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3 Great Parenting Books For Understanding Your Child

I was a volunteer counsellor on a parents' helpline. I have taken courses in non-violent communication, mindfulness, and the Sedona Method.

Parents generally turn to books not when things are going well, but when things are getting difficult. Many parenting books suggest there is a right way (the author’s way) and a wrong way to parent. This leaves the struggling parent feeling even more inadequate. If that’s you, you’ll be glad that I’m not about to add to that feeling by suggesting you read yet more bossy-books!

I believe that we all have the basic instincts needed to raise a child in a kind, thoughtful way. We intuitively know what to do. It’s just that so much has got in the way, from our own upbringing to advice passed on by “experts” or other parents, that at times it can be a challenge to connect with that intuition. Understanding your own and your child’s emotions is really the crux of effective parenting, and the books I have reviewed here all provide insight into handing emotions and developing strong parent-child bonds.


Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman

In Raising An Emotionally Intelligent Child, John Gottman identifies a method of parenting that he calls “Emotion Coaching,” which parents can use to help their children trust their own feelings, control emotions, and problem-solve. He says that children raised this way tend to have high self-esteem, get along with others, and learn effectively.

In particular it is dealing with children’s “negative” emotions like anger, fear and sadness that reveals the difference between emotion coaching and the other parenting styles that Gottman describes. For example if your three year old son cries and doesn’t want to go nursery, and you use what he identifies as the “Dismissing” style of parenting, you might tell him not to be silly, pointing out that he loves nursery and will be doing lots of fun things. While it may well be true that he usually does love nursery, at this particular moment he doesn’t and needs that acknowledged before he can relax enough to hear your suggestions.

A “Disapproving” style of parenting would be to scold him for not co-operating, or threaten punishment if he doesn’t do as he is told. If using the fourth style, “Laissez-Faire”, the parent would empathise with her son’s sadness, but then be at a loss on what to do next. She might say her son can have ten minutes more playing, and then has to leave without crying. This doesn’t help either of them deal with the underlying issue. In emotion coaching, the parent would empathize with her son, perhaps saying, “I think I know how you feel. Some days I don’t feel like going out either. Some days I wish we could cuddle up in a chair and read picture books. But I have made a promise that I will be at my work by nine, and I need to keep that promise.”

This sets limits, unlike the laissez-faire style. After she has helped her son to express his disappointment and sadness, this mother then suggests her son think about tomorrow when they can spend time at together at home, so he feels a bit happier. Even though he can’t get what he wants he knows his mother understands.

Gottman identifies 5 steps to the process of emotion coaching:

“1. become aware of the child’s emotion;

2. recognize the emotion as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching;

3. listen empathetically, validating the child’s feelings;

4. help the child find words to label the emotion he is having; and

5. set limits while exploring strategies to solve the problem in hand.”

There is a tendency in our society to try to stop or ignore children’s feelings in the hope that they will just go away, and even as adults we will often try to stop our own feelings, telling ourselves not to be silly. But it isn’t the feelings that are the problem; it’s how we deal with them. If you try to stop a child feeling something, then she is left sensing her very being is wrong.

What Gottman suggests instead is that we say things like, “I can see that you are annoyed your sister took the toy away. It’s okay to feel annoyed, I would be too, but it’s not okay to hit. What could you do instead?”

When my kids were little I sometimes read out edited versions of Gottman’s examples, which helped them see that other kids had the same feelings they did. They both liked hearing about the little boy who was jealous when his brother got a birthday parcel, because they had felt those feelings too.

It’s never too early or too late to start emotion coaching your children, and Gottman provides examples of how it affects parenting from babyhood to teens.

If you are not used to this style of parenting it might sound like it would all take too much time when you are trying to cope with the demands of different children, and your father-in-law is there saying, “What he needs is good smack.”

Gottman recognizes this and suggests we leave emotion coaching for times when we aren’t being watched. Other times he suggests it might not be appropriate are: when there is serious misbehavior or when you are too upset or tired for coaching to be productive. Then he suggests postponing it until you can revitalize yourself. And one way to revitalize yourself could be to read the next book on my list.

