remind your child that there are multiple solutions to problems by saying things like:
“Can you think of ways to fix this?”
“That is one way to feel about it. Can you think of other ways to look at this problem?”
By referring back to times when Jackie felt successful dealing with her friend’s behavior, Jill empowered her daughter to find her own solutions to her problem.
Step Five: Get Moving
Make a plan and then let it go by saying things like:
“OK. It sounds like you are ready to put a plan into action”.
“You have figured out how you want to handle this. Let’s play.”
Jackie figured out her own solution to this problem with Jessica and made a plan of action for the next day. Mom helps her let go of her bad day by suggesting a walk together.
Coping with a child’s emotional distress is challenging in so many ways. As parents, we naturally want to save them from suffering. Jackie’s Mom neither fixes the problem (by forbidding Jackie’s friendship with Jessica) nor negates Jackie’s feelings. Rather, she remains neutral, and empathetic, thinking carefully before she speaks, Mom models excellent problem solving skills and communicates confidence in Jackie’s ability to cope with her own distress by using the E.G.N.O.G. approach.
Cathi Cohen, LCSW, CGP