What if you knew how to get at what is really going on for your child? The source of most problems is often upset emotions and underneath that, if you look deeply at it, you’ll often find dearly held beliefs or a conflict in values. Your child and all of us are always assessing, “Do I feel okay about this…, him…, her…, them?” Or, “Do I not feel okay about this…, him…, her…, them?
The good news is that you don’t have to know what the source of your child’s internal conflict is for you to help them. This is where I use the Content/Process Shift . It is an extremely practical and useful counseling tool that any parent can use so their child can meet everyday challenges more resourcefully. Here is my explanation of what this tool offers and how to use it.
The Content/Process Shift tool will help you access what is really going on for your child because you will be able to easily shift down underneath the story or the content about what was said so that you can go deeper to the real needs, feelings or conflict in values your child has.
Here are some specific ways to define and notice what is content, “a story”:
Content refers to the surface discussion or argument…it is a conversation full of description about what happened — who said what and who reacted in what way.
Content also refers to what didn’t happen that was upsetting or what someone neglected to say (which implies there was a critical juncture where something should have been said or done, but wasn’t which that left your child feeling upset.)
Content reveals what did or didn’t happen that was the trigger for the emotions (upset ones or the really, really good feelings, too, in some cases.)
Being stuck in surface content can cost your child:
- Your child can be stuck in the role of persecutor, i.e. punishment of someone or something. Example: (Older sister talking about younger sister.) “She keeps coming into my room, she won’t leave me alone and she is always taking my things!”
- Your child can be stuck in the role of victim, victimized by someone or something. Example: “He hates me and wants to get me in trouble!”
- Your child can be stuck in the role of avenger and talk about vengeance. Example: “I’ll get him, her, them for doing that to me!”
- Your child can be stuck in the role of the unjustly accused and go on a counter-attack, be defensive. Example: “Nobody made sure to tell me what I was supposed to do so it’s not my fault!”
Here are some specific ways to define and identify the underlying emotional process:
Process refers to our emotional and psychological process that has us in reaction to what is going on; it is all about what is underneath and usually goes unspoken. Try to “listen” for what isn’t being said, but is being felt.
Process is how we represent the world to ourselves – it is what we value, how we feel, what we need that isn’t getting taken care of, how we feel pulled apart by two conflicting needs or values or allegiances.
How we process what is happening around us ends up identified as a feeling state – especially when we feel like we are losing or being identified as a loser – all of us try to avoid losing and often that is the source of an upset for your child.
If you don’t immediately know how your child is feeling by listening to the words they are saying then try noticing their tone of voice, body language and facial expressions.
Example: “Does that glare mean you are furious or that you feel hurt/wounded/betrayed?” Note: few boys want to hear the words “hurt feelings” – some of them can hear about wounds or betrayal or being metaphorically, “kicked in the gut.”
Describe their body language, tone of voice, facial expressions to them and tentatively assign a feeling state so they can refute it or agree or give you a more accurate descriptive phrase instead.
Bringing up into consciousness and speaking out loud what is emotionally upsetting is beneficial.
When you can help your children identify their underlying emotional process it will give them more freedom to choose how they want to respond rather than just reacting in their habitual way. This ability to shift out of reactive habits is the essence of emotional intelligence.
Your child can begin to learn how to make distinctions between the content, “their story” and their process, thus increasing their EQ (emotional quotient/intelligence.)
If you practice this every couple of days…even tentatively… you will eventually get good at this. Especially you will notice your child has several feeling state patterns which will give you clues as to how they react most of the time. Then, when the clues are different, you will know it is a different feeling state this time, and you can try guessing about some different feeling states.
To make it easier for yourself just guess which one of the four main feeling states they might be in. These are stated in little kid words that are the simplest to remember:
MAD, SAD, SCARED (scared is usually underneath “mad” or “sad”) and GLAD.
For older kids you will want to add in the words that add more psychological context to the emotions/feeling states: LOSING, DOUBTFUL, BETRAYED, WORRIED, FRUSTRATED, CONFUSED, LONGING, TRAPPED, STUCK, STUPID, EMBARRASSED, ASHAMED, REJECTED, DISAPPOINTED, HURT, etc.
And remember to reflect the positive states that kids sometimes overlook in our problem-oriented society: CONFIDENT, WINNING, CLEAR, CERTAIN, PROUD, TRUSTING, CARING, ACCEPTING, EMPATHETIC, PASSIONATE, UNDERSTANDING, HOPEFUL, etc.
You don’t have to know exactly how they are feeling or what their underlying conflict in values is or their unspoken commitments are. The whole point is for the two of you to be able to help your child learn how to make these distinctions. When children become clear about their own process and about others’ process then they will have true emotional intelligence. Being able to make distinctions about “it is this, not that” (and then feel secure enough to reveal those feelings and values to someone safe, starting with you, their parent) is a life skill children can use to their benefit throughout their life.
Jill Valenti, Parenting Coach & Family Counselor