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When Anger Hurts Your Kids, by McKay, Fanning, Paleg and Landis

If during times of stress you are having a hard time coping, then When Anger Hurts Your Kids, by McKay, Fanning, Paleg and Landis, is a good book to read. It focuses particularly on understanding how you get to the point where you blow your top – and then gives you strategies to deal with this. Many years ago, after chronic illness and a variety of other stresses, I was yelling and sometimes getting so angry I felt close to hitting my children, and I bought this book.

When Anger Hurts Your Kids points out that parenting is a hard job, and that all parents get angry at times. The book cites several studies on parental anger that show it is very common. One study, done in 1994, indicated that two thirds of mothers in the States with children under 6 smacked their children three times a week, and the same amount “feel anger to the point of shouting or screaming at their children five times a week.” Smacking children in anger makes them less likely to develop an internalized conscience – they behave out of fear, not out of understanding. They are more likely to behave aggressively towards peers, and as adults to feel bad, unworthy of love, success or happiness.

The authors explains how “trigger thoughts” lead us to believe our children are deliberately trying to upset, defy, humiliate us, and this fuels our anger. Some common trigger thoughts are:

“You’re doing it to annoy me.”

“You’re trying to test me.”

“You’re taking advantage of me.”

The authors also suggest thoughts and behaviors that can help parents to cope, and they encourage parents to look beneath the anger to buried feelings. For example a parent furious at a child for running into the road has buried fear.

They explain that apart from normal developmental behavior, it is children’s mistaken beliefs of how best to get their needs met that lead to their misbehavior, in particular the need to feel significant.

When Anger Hurts Your Kids has advice on how to recognize early warning signs of anger in yourself, enabling you to then react in a more constructive way. For example you might begin to notice a familiar tightening in your stomach, and know that is a cue for you to take time out and breathe deeply – or use your own coping strategy.


Hold On To Your Kids, by Neufield and Mate

Both previous books focus on supporting you to build a relationship with your children. A strong, loving relationship is the backbone of discipline as Gordon Neufeld points out in Hold On To Your Kids. Drawing on his own experience and that of other parents, Neufeld describes what happens when children become “peer-orientated” instead of “parent-orientated.” This means they turn to their peers for support instead of to parents. Since their peers do not have the emotional maturity necessary to provide genuine support, the children don’t get what they need. But unaware of why they don’t feel better, they continue trying to get what they need – by seeing more and more of their friends.

Humans are social animals and for children to grow up healthily they need to feel attached to others. Western society, and Neufeld says North American society in particular, encourages children to be independent from a very young age. While our job as parents is ultimately to let go, this should happen when children are mature enough to now look after themselves, emotionally as well as physically. Young children aren’t emotionally equipped to have a high level of independence thrust upon them, and so they try to fill the attachment void. Interestingly, Neufeld says that very often it is the children who appear to be coping well with daycare or other social situations who are actually most lost.

Ironically when things go wrong in families, parents often resort to discipline measures that make attachment even more challenging. Punishment of older children is likely to drive them away from us, and closer to their peers. I have often heard parents express an “us and them” mentality about teenagers, as if when a child becomes a teenager there is nothing parents can to do guide them.

Neufeld sees peer-orientation as largely responsible for the rise in youth crime, violence and bullying and even child suicides. While I think he tends to have a somewhat nostalgic view of family life in earlier times, I still think this book is well worth reading, and his overall message is very important.

Although peer-orientated problems may not be obvious until children are older, it pays to read this book when your children are small, so that you can be aware of potential pitfalls and benefit from good relationships with your children. That is what every parent wants after all.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on March 19, 2012:

Simone, I think the first 2 books would probably be of interest to anyone whether parent or not, the suggestions translate fairly well to any relationship. (There is also more general book on anger by the same authors.)

Thanks for your comment.

Simone Haruko Smith from San Francisco on March 19, 2012:

Wow, I hadn't heard of any of these books before. I mean... OK, so maybe I'm not a parent, but they all strike me as highly interesting! Thanks for the recommendations and summaries.

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on March 17, 2012:

Hi glinnmgraw,

Thanks for your comment and I’m glad you enjoyed this.

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on March 17, 2012:

RHW, I am so glad you brought up the smacking stats. It is shocking, and I also realised that as this book’s been around a while it might not be as true today. (I hope it’s not.) I’ve gone back and edited a bit to add the date the study was done - 1994.

I totally agree with what you say that hitting children passes on the message that it’s okay to hit in anger - if you are stronger than those you hit! I know what you mean about feeling bad about yelling. And as far as getting kids to do things differently it doesn’t work - I’ve come to see that all mine hear is: “Yell, yell.” They don’t hear what I say. I yell a lot less these days, thank goodness.

Thanks for your comment!

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on March 17, 2012:

Hi Kelley,

I’m so pleased to hear you also found these books exceptional. I agree with you that they had a direct effect of making me think about my behaviour with my children. I think that’s what empowers us as parents because changing our own behaviour is easier than trying to control others, and, besides, kids follow us. Thanks for your comment.

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on March 17, 2012:

Hi Do Ope,

Doing what you think is right is the best any parent can do I think! Perhaps you could fill a gap and write a book for Caribbean parents! Glad you found this interesting, and thanks for your comment.

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on March 17, 2012:

Ardie, I think your attitude to parenting books is just spot on - take what you need from them and leave the rest. It sounds as if what you’ve got is YOUR way of parenting, which is great! Thanks so much for reading and for your comment. Glad you enjoy the hub!

glinnmgraw from India on March 16, 2012:

ya! I am is really impressive your hubs. that's a good information on family parents. So I think is family is family ... Happy Family!!!

Kelly Umphenour from St. Louis, MO on March 16, 2012:

Wow! I am reeling over the statistic about moms slapping their children three times a week! Omg! That is bad! Sorry! Ok it's my opinion but anger driven smacks might send a message that it's perfectly fine to hit someone when you're angry! Self control mommies! Lol lol. Gosh that's so unsettling. I don't strike my kids because they make me mad. I feel bad even yelling at them - that's not a good way to teach them to control their own feelings is it? Ugh. Ok I need the book:). Up and excellent as always!

kelleyward on March 16, 2012:

I have read all of these books and I think they are all exceptional. If anything they help me to think about my behaviors around my children. Good information!

Olive Ellis on March 16, 2012:

I do not read parenting books because most of the books available are written by persons from other cultures. I am from the Caribbean and so what may be ok in aother culture may not be in my culture. So I just rare my children in the way I was brought up or the way I think is right. Interesting hub, thank you for sharing.

Sondra from Neverland on March 16, 2012:

I am a weirdo about reading the parenting books!! I love the advice and I seem to take a little from one author and a little from a different author and more from yet a third author! And I now have this wacky mixed-up way of parenting hahah I love your reviews of the above books. I do have Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child but I have not heard of the other two. Now I have more! Yay me :) Great Hub - you get all my votes for sure

Yvonne Spence (author) from UK on March 16, 2012:

Hi Barbergirl, It is a great book, and it also includes what to expect at different ages, which is useful as it helps you see why your children do what they do. Being alone with small kids all day is hard and the book points out that all parents feel angry sometimes. That alone is a huge stress-reliever, and being able to control anger is too.

Also, check out my Hub on the Work of Byron Katie, because that is a great way to deal with anger. It helped me hugely, (and still does.)

Thanks for your comment and glad you enjoyed it!

Stacy Harris from Hemet, Ca on March 16, 2012:

I can honestly say the only parenting book I have read is What to Expect When you are expecting... I think it is because many of these books just seem to think that it is one way or the highway. HOwever, I might have to check out the anger book. Since I have become a stay at home mom I don't get much time away from my kids. That means I can get a temper sometimes. Knowing how to control it would be a good stress reliever as well.

Great hub and very informative.

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